Brian Stewart: Curator whose energy and vision put Falmouth Art Gallery on the British cultural map

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The Independent Online

In the surprisingly illiberal world of publicly funded galleries and museums, Brian Stewart, the director of Falmouth Art Gallery, was a pleasantly gusting, south-westerly breeze. He ruffled the feathers of bureaucracy and then smoothed them down with great artistry; he could have written a manual for his profession to follow. He was unusually easy on and accommodating of other curators and artists, and he championed his staff and the gallery heroically, and gave the town something of which it could feel proud.

His courageous endeavours mostly disguised his pain. At a young age he had been given a diagnosis of osteoarthritis that rocked his world of playing football and success in the Hackney Marshes league. He became a registered referee instead, and he could thereafter always be diverted by talk of West Ham's activities. Brian had the severely individual affliction of ME – a condition that makes the disease personal to each individual sufferer and more complex for others to comprehend.

His notable achievements at Falmouth, whose directorship he undertook in November 2000 – following on from being art and exhibitions Officer with Canterbury Museums since 1991 – placed it on the cultural map: in 2003 it won the Interpret Britain Award, and was long-listed for the first Gulbenkian Prize. In 2004 Falmouth made the final five of The Guardian award for Most Family Friendly Gallery or Museum in Britain, and went on to win it in 2006. "Family friendly and free!" became its slogan, and from a visitor's point of view "fun" could easily have been added to this.

Brian also secured funding and generated income in a way that mostly defied the financial climate, charming the museums authorities, the PAs, and the fund-givers. He was a champion fighter of causes and keen identifier of key works on plain, everyday view to those who should have known better, but had failed to spot them. He established several record prices in the London salerooms, while building up the gallery's collection. If his buying didn't always seem judicious at the time, a year or so later it would. Warily, the London dealers would see him coming: a limping figure with his stick and what remained of his hair aflame with the Irishness of both his parents.

His last such excursion to the auction rooms was in successful pursuit of a sketch of a beautiful young girl by Sophie Anderson, who happens to be buried in Falmouth cemetery. The final acquisition he made was of three works of art relating to the Cornish landscape by Tacita Dean. When selecting pictures for Falmouth's forthcoming exhibition schedule from a private collection in Fitzrovia, he recently rejected some notable 20th-century modern British masters, alighting happily instead upon a modest little drawing which hung in the kitchen of the owner, whose expression of utter bewilderment said it all. "It's made with love," explained Brian, matter-of-factly adding: "it could do with a new frame." It does deserve to be exhibited, but it would never be in with a chance without Brian Stewart.

He was an erudite man of letters – MA in history and theory of art and author of reference books including The Dictionary of Portrait Painters – but closer inspection of the latter will find many forgiveable errors, for Brian believed that it was most important to get the thing out there. After gaining an education degree, he worked in Christie's Old Masters and Country House Departments and then the Art Department at Canterbury Christ-church University College and as exhibitions officer at Canterbury Museums before joining Falmouth Art Gallery.

Brian loved his iPod, with its selection of Richie Havens, reggae, Johnny Cash, The Stranglers, John Martyn and Nick Cave. On television, he favoured The League of Gentlemen, The Simpsons, Match of the Day and Doctor Who; and from film, Toy Story, Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. He was generous with his invitations to lunch – at the nearest diner.

He was a discriminating reader, awarding the Falmouth Art Gallery Book of the Year Prize (2009) to the biography Adrian Ryan: Rather a Rum Life by myself. I was warmly encouraged to use this for PR, despite its being a spurious literary honour, neither given before nor since. Practical jokes were always de rigueur, as well as a wide variety of mishaps – at which he would laugh more often than not. He once lost an entire set of museum keys at Canterbury, and only after the failure of a monumental search was he forced to consider changing every lock. Then he found them, late at night, lodged against his bad thigh that had no feeling, concealed in his trousers.

Brian Stewart was born in 1953 in Dagenham, and though he cultivated a toughish, Essex-boy carapace, it wasn't really him. He attended a minor public school in Kent. His father was a GP, who taught Brian to ignore the ring of the telephone at home on the assumption that it was a patient calling. To his colleagues' despair, Brian insouciantly deployed the same habit at work. He was fantastically untidy, with paperwork all over the office and floor.

He lived in a house close to the sea with his wife and two children, a cat named Bear, two tortoises – presumed to be there, but often mislaid – and a one-time rescue-parrot. He rescued beetles and spiders from the gallery floor and tenderly repatriated them to a twig outside. The notice "No Dogs" did not apply, and when it was frog season, whoever was driving him had to exercise great caution on the road.

Brian was a curious mixture, not least in the wonderful way he juxtaposd high art and low in his exhibitions such as "A Bit of a Dive"; "GardenDelights – the cutting hedge of art"; "The Surrealists on Holiday; Masters of Mache – an exhibition of total pap"; "Stuff Art – an exhibition of stuffand clutter"; "Tree-mendous";and "RA RA". He spread goodwilland believed in buying heather from a gypsy in case it would do good. And it did – for some wondrous deity preserved Brian until his recent fall off his assisted-bicycle on to the ice; he died under anaesthetic during the operation this necessitated.

Julian Machin

Brian Stewart, curator: born London 6 August 1953; married 1994 Carol Makeham (two sons); died Truro 12 December 2010.