NICK Waterlow was one of the great enablers of Australian art. He was best known to the public as the inspirational director of three biennales of Sydney, but his generosity of spirit made him the mentor to generations of students both in his teaching and as director of the Ivan Dougherty Gallery at the College of Fine Arts at the University of NSW. He continued to watch over the careers of students and junior colleagues for many years after graduation.
Nicholas Anthony Ronald Waterlow was born 30 August 1941 Hitchin, in Hertfordshire, the son of Anthony Edgar Russell Waterlow and Barbara Davy. His father spent the war years as a lieutenant in the Kings Royal Rifle Corps, and died young. His grandfather, Sir Edgar Lutwyche Waterlow was a Baronet. As a young man Nick was less interested in privilege than cricket. He played for Harrow and on more than one occasion said the proudest moment in his life was when he played at the M.C.C.. After leaving school Waterlow first studied French history at the University of Grenoble, before travelling to Florence where he studied Renaissance art at the British Institute. His first job was as a gallery assistant at the Alfred Brod Gallery in London, which specialised in Dutch and Flemish 17th-century art, but his interest was always the contemporary. By 1964 he was writing for the Arts Review in London, which led to opportunities to write criticism for Nation, The Sun, and The Bulletin when he made his first visit to Australia in 1965 to marry Rosemary (Romy) O’Brien who was then a school teacher. They returned to London in 1966, when he was appointed prints curator at Editions Alecto publishing house, and the next year he became director of the Bear Lane Gallery, Oxford, a position he held until 1972. From 1973 to 1977 he worked as senior recreation officer for the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, where he was given ample opportunity to develop his diplomatic skills as this new city endevoured to develop a cultural program.
Waterlow’s English experience stood him in good stead when the family returned to Australia in 1977. After a stint as a lecturer at the Alexander Mackie CAE (now College of Fine Arts) and some writing for Art and Australia and Nation Review, Waterlow was appointed director of the 1979 Biennale of Sydney.
The theme was “European Dialogue”. It became clear from the start that this director believed in dialogue. Local artists wanted greater participation, women wanted a more equitable representation, and many artists still had their eyes firmly focused on the US as the major centre of culture. Nick discussed, negotiated and compromised, and the final exhibition was the stronger for it. His reputation as an honest broker led to his appointment as director of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council in 1983. His ability to create an inclusive vision meant that he directed the 1986 and 1988 event and chaired the international selection panel for the 2000 Biennale of Sydney.
The 1988 biennial, From the Southern Cross: A View of World Art c1940-1988, was one of the defining exhibitions for Australian visual culture. It connected Australian artists to European and American counterparts in a grand, complex narrative of art. At the heart of the exhibition stood The Aboriginal Memorial: 200 grave posts from Ramingining in the Northern Territory; one for every year of European settlement. Waterlow had been approached by Djon Mundine, then Ramingining art adviser, about the possibility of developing a project to mourn Aboriginal loss. Speaking after Waterlow’s death Mundine said, ‘he understood it right away’ and linked his idea of the graveposts to the crosses on the burial fields of World War I. The memorial was bought by the National Gallery of Australia and is now on permanent view.
Mundine, then curator of Aboriginal art at the Campbelltown Regional Arts Centre, said: ‘He always gave you time, and gave you an ear. He wanted to know things. There’s a humility in that. He wasn’t afraid of ideas and wasn’t afraid of sticking his neck out.’
In 1989, Waterlow was appointed senior lecturer in gallery management at the City Art Institute, now the College of Fine Arts, UNSW. In 1990 he engineered an upgrade so the qualification became the Master of Art Administration, one of the leading degrees of its kind. The next year he became director of COFA’s Ivan Dougherty Gallery, a position he held until his untimely death.
It was through these positions that he made what is perhaps his most important contribution to Australian cultural life.
Generations of curators, gallery directors, and artists were nurtured by his generous and inclusive approach to the making of exhibitions of art. Indigenous artist and curator Brenda L. Croft, who ensured that Waterlow was an honoured guest when she was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters at the University of Sydney, said: ‘I truly would not have had the career I’ve had without his encouragement and support.’ He was especially keen to encourage the work of indigenous artists. The gallery is a small space, yet the exhibitions he created (and enabled others to create) made it burst with life.
From the time he was appointed to COFA Waterlow urged the university to expand resources for exhibiting art. He was instrumental in the plans for the development of the ramshackle COFA buildings, which now include a 1000sq m exhibition space. Funding was confirmed in the 2009 federal budget and the faculty was preparing for construction at the time of his death. Waterlow saw the building as one of the high points of his career and was planning a great opening to include the work of the NSW comedians known as the Ladies of the Bigotbri Concerned Women’s Association. One of the ‘concerned women’, Aboriginal performer Tess Allas, said: ‘I was excited about working with him. He gave me confidence to go ahead with a large exhibition proposal and put our plans into action.’
His wife, Romy, with whom he had two sons and a daughter, died in 1998 after a long fight with cancer.
Nick Waterlow was killed by his son Antony Waterlow who was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. After his death, his partner, the artist and poet Juliet Darling, worked with his friend Father Steve Sinn S.J. to create the memorial film A Curator’s Last Will and Testament.
Because Nick Waterlow was one of the most loved figures in the arts community and because of the shock of his death, St Mary’s Cathedral was filled beyond capacity for his funeral. Afterwards students from the College of Fine Arts strewed jacaranda flowers on the pathway between the Cathedral and the Art Gallery of New South Wales which overflowed with those wishing to honour their friend, mentor, teacher and colleague.


Joanna Mendelssohn
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