Vale 2020: Saluting those we lost this year

We salute the lives and careers of the artists, performers and patrons who took their final curtain call in 2020.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains references to and names of people who have died.

The saddest part of the many deaths we saw in 2020 – whether due to the Coronavirus or not – is that many people were not afforded the send-off that their legacy deserved, due to lockdowns and restricted public gatherings.

This year we said goodbye to many individuals who have had a remarkable impact on global culture.

In the visual arts we lost American artist and pioneer of Conceptualism, John Baldessari; German conceptual body artist Ulay; American artist Keith Sonnier (whose works are held in the National Gallery of Australia); Maurice Berger, a giant in the field of art criticism, and the prominent New York gallerist Paul Kasmin.

In music, we farewelled Oscar-winning composer Ennio Morricone; Eddie Van Halen; Little Richard; Country Music legend Kenny Rogers, Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green; The Rush drummer Neil Peart and British singer-songwriter Dame Vera Lynn.

From stage and screen, the world also mourned the loss of celebrities Sean Connery; Kirk Douglas; Jerry Stiller; four-time Tony Award-winning playwright Terrance McNally; Gone with the Wind star Olivia de Havilland; screenwriter and actor Buck Henry (who penned The Graduate); Australian-born American Horror Story actor Harry Hains; and Earl Cameron, one of the first Black actors to break into British cinema.

But it was the death of Supreme Court justice and women’s rights pioneer Ruth Bader Ginsburg that perhaps had the most impact in 2020.

Australia also lost its share of creative souls in 2020. We salute the passing of many talented and inspiring people from our arts community.


James Mollison AO (1931 – 2020)

The year started with news of James Mollison’s death. Described as a giant of Australian visual arts, controversial, brilliant and visionary, Mollison’s most celebrated legacy was the acquisition of then $1.3 million Blue Poles painting by American abstractionist, Jackson Pollack in 1974 for the National Gallery of Australia (NGA). He was founding Director of the NGA from 1971 to 1990. Mollison died on 19 January 2020 at the age of 88. Read his obituary.

Annette Bezor (1950 – 2020)

Rising to prominence in the 1980s, South Australian painter Annette Bezor added much to the feminist conversation in contemporary art. She graduated from the South Australia School of Art in 1977, with her first major painting after graduation, The Snake Is Dead, acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria. She quickly found herself included in Australian Perspecta 83 at AGNSW, and the Fifth Biennale of Sydney in 1984, and was subsequently picked up by Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney. Bezor was best known for her images that manipulate the female body; distorted portraits that gaze back intently at the viewer. For over 40 years she interrogated how we look at women, and how we construct notions of beauty. Read her obituary.

Digby Moran (1941 – 2020)

Internationally and nationally renowned Bundjalung man and artist, Digby Moran, died in his home town of Lismore, northern New South Wales. He was 79. Uncle Digby was well-known for his diamond motif, inspired by a pair of historical Bundjalung hunting clubs.

Max Watters (1937 – 2020)

Acclaimed Muswellbrook artist Max Watters died in February, aged 83. He was also a great patron of the arts and a mentor to many. In 2004, Watters gave his $5 million art collection to the people of Muswellbrook. For years, Watters conducted art classes in community halls around the region, and he regularly donated works to his local gallery. He was the younger brother of gallerist Frank Watters, who also died in 2020.

Frank Watters (1934 – 2020)

A coal town boy with an eye for art, Sydney gallerist Frank Watters died in May aged 86. He left an amazing legacy, and will be remembered for his passion for a good conversation. He was co-founder and co-director of Watters Gallery for 54 years. It closed its doors permanently in December 2018. Read his obituary.

Christo (1935 – 2020)

Born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, but known simply as ‘Christo’, the Bulgarian-born artist became famous for his large-scale interventions within the landscape – including Sydney. He died in May aged 84 from natural causes. Together with his late wife, Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon, the couple wrapped iconic global landmarks – both natural and man-made – in thousands of meters of fabric, bound up in a conversation which possessed both political and environmental overtones. It all started in Australia with Little Bay’s Wrapped Coast. Read his obituary.

Elspeth Hope-Johnstone OA (1926 – 2020)

Celebrated Tasmanian artist and photographer Elspeth Hope-Johnstone died this past March at the age of 94. She was a life-long promoter of education, women and the arts, and was a commissioner of the ABC, first chair of the Friends of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) and a life-long supporter of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. She donated Tasmanian art and furniture, dating back to the 1820s, to public institutions including TMAG. As Elspeth Vaughan, she was a founding member of Tasmania’s watercolour school or Sunday Group of Painters which was at its height in the second half of the Twentieth Century.

Pru La Motte (1928 – 2020)

Adelaide artists Pru La Motte passed away on 22 March. La Motte worked across mediums, but is best known for her expressive tapestries which she called ‘narrative weavings’. She will be remembered as a formidable force of the 1970s Australian craft revival and an accomplished textile artist.

