For the past three years, Ron has served as the Director of Cultural Relations at the Embassy of Australia in Washington DC. Prior to accepting that post, he worked at the National Gallery of Australia in the senior administrative position of Access Director. He will be returning to the NGA as Assistant Director, Development, Marketing and Commercial Operations. Our loss will most certainly be Canberra’s gain.
The article in the Sydney Morning Herald which profiled Ron upon his appointment to Washington in 2004 made much of his ability to move easily in the worlds of art and politics and of the breadth of his responsibilities for promoting Australian culture in the US. Equally at ease with United Nations politicos and chamber orchestra impresarios, Ron joked that in 2004 no one in the USA identified Australia any more with Crocodile Dundee. “Now it’s Steve Irwin,” he deadpanned. Today, Emily Kngwarreye may still not be a household name over here, but the profile of Aboriginal art in the States is certainly higher, thanks to Ron’s unflagging enthusiasm and energy.
In May of 2004, the Queensland Indigenous Arts Marketing Export Agency brought a marvelous show to America, called Out of Country. The show opened at Gallery 1601, the ground-floor exhibition space of the Embassy of Australia at 1601 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington DC, for which Ron had recently become responsible. The exhibition included fifty-six works showcasing the diversity of indigenous art from the Sunshine State: huge canvases from the Lockhart River Gang, bronze and wooden sculptures from Aurukun, Aleck Tipoti’s prints and Brian Robinson’s 3-D constructions representing the Torres Strait Islands, Richard Bell’s take-offs on Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book romances, painted rivers by Joanne Currie alongside prints by Judy Watson and triptychs by Ian Waldron. Craig Koomeeta was there at the opening, resplendent in a tux; Ken Thaiday was less formal–just a jacket and tie–but no less commanding a presence. Late in the evening, someone asked Fiona Foley (who was in town visiting while on a six-month residence in New York City) if her works were in any American collections and she replied, “Well I heard these two guys bought a couple of my paintings off the internet…,” an introduction I stepped right into.
I don’t remember who introduced us to Ron that night in 2004, but I do know that it was one of those fortuitous encounters that seem to characterize our adventures in Aboriginal art. By the end of the evening, Ron was offering letters of introduction and photocopies of recent articles on Aboriginal art collections. In the years since then our paths have crossed many times. Later that same summer, when Out of Country toured to the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, Ron was there again, helping us with croc-shipping arrangements. The following spring, once more at the Kluge-Ruhe, we enjoyed Ron’s company at the conference Media Matters: representations of the social in Aboriginal Australia (and at the party afterwards). Fast forward another year, and there’s Ron again, helping us make contacts at the Australian Embassy in Paris prior to the opening of the Musee du Quai Branly. A few months later, he chauffeured us back to our hotel after the opening celebrations at Ambassador Richardson’s home for Dreaming Their Way in Washington, DC. Last October, as we sped out of our hotel to the same exhibition’s debut at the Hood Museum on the campus of Dartmouth College, there was Ron, just arrived on a delayed flight up from New York City and stopping in Hanover for an evening in town before heading on to another event the next day in Boston.
Apart from the purely aesthetic pleasures of being involved with Aboriginal art, there are wonderful friendships that we have formed from Perth to Paris and points in between. I’m glad to count Ron among those friends. I’m even looking forward now to another trip to Canberra…and not solely for the aesthetic pleasures of the NGA. I’m sure that all of us here in the United States will miss Ron’s warmth, enthusiasm, and generosity, and will join me in wishing him every success in this new phase of his career.