Simon Mordant in his Sydney apartmen
Simon Mordant in his Sydney apartment: ‘In the UK, I fear that the grey environment might have damped my creative expression’ © Adrian Cook

One name links two separate announcements in the past month that will shape Australia’s arts scene for the next couple of years: that of Simon Mordant. The UK-born businessman (a vice-chairman and managing director of investment bank Greenhill in Sydney) has emerged not only as a generous donor to the arts but also as an organiser and participant at many levels.

In addition to being appointed to the board of Opera Australia, Mordant, in his capacity as commissioner for Australia’s permanent pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale, was technically behind the selection of artist Fiona Hall to represent the country in the Giardini della Biennale.

As if that were not enough, Mordant chairs the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, which recently opened its Mordant Wing, after the banker and his wife Catriona donated $15m. He is also a director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and sits on international councils for the Tate, MoMA and the New Museum in Manhattan, and on the Wharton (UPenn) executive board for Asia.

CGI image of the new Australian pavilion in Venice
CGI image of the new Australian pavilion in Venice © Denton Corker Marshall

At the moment, the focus is on plans for Venice. The commissioner is usually someone with a visual arts background. In 2011, it was Doug Hall, former director of the Queensland Art Gallery. But for 2013 and 2015, Simon Mordant was chosen, the first banker. And not inappropriately. Fundraising to the tune of $6m was required to construct a pavilion to replace the “temporary” version that had been hurriedly erected 25 years ago. Back then, another Australian arts philanthropist – Italian-born Franco Belgiorno-Nettis – lobbied so successfully that in 1988 Australia beat 16 other countries to the last site on which to build a permanent pavilion in the Giardini. The new pavilion, designed by Melbourne-based Denton Corker Marshall, will be the first to be built in the Giardini this century.

Part of the job of the commissioner is choosing the representing artist for the biennale. “I accept that I’m not a curator, not from the art world,” Mordant said at the start of the process. “So I put together a panel of curators.” Did the artist have to be marketable? “Yes,” he agreed, “they needed both a strong domestic following and an international reputation. But it’s not about sales. An international audience has to want to look at their work.”

Some 200,000 visited Simryn Gill’s show at this year’s biennale and Mordant hopes that in 2015 even more will come for the new pavilion. “A factor in Fiona’s selection was her artistic maturity, which would allow her to create a body of work for a space that doesn’t yet exist,” he said.

Among the donors for the new pavilion were film star Cate Blanchett and her director/playwright husband Andrew Upton, who were co-artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company. Mordant, too, served on that board, but it is a position he will relinquish after six years to start at Opera Australia in January.

For more than a decade now, there has been a tendency for multimillion dollar arts businesses such as Australia’s national opera company to turn to professional moneymakers rather than to artists to make governance decisions. At Opera Australia, that practice took an excessive turn when a board with 10 corporate executives, one art gallery director and one novelist sacked Simone Young as artistic director in 2002 rather than meet her musical demands. She went on to glory in Hamburg.

Mordant is satisfied with the balance at the company today – the board includes one singer, one artists’ agent and two arts executives. “In my view, it’s a terrible mistake not to have the artistic discipline represented on the board,” he insists. “They can brainstorm issues that I have absolutely no skills in – their perspective is essential. We are, after all, there to support the art form.”

Although Mordant has mostly been associated with the visual arts, the opera holds a special place in his heart. It was at an outdoor opera event many years ago that he was introduced to Catriona. The pair married within six weeks of the final notes. Asked what they love about opera, or any art form, his answer is unequivocal: “Talent. Whether it’s talent in the theatre or in the opera or on the ballet stage, in creating a film or a painting, talent is what we admire and enjoy.”

Mordant first set out for Australia straight after leaving school, travelling overland. En route, he met young Australians coming the other way. By the time he arrived, he had a ready swag of mates. Returning to undertake “Dickensian articles” as a chartered accountant in grey old London was a challenge. So in 1983, he seized the opportunity to move to Sydney with accountancy firm Peat Marwick, borrowing $5,000 from his father to buy his first one-bedroom home. He would go on to inherit “only my ambition and a set of cufflinks. And my son knows that I expect my last cheque to bounce!”. The Mordants’ stated aim, he says, is “to make a difference while we’re still alive”.

Reflecting on his emigration from Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, Mordant draws up a balance sheet: “I hope I’d have had the same life in the UK. But I fear that the grey environment would have damped my creative expression, when compared with the liberating light here. In 1983, Australia was definitely a place where new sorts of artistic expression could still happen – which inspired me. And, without the success I’ve had in business, I don’t know whether I could have had the same impact.”

Yet he finds much in common between his philanthropic life and working on a major takeover or strategic advisory assignments at Greenhill – “each providing an adrenalin rush, each requiring full attention to detail, and each extremely satisfying to see an outcome delivered”.

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