Janet Beckhouse (1955 – 2020)

In May, postwar and contemporary artist Janet Beckhouse passed away. Her work was featured in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, Newcastle Art Gallery, Shepparton Regional Art Gallery and Bendigo Art Gallery. She was represented by Arthouse Gallery. She made an incredible contribution to Australian contemporary art and ceramics, and ‘her intricate and whimsical hand-built ceramics reflected her intuitive responses to the universal elements of life, death, and human relationships.’

John Nixon (1949 – 2020)

Rigorous of mind, generous of spirit – Melbourne artist John Nixon touched a generation of artists and left behind a legacy of Australian abstraction that will shape contemporary art dialogue for years to come. He died at 70 after a year-long struggle with leukaemia. Nixon was awarded an Australia Council Fellowship Award in 2001 and won the Clemenger Contemporary Art Award, Melbourne in 1999. He represented Australia at Documenta 7, in Kassel in Germany in 1982. He has held more than 70 solo exhibitions since 2001. Read his obituary.

Dr Kate Daw (1965 – 2020)

Esperance-born Daw was a seminal arts figure in Melbourne for many decades, as an artist, educator and advocate, most recently holding the position of Head of VCA Art at the University of Melbourne’s Southbank campus. She contributed to contemporary art dialogue with great vigour, and mentored and collaborated with many artists across her broad career, showcasing her huge heart and sensitivity. Known for her generous spirit and her rigorous desire to interrogate contemporary art, VCA’s former head of school will be deeply missed by artists, curators and academics alike. Daw passed in September. Read her obituary.

Michael Nelson Jagamara AM (1946 – 2020)

Western Desert painter Michael Nelson Jagamara AM died in November. While Jagamara wasn’t the first artist to start painting at Papunya (largely giving birth to the Western Desert style in 1972), he might be argued as one of its most well-known. Read his obituary.

Kunmanara Lewis (1945 – 2020)

Also in November, Mrs Lewis was a senior artist from Pukatja (Ernabella) on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands of South Australia, of the Pitjantjatjara language group. She was known for her creative innovation and ability to move between move between mediums, with a long history of working for Maruku Arts at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park; and a pioneering weaver and sculptor of native grasses, working with the Tjanpi Desert Weavers, since the corporation’s inception in 1995. Read her obituary.

Ben Leslie (1979 – 2020)

Adelaide based artist and founding Co-Director of Fontanelle Gallery and Studios, Ben Leslie died in February.  

Laurie Nilsen (1953 – 2020)

The eldest of 13 children, Indigenous artist Laurie Nilsen grew up in a tent in the public camping reserve on the banks of Bungil Creek, Roma, south-west Queensland. As a teenager he moved to Brisbane to pursue a career as a jockey. He then established himself as commercial artist and printer, before completing a Bachelor of Arts and securing a successful career as professional artist, known for his wire sculptures. Nilsen was a co-founder of Fireworks Gallery and a founding member of the Campfire Group of Artists and proppaNOW Artists Collective. For over 25 years he lectured in the Bachelor of Contemporary Australian Indigenous Arts course at Queensland College of Art, Griffith University. He died in March.

Noel Hutchison (1940 – 2020)

Artist, historian, educator and mentor to many a Prahran and VCA student, Noel Hutchison began his life as a plumber while studying art. He started teaching in the 1970s and lived across Sydney, Melbourne and Tasmania. He wrote several books on art, contributed to journals and reviewed books for newspapers. His work is represented in the National Gallery of Australia. He died in Melbourne in April.

Ross Seaton (1944 – 2020)

Perth outsider artist Ross Seaton died this year aged 76. Seaton was an iconic figure to many, easily recognisable as he walked up and down Stirling Highway to the ocean, often pushing a wheelbarrow. He was a prolific artist, creating thousands of paintings and drawings. A digital exhibition of his work was presented by Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery in December, entitled Ross Seaton – Master of Nedlands, curated by Ted Snell.

Franz Kempf AO (1926 – 2020)

Kempf was born in Melbourne and studied at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School and in Italy and Austria. In England he worked as a film designer. He worked with and in a variety of media, styles and methods including paint, print, etching, lithograph, monotype, screenprint, textile and woodcut, often using metaphors and symbols. Professor Sasha Grishin described him as ‘…a humanist and as a spiritual and religious artist, Kempf has chosen a path which has not been popular with many of his Australian peers. Yet with time as the various fads and fashions pass, Kempf’s art today appears increasingly fresh, vital and relevant to the issues of the present time.’

He was Senior Lecturer in printmaking at the University of South Australia and also lectured at the Slade School of Fine Art, the University of London, the Edinburgh College of Art, Scotland; Gloucester College of Art. He participated in over 90 solo exhibitions. In 2003 was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for his contribution to the Arts.  In 2006 a documentary film, Franz Kempf, was produced on his work.

