James Mollison AO passed away at his home in North Melbourne on 19 January aged 88. James was an education officer at the National Gallery of Victoria early in his working life, then Director of the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, and then founding Director of the new Australian National Gallery (now National Gallery of Australia, NGA) in Canberra where he was responsible for collecting the art, recruiting staff and providing a physical home for their rapidly growing collection. After a distinguished career there (1971–1989) he returned to Melbourne as Director of the NGV from 1989 to 1995.
James was a staunch supporter of the conservation profession, establishing the department at the National Gallery and making its head a Senior Executive who was often Acting Director in James’ absence.
When James returned to the NGV he recognised the under resourcing of the conservation department as well as the perilous state of the collection. Safe storage was at a premium, many works of art on paper were not stored in acid-free, light-proof boxes and were either not mounted or were mounted with inferior materials. Many paintings were unbacked and held in frames poorly. Both as a museum professional and a lifelong sophisticated collector of art, James thought there was little point in collecting without maintaining the works properly.
One of the first breakthroughs he enabled was the establishment of the Art Foundation of Victoria Development Conservator positions for which funds from the AFV acquisitions budget were channelled to create four appointments for recent Conservation graduates for a maximum of three years’ tenure. Each was formally reviewed quarterly and the reviews presented to the AFV and NGV Boards for review. Development Conservators went on to other institutions in Australia, some found permanent positions at the NGV and one of them is now NGV’s Head of Conservation, something James would be proud of.
James also supported The Glazing Project in which we hired recent art graduates and trained them to back and glaze – with special optically coated glass – every picture in the collection of a metre dimension or less. This immediately reduced the instance of small vandalisms as well as various types of accidents.
When he was informed that preparing and provision of proper storage for a generous gift of many works of a late Australian artist would consume the entire conservation budget for a year he supported a matting and Solander box project, which delved into a huge backlog of prints, drawings and photographs and provided them with archival mounting and storage.
James had introduced an interchangeable modular system of framing of prints, drawings and photographs for display at the NGA and brought that system to the NGV, significantly reducing storage needs and wastage. He also supported the framing of the collection of paintings, the repair of existing frames, the acquisition of appropriate historic frames and commissioning of high-quality new frames.
James was a man of great vision and great rigour—he wanted only the best and was prepared to support curators, conservators, administrators, artists and collectors who shared his passion.
The Conservation profession in Australia would not be what it is today without James Mollison.
Tom Dixon was Chief Conservator at the NGV during James Mollison’s six years as Director.