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NGV's quiet director takes his leave (quietly)

Gerard Vaughan joined the gallery with little fanfare, and looks like bowing out the same way, write Michael Shmith and Gabriella Coslovich.

Gerard Vaughan joined the gallery with little fanfare, and looks like bowing out the same way, write Michael Shmith and Gabriella Coslovich.

GERARD Vaughan, who yesterday announced he will retire as director of the National Gallery of Victoria next July, is only the 11th person to have headed the institution in its 150 years.

While not the most flamboyant or controversial director for example, he would never wear a Patrick McCaughey-style bow tie Dr Vaughan has been more efficient and effective, rather than outlandish, in maintaining the gallery's profile.

The news of his impending departure, sent via press release and with no further comment, is curiously muted for one in such a prominent cultural position. By contrast, the director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Edmund Capon, held a news conference last month to announce his retirement at the end of the year.

Perhaps it is more in keeping with Dr Vaughan's style to leave with the minimum of fanfare. Yet, it raises various questions, since his retirement comes well before his five-year contract was due to expire in 2014. He steps down at about the same time as NGV chairman Allan Myers, QC, who retires in April.

When Dr Vaughan took up his appointment on July 29, 1999, he made the quietest of entrances. This was probably due, in part, to his self-effacing persona, but also might have had a lot to do with not having a gallery to run at the time. The NGV's St Kilda Road building was about to close for renovations Dr Vaughan occupied his office there for just a few days before moving to the gallery's temporary administration headquarters in North Melbourne and a small proportion of its collection was on the way to the old Museum in Russell Street.

He might have lacked a proper permanent gallery space, but Dr Vaughan actually had four buildings under his control: the two already mentioned, plus the work-in-progress NGV and the all-new Australian gallery at Federation Square. At this critical betwixt-and-between time, Dr Vaughan was something of a master planner, working with the government, bureaucrats, gallery trustees and curatorial and general staff, but also with architects and builders.

He was also a master monetarist, who returned to Melbourne after many years in Britain with experience in raising money for new buildings at Oxford University and the British Museum. Although he once described himself as being a fund-raiser by accident, it is precisely these skills that have helped to encourage the continuing flow of corporate and private donations to the NGV.

At heart, Gerard Vaughan is a scholar. His doctoral thesis was on 18th-century attitudes to Antiquity. "The concept of classical survival and revival is a big issue for me," he has said. This could also have had influence on the design and re-design of the two galleries he controls. "I take the view that architecture is designed to last through the centuries," he said.

But the NGV isn't merely about capital works, but also what happens inside the walls. Notable acquisitions during the Vaughan era include John Brack's The Bar, Mother and Child by the Flemish artist Cornelis De Vos, and Shonibare's Reverend on Ice. Dr Vaughan also initiated the annual Winter Masterpieces exhibitions, which have included Salvador Dali, French Impressionists and the current show, Vienna Art and Design.

There will, of course, be work unfinished. Long-term projects such as buildings to house Asian and indigenous art will have to wait for Dr Vaughan's successor, as will the challenge of reopening both galleries seven days a week.

Michael Shmith is an honorary life member of the NGV.

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