Sally Couacaud (1947 – 2020)

Sally Couacaud died in April – a curator and a pioneer at the forefront of public space art projects. Growing up in New Zealand, she became active in the anti-apartheid movement and went and studied in Cape Town. She then lived in Mauritius for 10 years, later settling in Australia after a stint in London in the early 1980s. She was described as a ‘rugged individualist’. During the 1990s, Couacaud was appointed to commission public art including the Sydney Sculpture Walk for the City of Sydney. Before that she was the director of Artspace (1988-1992), overseeing its move to the Gunnery building in Woolloomooloo. She is remembered for curating one of the first impactful exhibitions of feminist art in Australia, Frames of Reference, and for exhibitions curated in a freelance capacity for the Art Gallery of NSW, the Australian Centre for Photography and the New Museum in New York. Her career spanned almost 40 years.

Don Wreford (1937 – 2020)

Richard Morrell wrote on social media: ‘One of the great characters and pioneer of the Australian Art Glass movement …. His fluid flamboyant style in glass was matched only by his gift for rhetoric.’ The London-born glass artist taught himself how to work with stained glass in the 70s before moving to Sydney in 1977 to establish a stained glass studio. He eventually moved to hot glass, and worked under Stan Melis at the Jam Factory in Adelaide. He set up permanently in Daylesford in 1993, where his hot glass studio quickly became a local arts landmark.

Geoff Dyer (1947 – 2020)

Beloved and respected contemporary Tasmanian landscape painter, Geoff Dyer pased in October aged 73. Dyer came to art early in life, attending drawing classes and completing his first oil painting at the age of eight. In the late 1960s, Dyer studied at the Tasmanian School of Art in Hobart, eventually qualifying as a teacher and spent years as a lecturer at the University of Tasmania’s Launceston School of Art and as Head of Art at Burnie Technical College. In 1995, he was awarded an Art Gallery of New South Wales residency at the Cité Internationale des arts in Paris. Real fame to him came with his win of 2003 Archibald Prize with a portrait of Richard Flanagan.


Tom Long (1969 – 2020)

In January, much-admired actor Tom Long died aged 51 after battling with encephalitis for several weeks. Long was diagnosed with myeloma in 2012, the same year he gave up acting after collapsing on stage at the Sydney Opera House during a performance of the La Mama/ILBIJERRI co-production, Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country. He was described as a kind, loving and modest man. Read his obituary.

Garry Ginivan (1952 – 2020)

One of Australia’s foremost producers of children’s theatre, Ginivan passed away on 29 January, aged 68. Described by those who knew him as passionate, supportive, determined, cheeky, complex, and a logistical genius, Ginivan’s company, Garry Ginivan Attractions, adapted and toured a range of stage works for young people from 1987 onwards, providing many young people with their first ever experience of live theatre. Across his 42 year career, Ginivan was committed to providing quality musical theatre for children and families as well as opportunities and work for actors and crew. His contribution to the sector was recognised at the 2004 Drover Awards, with Ginivan award the status of Touring Legend by the Australian Performing Arts Centres Association (now Performing Arts Connections Australia). Read his obituary.

Barry Tuckwell (1931 – 2020)

One of the world’s leading horn players, Australian-born Barry Tuckwell spent most of his professional life in the United Kingdom and the United States. Tuckwell was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1965 and a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1992. Tuckwell died in Melbourne, aged 88, in January of complications from heart disease.

Zoe Caldwell (1934 – 2020)

Zoe Caldwell passed away in February, aged 86. The four time Tony Award winner was an original ensemble member of Union House Repertory Company, which later became Melbourne Theatre Company. She went on to make her Broadway debut in 1965 and won her first Tony Award in 1966 for her portrayal of Polly in Tennessee Williams’s Slapstick Tragedy. She was best known for her Tony-winning role as Maria Callas in Master Class in 1996. In 1970, Caldwell received an OBE for Services to the Theatre and in 1984 she opened Arts Centre Melbourne with her Tony Award-winning performance in Medea. Throughout her illustrious career, Caldwell performed in 40 productions at Melbourne Theatre Company, taking her final bow in the 2003 production The Visit under the direction of Simon Phillips. Her talent and dedication left an indelible mark on the history of Australian theatre. 

Tony Gould AM (1937 – 2020)

In March, Tony Gould AM left us. He was founding Director of the $130 million Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC).  Under his 23-year tenure more than eight million people visited QPAC for more than 12,000 performances. Gould also established the Brisbane Festival and was Artistic Director from 1996 – 2004. He had an impressive career in the arts both as an actor and a respected arts administrator.

