The Fine Art of Benefaction

THE MENTION of a signal art work, and the precipitous price paid for it in the same breath, inevitably diminishes our intuitive response to it. As the writer Jeanette Winterson once briskly put it: “The viewer does not see the colours on the canvas, he sees the colour of the money.” Nonetheless, money, and exceptionally large amounts of it, are necessary to this story.

On December 5, 2007, a limestone figure from the very dawn of civilisation was sold at auction by Sotheby’s in New York. This diminutive item, known as the Guennol Lioness, was acquired in the late 1940s by Alastair Bradley Martin and his wife Edith—committed collectors of master works from various millennia and a range of cultures, whose long association with the Brooklyn Museum blessed it with donations and long-term loans. The Martins began collecting in the late 1940s and their purchases were not acquired as investments. Nor were they captives of trends and fashions. Martin once suggested: “The fundamental rule is this: If something gives you pleasure, buy it.”

The Lioness, a mere 8.3 centimetres high, was found in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) in the first half of the twentieth century. Nothing else quite like her exists. She is an abstraction Picasso would have been impressed by, fusing as she does a variety of viewpoints, all anatomically impossible, and yet her realism approaches the muscled explosiveness of a Michelangelo sculpture. Her expression is fierce and implacable. Her purpose remains a puzzle. In fact, she reminds us that works from antiquity have something modern works rarely have: mystery. Today’s art works, often as not, are garnished with tedious explanatory notes which are more likely to confuse than clarify, but obfuscation is not the same as mystery.

Works from antiquity were carved or painted at a time when almost nothing, in scientific terms, was understood about the physical universe, so their creation was linked to elaborate belief systems in which animals and all manner of physical phenomena were intimately intertwined with the well-being and progress of humanity. Unsurprisingly, the contemporary world has once again begun to think along similar lines.

In past decades, some archaeologists have characterised the Lioness as the embodiment of the terror man faces in a hostile world—that she symbolises the implacability of natural forces against humanity. And while contemporary opinions about the Lioness and her role have softened—or been enlarged by contemporary scholarship—it was no mere auction gush when the Antiquities department of Sotheby’s claimed that the successful bidder would have “the distinction of owning one of the oldest, rarest and most beautiful works of art from the ancient world”.

There was a frenzy of interest and speculation. The Guennol Lioness, some fifty centuries old, had been on display at the Brooklyn Museum since 1948. Sotheby’s anticipated bidding from $14 to $18 million. Imagine then the electrical current in auction room and the crackle along the phone lines when it sold for $57.2 million (A$65 million)—every dollar of which was earmarked for a charitable trust.

AND THIS BRINGS US to charity in a smaller but no less interesting pond. The Australian art world has witnessed something of an efflorescence of gifts and bequests to its major state galleries in recent times. There is one potential snag with such largesse. It sometimes comes with the condition that the gallery must accept the bequest in its entirety and may not indulge itself in sifting through the offer, like a gold-panner with a bucket of gravel, to pluck the nuggets and throw away the dross.

One very discreet giver of works over the years has been James Fairfax, and one very prominent recipient has been the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The quality of the works presented by Fairfax over the years, which include paintings by van Ruisdael, Rubens, Canaletto, Claude, Boucher and Tiepolo and drawings by Ingres, Watteau and Fragonard, remind us that connoisseurship is much undervalued in this postmodern world. The connoisseur belongs to a species admired in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but largely dismissed in the twentieth as an ineffectual dabbler, whose views are dismissed by the swarms of accredited academics and bureaucrats. This is a great pity.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales, as state galleries go, is one of the tightest-run ships in the country. Shows are always hung meticulously, walls are always painted in colours sympathetic to the character of the visiting show and there are no drink-vending machines scarring its corners (alas, our national gallery was once guilty of this). There are no bargain basement tables, and cultural memorabilia and souvenirs are tucked discreetly out of the way. Most importantly, you can always find the front door—which is both elegant and grand. In contrast, our national gallery in Canberra has a confusing and ugly entrance and is approached from ramps and stairs which would disgrace a housing commission development.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales has recently been the recipient of a gift of sorts from Ray Wilson, whose partner James Agapitos died in January 2007 aged seventy-nine. Agapitos was twenty-four when he arrived in Australia from Greece in 1952. He began his working life, like so many migrants, in a factory. By the time he and Wilson met in 1967, he owned a substantial printing business which underpinned a property portfolio. Together, over a number of years, they assembled a collection of works which sheltered together under the surrealist umbrella. On sober examination, a number of these works were loitering without consent, and even the energetic ministrations of Bruce James (in his book Australian Surrealism) cannot disguise the fact that you can’t make a painting a surrealist work just by calling it one.

