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A portrait of Bob Edwards

Doug Hall, Commissioner for the Venice Biennale and former Director, Queensland Art Gallery, 22 March 2011

PETER STANLEY: Can we move to the last session before afternoon tea in which we have the treat of Doug Hall, former director of the Queensland Art Gallery and now Australian commissioner for the Venice Biennale who will talk about a portrait of Bob Edwards.

DOUG HALL: Firstly, thank you very much to the organisers for the invitation to be here and to say some words about Bob. May I also congratulate the organisers and the speakers on the tone, because there is a very fine line between a tribute and an obituary, and they have certainly walked a strident path with the former.

It’s a moment of serendipity here with this portrait recently commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, because the person that commissioned it was Michael Desmond and he is here with us, and I was honoured to be asked to write something about it for their Portrait magazine. I have known Bob for about 30 years and I have known the photographer, John Elliott from Queensland, for about a quarter of a century, and neither of them had met each other. Before I talk about the nature of that meeting, when I knew this image would be shown, I thought of the words that were spoken this morning to describe Bob Edwards and all the generous and entirely accurate superlatives to profile his temperament and his personality. I wondered, if people who saw this portrait had not heard the words or didn’t know the man, the extent to which this commission would reflect and echo Bob’s particular temperament. The more I thought about this image and about the kindness of what people have said and coming to this work unencumbered by any previous knowledge, I was sure that it’s an image which conveys the essential character of Bob. We have all heard descriptions that he’s at the forefront of everything and longs to be in the background of most things, and I think this particular portrait shows that idiosyncratic poise of Bob and also shows a man that is very much at ease with himself and at ease with others.

I would like to follow up on a couple of things that have been highlighted this morning and to amplify those points about the generosity and his mentoring, and I am certainly one who’s been the beneficiary of that. I recall when the trustees of the Queensland Art Gallery, in either their misguided pursuit or their profound wisdom, thought that appointing me at 33 years of age to the directorship of the gallery might be a good idea. Who should they ring but Bob? He told them, ‘It’s a risk all right but it’s an acceptable risk,’ and of course the trustees erred on the side of Bob Edwards’ wise counsel.

People have talked about the reach of Bob’s interests. I certainly know that not only through the professional association that we have had but also he’s a wonderful travelling companion. I have never travelled anywhere with anyone or had a friend who is actually interested in everything, and that’s very much Bob’s temperament. To have that kind of trait as well as a deep sense of public responsibility and a profound sense of institutional obligation has enabled Bob to achieve so much. But in doing that he has revealed a very stoic and polite temperament.

I have travelled with him on many flights, although I am thankful there was one occasion when I didn’t. This was a time when he was returning from a field trip to Adelaide from South Australia or Western Australia and he noticed the plane going up and levelling out, a button being switched, which was the autopilot, and the real pilot was passing out. Bob prodded him but there was no conscious pilot. Bob was sailing along looking at the wonderful panorama of the Australian landscape in a cerulean blue sky literally on autopilot and wondering when this was going to end. It did through the blur of a spectacular landing, but nonetheless it kept him with us - and his achievements continued.

Whether he’s being mugged in Moscow while negotiating an exhibition of Russian gold and silver, or when we flew from St Petersburg to Paris and ended up in the wrong country – Helsinki - and we didn’t know what happened but the plane did a U-turn and took off again. Bob’s unerring attention to detail and fastidious memory meant that, when we went to America, he travelled with Grange Hermitage because we were going to see Patrick McCaughey to haggle for loan of a Van Gogh self-portrait. It was secured and the wine was drunk.

It is entirely true that museum directors have all found with Bob that it can be a bit like moving into your new home and suddenly finding he’s your most comfortable piece of furniture. He does make himself inseparable from the life of the institution and the people that work in them.

Trying to encapsulate all that’s been said today is difficult, because a lot has been spoken about what Bob has done, what he has achieved and his unique and extraordinary personality and temperament. I was thinking of two things, including one term that hasn’t been mentioned, and I will come to that in a moment.

A few years ago I was invited to give a keynote address to the American Association of Art Museum Directors on the institutional activity with contemporary Asian art. However, this quickly changed to their fascination, bewilderment and admiration of the way in which Australian institutions had simply incorporated Indigenous art and culture into the mainstream of art museums in Australia. They were curious to know what kind of debate had preceded that and the discourse which had taken place. I thought about it and realised that it was something which kind of happened. I wondered whether it occurred through a deeper moral purpose that consumed us and our institutions. It was certainly something that was important to our institutions; but what amazed the Americans was the ease with which discussion about the inclusion and representation of Aboriginal art within exhibitions art was embraced with such ease. It was something the Americans were fascinated with and something some of them have done something about – but more so in Canada than in the United States itself.

In thinking about what people have said today, I realised that the wellspring for that, if we are going to find it in any particular person or institution, is in fact Bob Edwards. We have talked about what he has done. But it is the way he thinks and conceptualises things; it is that activity and his ability to be a brilliant conceptualist and to understand that the various parts that make the whole have a wonderful, inclusive arc - and Bob represents an arc which has embraced so much and has changed the perceptions of Australia and Australian culture. He has advanced the representation of Indigenous culture in museums and art galleries to the extent that it has shaped a particular discourse happening in American museums. That is a very profound contribution to have made.

The other one term I would like to mention is the much-cited term ‘cultural diplomacy’ and its various manifestations. If we are to think of that term being given genuine expression, then Bob is its exemplar. We have heard about that today, and people have talked today about the relationship with China - Neil this morning indicating that perhaps the Chinese were more surprised at us when they looked at the reaction that their exhibitions have generated.

Bob has brought into effect great ideas. In terms of cultural diplomacy and Indigenous representation we think of cultural diplomacy, more or less, as something the British Council or the Goethe Institute undertakes. Bob has actually understood it in a much more complex, personal way – as a torch bearer for the advocacy of Indigenous people. But he also knew the inseparable connections between public institutions and the ways in which their best interests are assisted by public officials. In other words, politicians and government representatives - and the potential to secure their empathy. He did this with others too explaining of predicament of being so far south of the equator and somewhat west of French Oceania; he was able to place us in the consciousness of others.

Bob is, as we know, modest and humble, and I suspect today has caused him certain degrees of discomfort. There might also have been occasions of some pain and inward grimacing, and that’s a good thing because this portrait shows the kind of sensitive fellow that he is.

I was reminded this morning, when someone talked about the Magnificent Seven and Bob the shogun as part of the executive management team at the Melbourne Museum, of the Japanese koan. And when you hear the word ‘prisoner’ here, you might think of a curator or director poised to receive a loan request or a recalcitrant politician about to receive representations. It’s the story of Bob in koan as the shogun who bragged to his prisoner that his sword was so sharp that he would not feel the pain of execution; so the executioner raised his sword and brought it down, and its sufferer said, ‘Okay, what are you waiting for?’ and the shogun replied, ‘nod’. That’s the canny effect that Bob can have, the persuasion that he has when politicians grimace in advance of the inevitable pain and suddenly find that it didn’t hurt at all and he has left with $1 million in his pocket.

Bob, warmest congratulations. After all these years and while not having any direct professional contact, we try not to let a few weeks go by too often when we don’t speak or catch up. It’s been a great day and an honour to be here and celebrate your achievement. Thank you. [applause]

PETER STANLEY: Thank you, Doug, and thank you all - speakers, panellists and yourselves - for that session. We are off to afternoon tea but before I do, can I thank the National Portrait Gallery for providing this wonderful image of Bob at such short notice.

Date published: 12 May 2011