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Vale Dr Robert Edwards AO

Image: AA83/24/16/29, Edwards Collection, courtesy of the South Australian Museum

The Australia Council for the Arts acknowledges the passing of Dr Robert Edwards AO.

Dr Robert (Bob) Edwards AO was the first Director of the Aboriginal Arts Board (AAB) at Australia Council, a position he held from 1974 until 1980 (the Board was formed in 1973 but did not engage a director until 1974). He was the only non-Indigenous executive on the AAB during the 1970s. 

He was Director of the AAB during a period which saw the greatest expansion of Government support for Indigenous arts ever. Many of the early projects and causes he helped initiate, champion, and support have formed the backbone of First Nations arts and cultural support at Council since. 

Such projects include copyright in Indigenous art works, the establishment and ongoing support of arts centres within communities, Australian involvement in the Festival of Pacific Arts, and the commissioning, funding and delivery of major overseas tours of collections of Aboriginal art. 

Born in 1930, Edwards grew up in Adelaide, studied at Monash University, and worked as an anthropologist in Arnhem Land during the 1950s and 1960s. From 1965 to 1973 he worked as a curator of the Aboriginal Heritage Collections at the South Australian Museum. From 1973 to 1975 he was the deputy Principal of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. 

Bob remained active in cultural life after leaving the Australia Council, being appointed Executive Director of the Federal Government arts body, the International Cultural Corporation of Australia, which was set up to bring large international exhibitions to Australia and still exists as Art Exhibitions Australia Limited (AEA). He was also the first Chair of the National Portrait Gallery from 1997-2000, during which time he was responsible for setting the direction of the Gallery and overseeing its Collection Development policy. 

Bob also served on the Boards of the Ian Potter Museum, the South Australian Museum, and the Stockman’s Hall of Fame. He was a Senior Consultant to Art Exhibitions Australia and an Honorary Fellow of both the National Museum of Australia and Museum Victoria. 

During his long career, he was a member of some 80 arts and heritage organisations, including consultant to a number of Federal and State Government agencies, advisor to Australian and international museums, and chairman of numerous judging panels and award schemes. 

Bob’s broad knowledge of and passion for anthropology, archaeology, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, their arts and culture, equipped him with a remarkable depth of understanding and expertise, and hence contributed to the arts sector in Australia and overseas over more than seven decades of public life. 

Speaking about him back in 2015, renowned British art historian Neil MacGregor said about Bob that: “He was responsible for the new concept of the Museum of Victoria; he played a central role in redeveloping the Museum of South Australia, the Museum of Western Australia, the Hong Kong Museum of History. He was the founding chairman of the National Museum of Australia and the founding chairman of the National Portrait Gallery. 

“I don’t think there can be in any other country a man who has played so many parts in creating and re-creating museums, and certainly in the UK you would need to go back to Prince Albert.” 

The late archaeologist John Mulvaney once said of Bob that: “During the period when he was a curator, he initiated contact with the elders of northern South Australian people and negotiated what I suppose we call a keeping place in the basement of the museum where these elders had the key to come and inspect their material. 

“I think that was the first attempt in Australia to acknowledge that there were secret sacred objects of importance to Aboriginal people where they could have the right to see them and the knowledge that other people would not be permitted because they were in this locked area.” 

The Australia Council’s Executive Director First Nations Arts and Culture Franchesca Cubillo said: 

“Bob Edwards was a man before his time, driven in his determination to bring about the best possible outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, ensuring they had a voice and agency in determining access and representation within collecting institutions. 

“As the inaugural Director of the Aboriginal Arts Board and under the leadership and advice of Board members, he initiated, developed and implemented sector-changing policies and initiatives that can still be felt today. A remarkable legacy that needs to be recognised and celebrated some 50 years later. 

“He was a curator, researcher, administrator, planner, museum director, and positive force for change, whose impact will still be felt across the arts sector for years to come.” 

Media enquiries:
Sean Brogan
Media Manager
Australia Council for the Arts