I LEFT AUSTRALIA in 1988 with a bad conscience. Eighteen months earlier, the trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria had given me leave to take up the visiting chair in Australian studies at Harvard for a full academic year. Within weeks of my return in mid-1987 I told them I had accepted the directorship of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. They were shocked and dumbfounded. They had supported me unstintingly through seven years at the gallery, notably sticking by me during the furore of the theft of Picasso’s Weeping Woman. Perhaps to assuage my mauvais foi, I resolved that I would do whatever I could to further the cause of Australian art in America – corny and grandiloquent though it sounded.
When I arrived at the Wadsworth Atheneum, the exhibitions officer told me with ironic pride that there was one Australian painting in the collection. It turned out to be quite a good Arthur Boyd landscape from the mid-1950s and hung in the basement office of the archivist. (It is still there.) Surprised, I remarked casually that it was quite a valuable painting back in Australia. “Sell it, boss, sell it!” one of the cheekier technical assistants urged. Unsurprisingly, I had no wish to start my American career by de-accessioning the sole Australian painting in one of America’s most distinguished collections.
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