The Politics of Private Art Philanthropy

Two of the options to pick up the shortfall as Australian Government funding for the arts ‘tapers off’ is private art philanthropy and Corporate sponsorship of the Arts. As more and more Australians struggle to pay their power bills, money has never before been more valuable.

Let us consider the politics of private arts philanthropy. It is less difficult to make a name for yourself as a supporter of the arts than it is as an artist. Artists are trapped between demand and supply to the extent they have been rendered powerless. Arts Philanderers (I mean Philanthropists) are nurtured by the creative teet and slowly rocked to sleep each night, gently reassured that bogeymen don’t exist, that was the leaves and branches against the bedroom window. The philanthropist’s esteem is dependant on the collection they acquire and the talent they nurture.

Private Arts Philanthropists are presently enjoying another golden age. As the division of wealth within society morphs from a small divide into a gaping ravine, the hunt down for those with a wad of cash in their back pocket becomes more animated. The new $7 million Australian Pavilion at Venice was built with $6 million of generous support from private donors compared to a paltry 1 million coughed up by Government. The donor who forks out the most bread gets to be the Commissioner, by way of thanks, which is fair enough, considering the fiscally challenging times in which we live. The reality though is that Australia is a rich country acting out like a cash strapped dinosaur. Any Government backing coal is digging us into a future of bother.

Before David Walsh, Australia’s most famous arts philanthropists were John and Sunday Reed. Out at Heide, the Reeds surrounded themselves with a circle of artists so talented they’re now household names. Sunday was in charge, wielding her formidable cooking, gardening, and hospitality skills whilst looking fetching in a blue silk hair ribbon. A collection of the latest books on modern thinking (imported from the Continent) were used to lure young, lost, hungry creatives out to her Gingerbread house.

Once there, talk turned to the Utopian dreams of Modernism and the futilities of war, a conversation you can still hear at Myers Place most nights. You’ve got to hand it to a woman who can negotiate her way into a long term ménage a trois that sees her getting most of the action. Nice work, difficult to juggle. So many mouths to feed.

That’s not a threesome Sunday, that’s a spit roast’.

Like many good ideas that flash a brown eye at accepted modes of conduct, this threesome was doomed to fail. Sunday’s favorite Sidney Nolan finally ran off to Sydney one weekend and married John Reed’s sister Cynthia. Whom he’d met just once. Sunday was gutted; she’d given Sidney so much, but he was a stubborn man and refused to see her ever, ever again. Ever. Ever is a long time. Late in life and despite substantial career success, Sidney Nolan was still bitter enough to write and publish Paradise Garden (1971) a book of toxic little biographical poems. An exemplary example of the biting the hand that fed you genre, the book explored the emotional turmoil of an unusually close philanthropic relationship.

One can still imagine John and Sunday Reed choking on their corn flakes as they read through the first edition copy that Sidney had so kindly remembered to send to them. Accompanied by illustrated plates of Australian wildflowers, Sidney felt he’d paid a very high price for a hot dinner and a few tubes of paint. He turned on the donors that had nurtured his creative talents good and proper and took the gripe to his grave. Artists are an emotional lot; it’s not just business for us (unfortunately).

Cooked and Raw (which doesn’t even rhyme)

The basic story

has been told before,

loving in threes

denies death’s bruise,

but war breaks out

they break each other

on the floor,

and in a heavenly

transcendental light

they clear the dogs

and do the flowers

and eat each other

cooked and raw.

Or this description of household chores at Sunday’s house, including clunky comparisons between the fertilisation of flowers and being inside a woman. My Mother, wise woman that she is, always said to me ‘when a man starts writing poems that don’t rhyme about what he can remember about being inside you, you have to scratch his chances of a re-visit. Ever.’

The Gardener’s Wages

Dropping his spade

he grew confused,

the pollen on the stamens

she explained

grew in all of us,

but once inside

that bossy bower

he found that

flesh is paid for

by the hour.

John Reed cops a serve too in:

 The Lawyer

He kissed his typist

on his knee

it broke his heart

he took up art,

it broke his heart again

along with many other men.

 John Kaldor has a strong brand as an arts philanthropist. He donated his private art collection to the public, through the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Unfortunately for female artists, our lack of presence in the collection sends a strong message that we’re not up to much. We’re not worthy of having our artistic efforts conserved by the state for all time. Generation after generation of visitors to the collection will look and wonder what happened to all the art by women?

