Robert Herbert the film programmer at the Art Gallery of New South Wales has died and it's with some sense of shock for the cinephile community.
For as long as I’ve been in Sydney Robert was the face and the engine of the AGNSW screening program and for that program to be done Robert was required to be all things. The Gallery theatre has not moved into the 21st century and its film program was entirely reliant on 16mm and 35mm film. Robert’s sources at the various cultural institutions (the NFSA, the cultural departments of the major European governments chief among many) supplied him with film for an extensive near weekly program.
The Gallery’s policies regarding film presentation are absurdly limited, concentrating almost entirely on films connected to current exhibitions. There are exceptions such as the retrospectives presented by the Sydney Film Festival, but over the years Robert worked within a system that required more than a bit of adroitness to get some variety and the odd killer connection. As far as I know, Robert booked the films, assembled the programs and then projected them. Projections were preceded by the most ferocious demands on the audience, starting with a no admissions after the start of the film and then subjecting the crowd to some serious admonitions as to how to behave during the show. I clapped the series of slides at every screening I attended though there always remained some buffoon or other who thought their phone calls or text messages were more important than everyone else’s enjoyment.
The AGNSW remains the only venue, limited as its selections were, where something resembling Cinematheque activity occurs in Sydney. It can only be hoped that Robert Herbert has left a legacy of quality presentation, interesting programming and rigourous screening conditions that will be continued in the future.
I’m sure there will be a risk that events might conspire for the AGNSW to give up even this ghost but one hopes that the hundreds who came to his programs each week, enticed by selection and good program notes, will ensure that the activity continues.
Robert Herbert however will be missed.