There are some signally inept works in this collection, and their presence can only be justified by the forensic nature of the task the collectors set themselves— a virtual catalogue of what they supposed were surrealist offerings in this country. Where to start? Where to stop? How far to cast the net?

Further, apart from James Gleeson (a committed surrealist), those artists who were caught in the net would have been flabbergasted to find themselves rubbing scales. This is because most of them were merely experimenting at the time with mixtures of expressionism, symbolism, automatism, mythology, folk art and the faux naif which made their presence felt through reproductions in international journals. Sidney Nolan would be turning—or smiling—in his grave. Robert Klippel might have raised an eyebrow. Elwyn Lynn, if he were still alive, might pray that his painting Blake’s God and the People—a woeful work—remained in the gallery basement, and would doubtless have been granted his wish.

As Peter Schjeldahl, an art critic for the New Yorker, once remarked of surrealism in general: “Limp clocks by Salvador Dali are about as good as it gets.” Robert Hughes once remarked that surrealism specialised in “attention-getting stunts, political embroilments, sexual scandals and fervid half-religious crises”. Clement Greenberg went even further: “they’re all crackpots, every one of them”.

What are the benefits if you donate, or hint at donating, a large and much-publicised private collection to a state gallery? First, a great fuss will be made of you, especially if the collection is being dangled like a prize in front of publicity-hungry directors. There are cocktails and dinners, and entrée into circles which might previously been unaware of an unusual collection right under their noses—or indeed of your good self. Commercial gallery owners who have something to sell will remember your name, as will the principals of various auction houses and gallery curators. Like a lazy child leaning against a blackboard, something of the public relations colour of events will rub off on you, and you will most certainly make an appearance in the major metropolitan newspapers in large and colourful articles lauding your generosity. Most importantly, there is every likelihood that a room—or even an entire gallery wing—will be named after you, thus ensuring some longevity for your endeavours.

In June 2003, an article in the Australian suggested that the Agapitos–Wilson collection of some 300 works was worth around $4 million, and announced that in the following month, eighty-six of the works would tour nationally for two years. The first oasis was the Art Gallery of South Australia, where it was received rapturously by the director, Ron Radford. Then it would be Melbourne’s turn, followed by Sydney, Brisbane and Hobart. Wilson said at the time: “I think it could probably be described as an obsession … the collection has certainly changed our lives.” The article reported that Agapitos and Wilson had decided to “eventually give it away to an institution to ensure that it isn’t broken up and sold off”.

In September 2007 Ray Wilson presented their collection (now 285 works) to the National Gallery in Canberra. It was valued now at $6.6 million. Wilson received $2.5 million, and the remaining works were deemed a gift, which puts one in mind of the beginnings of Estee Lauder’s dynamic cosmetics empire: “gift with purchase”. The Australian Financial Review had noted at the time that both the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales had lobbied for the collection, but neither had offered money.

TODAY, SOME GIVERS require as much fanfare and page space as can be garnished, and possibly equally favourable gestures from the Tax Office, but there have been modest and unassuming givers too. Mr Hepburn Myrtle, an Englishman whose London firm had sent him to Australia in 1941 to “do something with carborundum”, was a diligent collector of Chinese ceramics and jades. Like a number of collectors of small items, he would carry around some miniature and distinguished object in his pocket to fondle, and in sympathetic company he would take out a tiny carving, and grinning very broadly, invite others to examine it.

Early Chinese jades are carved from nephrite, a variety of jade which, if uncalcified, has a waxy appearance and feels curiously alive in the hand. This writer was once given a tiny Shang Dynasty rabbit—a present for organising a series of lectures which Myrtle gave at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1981—and inspired by Myrtle, carried it around in a pocket to fend off boredom in long-winded staff meetings.

Myrtle’s interest in Chinese art was sparked by an exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1935. Like many collectors he kept the very first piece he bought. It was a blue-and-white piece of ceramic manufactured in 1700 in great quantities for the Dutch marketplace, called kraak. He paid shillings for it in Tunbridge Wells. Soon after their marriage, his wife, a puppet maker and painter, produced a portrait of him examining this fragile bowl with great concentration and tenderness. Once settled in Australia he found himself visiting Hong Kong and Japan in search of choice items and advising the Art Gallery of New South Wales on their Oriental collection.