Here are the gender representation numbers for artworks in the Kaldor Family Collection donated to the AGNSW as compiled by proud advocate for the inclusion of women in culture, blogger CoUNTess. They’re included so you know we women are not just attached to notions of whinging:

 ‘The artworks of the Kaldor Family Collection have been catalogued on the AGNSW website so CoUNTess got to counting the number of works by female artists (2) and male artists (194) collaborators (6).’

Staff at the Art Gallery of New South Wales clearly didn’t take issue with the startling gender equity issues that the Kaldor Family Collection represents. Otherwise they would have said to John:

Look John. You’ve collected some interesting shit here, but there are hardly any women artists represented in your collection. Actually John, there are two. There are more women in your family than in your extensive, expensive art collection.

Now, we’re a public institution with equity policies and the like. What you do and think in private is on you, but at the point you want to go public, then the rules change up and it’s our job, as civil servants, to ensure equity policies are upheld. There are laws and rights and measures in place to ensure this sexist shit stops, society has decided sexism is not on, and occasionally women make half decent art John Kaldor.

How about you open your eyes and your wallet and look round a bit harder. And when you’ve dealt with some personal issues and started buying art by women, then get back to us. You can’t disappear the creative efforts of half the population and get away with it. There’ll be a riot.

It wouldn’t have been an easy conversation to begin, but hey, that’s what liquid lunches are for. Ironically, as it turns out, the Art Gallery of New South Wales bought up a gazillion art posters by the Gorilla Girls post haste and any criticisms of gender inequity within the gallery, disappeared before our very eyes.

 One of the problems with rich men is that nobody tells them the bleeding obvious because they’re too busy making sure the eftpos transaction’s been approved.

The art that you respond to (or don’t) reveals your politics. That’s why it’s so esteemed within society. There’s an art to putting together a collection that stands the tests of time. Peggy Guggenheim sought the advice of Marcel Duchamp when she was in the market for art. Knowing who to ask for advice is an art too. Peggy had a voracious appetite for art and other things. Apparently, she had 1000 lovers. Not much left of her Guggenhymen I guess. Eh? Eh?

‘In a culture that still fetishes women’s appearance, in which women are under-represented on boards, in government and are over-represented as victims of sexual crime, knowing what women think, valuing it, is, I think, one of the most important things we can do.

Books by women are not enough; we need better women’s stories.’

by Natalie Kno-yu, The Conversation

 Culture, unfortunately for its producers, is viewed as a luxury item, hence quick to fall off the table in hours of need. This leaves us very vulnerable to the best intentions of arts philanthropists, but as Sidney Nolan reminds us from the grave, artists should proceed with caution.

Constable Fitzpatrick and Kate Kelly, 1946, Sidney Nolan

Constable Fitzpatrick and Kate Kelly, 1946, Sidney Nolan

Happy families

Happy families

Sunday Reed

'John, Sunday and Sidney, after Nolan' 2007, Natalie Thomas

‘John, Sunday and Sidney, after Nolan’ 2007, Natalie Thomas

Self Portrait, 1986, Sidney Nolan

Self Portrait, 1986, Sidney Nolan

Rosa Mutabilis, 1945, Sidney Nolan

Rosa Mutabilis, 1945, Sidney Nolan

Paradise Garden

Paradise Garden

Paradise Gardens

Paradise Garden 2

Head of a soldier, Sidney Nolan, 1942

Head of a soldier, Sidney Nolan, 1942

Victory girls, Albert Tucker, 1943

Victory girls, Albert Tucker, 1943

Mine and Miner, Sidney Nolan 1972

Mine and Miner, Sidney Nolan 1972

just divorced

Just divorced

Peggy does Venice

Peggy does Venice

Peggy had a vorascious appetite for art and artists

Peggy had a voracious appetite for art and artists

William Powhida cover design for the Brooklyn Rail

William Powhida cover design for the Brooklyn Rail

Joseph Brown collected art and made art of his own too, which he collected too and put in his own collection currently on permanant display at NGV

Joseph Brown collected art and made art of his own too, which he collected and put in his own collection currently on permanant display at NGV