The art of giving (and receiving): Philanthropy and the university art museum

By Fiona Salmon

Every year Australian university art museums (UAMs) are enriched by the generosity of individuals and philanthropic bodies who share a passion for the visual arts. This includes giving in the form of cultural gifts, cash donations, bequests and endowments that are critical to the development of university collections, art museum programs and facilities. Consider some recent examples.

Edwards, who has been an avid collector of Aboriginal art for more than 30 years, cited three reasons behind his decision to gift his works to the institution: his close connection with ANU’s Drill Hall Gallery ... the high degree of public access it could afford his works ... and the fact he wanted the works to be available as a resource for education and research.

In July, Canberra lawyer and ANU Alumnus Craig Edwards announced a major gift of Aboriginal art to The Australian National University (ANU). Estimated to be worth more than $9 million and comprising 124 western desert paintings, it was described as the most “significant single donation of Indigenous art to an Australian university” [1]. Edwards, who has been an avid collector of Aboriginal art for more than 30 years, cited three reasons behind his decision to gift his works to the institution: his close connection with ANU’s Drill Hall Gallery, which will have oversight of the collection; the high degree of public access it could afford his works, the gallery being open to students and the general public; and the fact he wanted the works to be available as a resource for education and research.

In another high-profile example, described as “one of the most significant acts of arts philanthropy to an Australian university” [2] and valued at $26 million, property developer and art collector, Michael Buxton, donated his private holding of more than 300 contemporary Australian artworks to the University of Melbourne. This gift, first announced in 2014, was accompanied by funds to build and partially endow a new museum in which to house and exhibit the collection. Located at the University’s Southbank Campus, Buxton Contemporary opened in March 2018 realising the donor’s ambition to promote and develop a wider appreciation of contemporary Australian art “by […] educating future generations of students and serving as a resource for all Australians.” [3].

This year has also seen work commence on The University of Sydney’s $66.2 million Chau Chak Wing Museum whose principal donors include Dr Chau Chak Wing, Ian Potter Foundation, Nelson Meers Foundation and Penelope Seidler. Scheduled to open in 2020, the new six-storey development will house the University’s Macleay, Nicholson and Art Gallery collections providing state-of-the-art facilities for their use in research and teaching. A dynamic exhibition program will also provide Australian and international visitors with opportunities to engage with the University’s collections, many of which have never been seen by the public before. In speaking about the start of the project Dr Chau observed the importance of the Museum as a site of cross cultural exchange: “through understanding the culture and history of other countries we get a better appreciation of each other and our world” [4].

In accepting individual works of art or entire collections ... UAMs undertake considerable research to establish significance, authenticity and provenance; they troubleshoot potential issues relating to storage, conservation and display; and address questions of relinquishment.

Donations to the ANU, University of Melbourne and University of Sydney are instructive in demonstrating the impact of private wealth on the advancement of UAMs and universities more broadly. These examples flag the substantial value of philanthropy currently channelled into universities via the university museum sector, and they foreshadow the ways in which philanthropic ambitions find alignment with the education, research and access agendas UAMs aim to deliver. What is less evident in these accounts is the work of UAMs in building and managing donor relations, assessing potential risks associated with gifts and ensuring that expectations of all parties are clear and can be met.

In accepting individual works of art or entire collections, for example, UAMs undertake considerable research to establish significance, authenticity and provenance; they troubleshoot potential issues relating to storage, conservation and display; and address questions of relinquishment. In light of these things, UAMs negotiate the terms and conditions of accepting cultural gifts and manage their legal requirements with the aim of balancing the wishes of the donor with the capacity of the museum to care for and curate the artworks in question. This is not always straightforward.

More broadly, UAMs play a strategic and sophisticated role in seeking and sustaining relationships with individuals and organisations who share values and ambitions. These relationships underpin the success of bids that fund new initiatives including programs, infrastructure and buildings. However, good relationships on their own are not enough.  In a highly competitive environment UAMs must have compelling and persuasive cases for their projects ensuring objectives are laser sharp and communicated in ways that will resonate with potential supporters. Appropriately acknowledging donors and maintaining relationships after gifts have been received are also critical and ongoing requirements for philanthropic success.

The greatest supporters of UAMs are those who recognise the power of art to transform the way we see, think and feel about the world. The challenge for those leading UAMs is to attract this goodwill, navigate its possibilities and ensure that investment achieves its aims.

References

[1] Australian National University, Media Release, 22 July 2018, accessed 25 September 2018 http://www.anu.edu.au/news/all-news/anu-receives-impressive-collection-of-aboriginal-art

[2] University of Melbourne, Alumni News Online, accessed 25 September 2018 https://www.alumni.unimelb.edu.au/news/melbourne-receives-26-million-donation-contemporary-art-museum

[3] ibid.

[4] The University of Sydney, Media Release, 16 July 2018, accessed 25 September 2018 https://sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2018/07/16/work-begins-on-the-chau-chak-wing-museum.html


Fiona Salmon is the Director of Flinders University Art Museum and current Chair of University Art Museums Australia. She has worked for twenty years in the Australian cultural sector including in previous management, research and curatorial roles with Museums Australia (Victoria), the Cunningham Dax Collection and Maningrida Arts & Culture. In her current position at Flinders, Fiona oversees the University's exhibitions and collection of 8000 works.  She is a regular contributor to visual arts programs at her institution and driver of cross-disciplinary collaboration through the museum’s academic outreach initiative.