In 1977 Myrtle wrote a small catalogue titled Chinese Porcelain of the Ming and Ch’ing Dynasties for an exhibition of ceramics which was held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales that year. The works, from the fourteenth century to the early twentieth, were with one exception drawn from Australian collections—his included. Over the years, many of his own works found their way to the same gallery as gifts. One piece Myrtle had a special affection for was an “eighteenth-century copy of a Ming Dynasty wine cup with a jaunty etching of a chicken”. The curator of Asian Art, Jackie Menzies, arranged for the piece to be photographed and sold as a postcard in the gallery shop. Myrtle was delighted.

For sheer breadth and depth, the grandest collection of European and British work in private hands in Australia belonged to William Bowmore (who had changed his name from Milhelm Braheim Ibn Yared). He died in January 2008 at the magnificent age of ninety-eight. In 1990 Artnews had ranked him among the world’s top 200 collectors, but in his later years he began divesting himself of large and tasty portions of this collection. The Art Gallery of South Australia was one prominent recipient and produced a catalogue in 1999 titled The Fine Art of Giving: 90 Masterpieces from the William Bowmore Collection. In 2008 this gallery confirmed that these gifts, which included Roman antiquities, Islamic decorative arts and the only painting by Théodore Géricault in a public gallery here, were worth more than $17 million. His gifts to the Newcastle Gallery were valued at $7 million.

Most collectors, even wealthy ones, have budgets. Works which are particularly coveted but which exceed it might be paid for over a period or may require the sacrifice of a lesser example in the collection. Bowmore loved beautiful things and took pleasure in the hunt and capture of a fine object which brought earlier acquisitions into a sharper or unexpected focus. His view of the virtues of a good collection had a decidedly solid and old-fashioned ring to it: “I have constantly changed, revised and polished my various collections, always with an end in mind of creating a balance and harmony of inter-related pieces …”

While the Yareds had been part of the late nineteenth-century diaspora of the Antiochian Orthodox Christians, life in Australia was a secure one. His father had encouraged him to believe that life was safe under a British flag, thus Bowmore remained an unabashed monarchist and much of his European buying was undertaken in London, although his greatest admiration was reserved for French culture.

His collection was extraordinary. In 1978 curator Daniel Thomas described it as “a window into the culture of the entire world”. Through it, Bowmore’s passion for sculpture ran like a thread: from classical Greek and Roman to African, Asian and European. Perhaps this can be traced to his experience with Minerva, a third or fourth-century AD stone torso of the goddess of wisdom, which Bowmore’s Lebanese father brought with him to Australia in 1913. His twenty-four Rodins were the largest group to be assembled in Australia.

Bowmore made his money from owning and administering private hospitals in Newcastle and hotels in Sydney. His collecting began, not with the old masters of Europe but the young masters of Australia. In the 1950s he became friendly with William Dobell and became an early purchaser of his work. In 1978, Brett Whiteley’s winning Wynne Prize entry, Summer at Carcoar, was a landscape painting which Bowmore had commissioned.

He was an astute buyer. In 1974 he paid $120,000 for Niccolò dell’Abbate’s Man with a Falcon, supposedly once owned by Titian, and sold it in 1991 to the Art Gallery of New South Wales for $1.25 million. Accompanying this sale was a gift—Jean-Marc Nattier’s Madame de la Porte. Over the years Bowmore parted, sometimes wistfully, with more and more works. These included a Renaissance portrait of a noblewoman by Bernadino di Conti, a landscape by Aelbert Cuyp, an early Gainsborough landscape, a Monet harbourscape and two Willem de Koonings. He especially missed a small Cézanne portrait of the artist’s son—regarded as the finest of only three Cézanne paintings in Australia.

Happily, the bulk of his collection remained here, scattered among public museums. They include a Venetian city view by Francesco Guardi, Théodore Géricault’s Head of a Youth and Walter Sickert’s The Raising of Lazarus, which was itself raised up from a dusty road and eventually found its way to the Art Gallery of South Australia. Bowmore told the story of its arrival. He had paid $300,000 for it in the 1970s and on collecting it from the docks found it was longer— some 2.43 metres—than he remembered. Like a tall man in a short bed, the painting lay awkwardly in the back of a van destined for Newcastle, but fell out onto the Pacific Highway. Fifty kilometres later, Bowmore discovered his loss and turned around. He found the painting, sitting by the side of the road, unharmed. Someone had rescued it and placed it there.

IS IT TACTFUL for a collector who has been a chairman of an art institution (the Museum of Contemporary Art) and whose extensive private collection has benefited from its storage facilities for a number of years, to present his collection to another institution? And is it appropriate, considering that the Museum of Contemporary Art was in most respects the natural home for it?

One can only wonder about the feelings of the recipient (the Art Gallery of New South Wales) when, hard on the heels of the announcement of a generous grant of $25.7 million by the state government to fund an offsite collection storage facility for the gallery (allowing the existing subterranean storage space to become a new and generous exhibition gallery) an individual steps forward, in a gesture of immense generosity, to swallow the proposed space in one gulp. One can further only guess the feelings of curators of contemporary works in the collection, whose task in the institution in the first place is to exercise their own judgment in the selection and acquisition of works, not merely function as storemen.

Visiting exhibitions are one thing. They never overstay their welcome. Entire collections which arrive on the assumption that they will be permanent, like a swarm of relatives, might cause some ill feeling, although this is unlikely to be aired publicly. The new exhibition space is due for completion in 2011, and this will be the occasion for the public to see the fruits of John Kaldor’s collecting activities.

Kaldor, who established his international textile business in Australia in 1970, ceased trading in 2004 in Australia, but still has offices in Great Portland Street, London, and Seventh Avenue, New York. His website gives us this information:

John Kaldor Art Projects has invited many leading international artists to Australia. In a 30-year pioneering tradition, successive influential art projects have played an important role in bringing groundbreaking trends to the Australian public. These events have contributed significantly to changing the understanding of contemporary art in Australia. In 2003, John Kaldor Art Projects was granted charitable status in recognition of the longterm contribution to the cultural life of Australia. This heralds a new chapter, enabling the transition from the personal endeavour of John Kaldor to an organisation with the ability to grow and take on major projects on a regular basis.

Kaldor has been a passionate and consistent collector of international contemporary art and began acquiring works when many collectors in this country were focused on local painters, even though much American contemporary art in the sixties was cheaper than Australian painting, which was experiencing something of a boom in the 1960s. His first acquisition was a Robert Rauschenberg work, which he found in a Paris gallery for “a couple of hundred dollars”.

Kaldor is perhaps best known for his invitation to Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude to wrap a mile of Sydney’s Little Bay coastline in billowing synthetic fabric in October 1969. For an army of volunteers and onlookers, art became a large-scale spectacle which could be admired and participated in. The transformation of the coastline created a sensation and when it was dismantled, what remained of the project was a raft of drawings, documents, film and the memories of those who experienced it or helped to wrap this aesthetic surprise. Occasionally, small mixed-media documentations appear at auctions here and sell for modest prices.

Another successful project was the outdoor installation in 1995 of Puppy by the American artist Jeff Koons. This was a giant structure assembled from shrubs and flowers by artists and volunteers in front of the museum’s main entrance. It was extraordinarily popular but it was difficult to determine the number of visitors, as Puppy had attracted an extraordinary groundswell of suburban mums and dads, horticulturists and assorted green thumbs—people who would slip quietly through the net of art museum statistics. Puppy is now on permanent display outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, but during the time he was holding court at the entrance of the museum, Kaldor’s own private collection was holding court indoors.

Kaldor’s personal collection of some 260 works (according to the Sydney Morning Herald) or 215 (the Australian) has been valued at over $35 million, although the only real test of its value is the auction room. Kaldor suggested he had bought some works for as little as $50 to $100 in the 1960s. Nonetheless, there is no doubting the sweep and significance of the collection. The gallery’s director, Edmund Capon, called it “the most important collection of late twentieth century avant-garde art in Australia” and no one would argue with that. It includes works by Christo, Koons, Rauschenberg, Sol LeWitt, Anselm Kiefer, Carl Andre, Donald Judd, and Gilbert and George—perhaps not household names, but all fixtures on the contemporary international art world stage.

Surprisingly, Kaldor was quoted in the April edition of the Art Newspaper saying that the Art Gallery of New South Wales was the logical choice: it had the space to display the collection (which makes one wonder if Kaldor had advance notice of the state government’s intention to shower the gallery with funds to make a new exhibition space possible) “and rather more importantly, they asked for it”. But did they? The Art Newspaper also notes: “Mr Kaldor is entitled to receive a tax deduction for the market value of the gift.”

What do bequests of this scale mean to state museums around Australia as more collectors step forward with lavish gifts? Do they have the potential to distort the focus of the principal collections in the institution? And what does it mean for curatorial policies, which since the 1960s have charged individual curators with researching, pursuing, acquiring and presenting the best examples of work within their field of expertise?

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