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Andrew Sayers: Former National Museum of Australia director changed our culture

An art historian and academic, curator, gallery director and artist has left a powerful legacy.

Andrew Sayers: born June 29, 1957, died October 11, 2015

Mercurial, loveable and personable, Andrew Sayers was one of the most amazing figures in the Australian art scene. He was a remarkable person who had a major impact on Australian culture and transformed our visual landscape.

Born in Britain, Sayers arrived in Australia in 1964 as a seven-year-old. After study at the University of Sydney, where he completed a BA (Hons) in Fine Arts, he realised that he had a multifaceted talent: he could be an art historian and academic, a curator and gallery director or an artist. Throughout his life he never lost touch with all three of these passionately held attractions.

In 1979, the year he completed his university studies, he was snapped up by the Art Gallery of New South Wales and appointed curatorial assistant in the registration department. The following year he became the gallery's registrar of collections.

In 1981 he took up an appointment as assistant director of the Newcastle Region Art Gallery. Four years later he became curator of Australian drawings at the National Gallery of Australia, a brief which quickly expanded to include watercolours and colonial paintings. He was still in his 20s and already had a string of important exhibitions and books to his name. He curated major exhibitions of the work of Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan and James Gleeson.

A number of major books were to follow, including Drawing in Australia (1989), Aboriginal Artists of the 19th Century (1994), New Worlds from Old (1998) and Australian Art (2001). On leaving the National Gallery in 1998, he was appointed inaugural director of the National Portrait Gallery, which with the active support of Gordon and Marilyn Darling came to fruition in various guises until it opened in its brand new building. Andrew was at its helm for a dozen years and in the crucial years of the construction became a teetotaller, vegetarian and health fanatic; nothing was to distract him from his goals.

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I spoke to him on the opening of the new building in 2008, where he presented a vision for the building and the growing collection.

"The building and the collection are all part of the experience. The building has been designed with a whole range of aspects in mind, which include response to place and accessibility. All the public spaces are on one level and the decisions about scale all relate to the scale of portraiture," he said.

"Over-large competition entries aside, most portraiture relates to the human scale. The building is very open and welcoming, with the architecture very lucid and transparent, and you can see through the windows into the landscape in lots of places.

"The National Portrait Gallery therefore has some metaphors for our national psyche. However, the National Portrait Gallery is not about a preconceived idea about national identity, which, after all, is something complex with depths and contradictions. This will be a very rich story which will connect history with the present and it will be expressed architecturally as a journey."

Andrew, having established the National Portrait Gallery as a crowd-pleasing national drawcard, was not content to sit around and enjoy its success, but sought new challenges.

He became director of the National Museum of Australia in 2010, but three years into a five-year contract, in a shock announcement, quit his job and decided to join his wife Perry and his three daughters, who had earlier moved to Melbourne, where she had taken up her dream job.

It was in Melbourne that he turned with passion to painting and started to receive recognition for his early efforts, with a major exhibition at the Lauraine Diggins Fine Art in Melbourne, inclusion in the Archibald and Doug Moran exhibitions, and another exhibition planned for the Beaver Galleries in Canberra later this year.

About a year after he shifted to Melbourne, in May 2014, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, from which he died on Sunday night, October 11. To me he always appeared like a man in a hurry, as if he had a premonition that his tenure on earth would be brief.

A warm and unique individual, Andrew Sayers packed a remarkable life into his 58 years. His death is a major loss for Australian art and a personal loss to many who knew and admired him. Ars longa, vita brevis.

Andrew Sayers is survived by his wife Perry and their children Ianthe, Hanako and Ella.