Arthur Dignam (1940 – 2020)

The Australian stage and screen actor, Arthur Dignam, whose work included roles in films The Devil’s Playground, the animated Grendel Grendel Grendel (1981), and The Dismissal, as well as stage roles for Belvoir, Sydney Theatre Company and others, died in May of a heart attack aged 80. Read his obituary.

Aidan Fennessy (1967 – 2020)

Playwright, director, dramaturg and much-loved member of the Australian theatre community, Aidan Fennessy died in September, aged 53. He is remembered as a generous collaborator, a gifted writer, a talented director and a rigorous and passionate artist. He had endured a two-year battle with cancer. Read his obituary.

Michael Falzon (1972 – 2020)

Music theatre star Michael Falzon starred in the original stage production of We Will Rock You. He was picked for the role by the band Queen and Ben Elton. He starred in many musicals including Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Rock of Ages. He died from a rare form of cancer aged 48.

Dr Kim Dunphy OAM (1961 – 2020)

In October, Dr Kim Dunphy, a pioneer in dance movement therapy, died after a battle with cancer. She played a foundational role in the development of the Creative Arts Therapy programs at the Victorian College of The Arts, and had been Program Coordinator and Senior Lecturer in Dance Movement Therapy at the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music at University of Melbourne. She was 59.


Steph Bowe (1995 – 2020)

In January, news of the death of Steph Bowe shocked the publishing sector. The author of Girl Saves Boy (2010) died after battling leukemia. She was just 25 years old. Her other titles included All This Could End (2013), and Night Swimming (2017). Read her obituary.

Dr Ania Walwicz (1951 – 2020)

Writer, poet, performer and teacher Dr Ania Walwicz passed away in September. ‘Very curious…’ It was the common musing Dr Ania Walwicz made over her 30-plus years as a teacher of writing in RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing classes. The comment captured her questing nature – encouraging students not to judge but to ask and explore as she taught poetry, short fiction and myths and symbols. Her work as a lecturer was acknowledged as part of the team that won RMIT University’s Vice Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award. She was 69. Read her obituary.

Bruce Dawe (1930 – 2020)

Melbourne-born poet Bruce Dawe died aged 90 this year. A failed student after attending seven schools, he worked as a labourer like his father, a farmhand, a postman, and spent a year on the University of Melbourne campus, eventually achieving a PhD part time. Described as ‘easily Australia’s most well-read and well-loved poet’, his works captured an Australian spirit. He taught widely and was a mentor to many.


John Schaeffer AO (1941 – 2020)

Self-made businessman John Schaeffer was arguably Australia’s greatest collector of Pre-Raphaelite art, his gifts to our state institutions leaving a legacy for generations. The philanthropist died tragically when he was hit by a Ford Ranger ute in Sydney’s CBD. He passed on 14 July, aged 79. He left an incredible legacy of art for generations to enjoy at many of our major art museums. Read his obituary.

Paddy Garritty (1937 – 2020)

Paddy Garritty’s contribution to the arts and union movements is difficult to overstate. In the words of Luke Hilakari, Secretary of Victorian Trades Hall Council, he was ‘a seaman, a painter and docker, the Secretary of the Unemployed Workers Union, a publican, a shopkeeper, a community activist, a circus rigger, a champion of the oppressed, a trade union activist, promoter of the arts and a comrade to many.’ Garritty’s passion for the arts and labour movements, his staunch advocacy and good humour, helped shape the cultural landscape of this country. He passed away in an aged care facility in Melbourne’s western suburbs after contracting COVID-19. Garritty was 83. Read his obituary.

David Levine (1945 – 2020)

David Levine, who died on 11 May, was renowned for his brilliant legal mind, firm principles and ready wit. With a career as a barrister and judge of the Supreme Court, he was also a great patron for the arts, and served on the Council of the Art Gallery Society of NSW from 2005 to 2014. He had been a member since 1958. William Dobell was a family friend, he lived with books lining his walls, and was also a generous patron of the State Library of NSW. He said in 2017: ‘Like my parents, I consider public museums, galleries and libraries to be essential components of civilised life.’ He was 75.

Peter Weiss AO (1935 – 2020)

Visionary fashion designer and arts patron, Peter Weiss died in July after a long battle with lung disease, aged 84. He spent his life dedicated to the growth and success of Australia’s creative industries, and was a significant support of the arts, especially the Art Gallery of NSW and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. His efforts in raising money and support for the arts, specifically orchestral music, led to Weiss earning an AM in 1996. In December 2018, the Sydney Opera House announced that Weiss would donate $1 million over four years to fund new rehearsal rooms for its concert hall.


Within the screen sector, tributes were paid with the passing of Melbourne indy producer, Mark Ruse; Screen executive Bill Gavin, known for some wonderful NZ films and a force in the expansion of Hoyts in Australia; and screen producer and writer Judy Malmgren, among others.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina