Wealth of talents

One thousand bamboo wind chimes dangled from coloured ribbons attached to the rafters of a disused pier on the waterfront in Sydney. Visitors walking through the rainbow corridor created by the instruments, an installation by the New Zealand artist Tiffany Singh entitled “Knock on the Sky, Listen to the Sound”, 2011, pushed and pulled the chimes to create a constantly changing melody.

The execution and installation of the work, one of hundreds in five venues across the city as part of the 18th edition of the Sydney Biennale, were paid for by a private foundation set up by local philanthropists Luca Belgiorno-Nettis and his wife Anita, just two of the many wealthy individuals who have contributed to the costs of the exhibition.

This private support, which accounts for 21 per cent of the Sydney Biennale’s A$10.7m ($11m) budget, has given the curators the freedom to choose artists whose work may be difficult to sell. This reverses the trend of most international biennales, such as the one in Venice, which are heavily subsidised by art dealers. Commercial galleries use the Italian show as a platform to market their artists and exhibition pieces are often sold to collectors within hours of the opening.

By contrast, much of the art in the Sydney Biennale, for which art dealers have provided just one per cent of the budget, is made of ephemeral materials such as rope, paper and sand that will not last beyond the event. Singh’s soaring ribbon installation was dismantled in August, when visitors were encouraged to take a wind chime home, decorate it and then return it to Cockatoo Island, a former ship-building yard and prison in Sydney Harbour that serves as another Biennale venue.

“To a certain extent, we shied away from galleries and art fairs [when preparing the exhibition],” says Biennale co-artistic director Gerald McMaster. “We mostly talked to curators around the world.” The result is a show entitled All Our Relations that emphasises communal acts such as sewing, basket-weaving, music-making and storytelling, and focuses heavily on audience participation.

“There’s not much there that’s collectable ... and I think that’s wonderful,” says Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, chairman of the Biennale. Belgiorno-Nettis is the son of the late founder of the exhibition, Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, who emigrated to Australia from Italy in 1951 and went on to set up a large engineering and construction company, Transfield Holdings. In 1973, inspired by the biennale in his beloved Venice, he launched the Sydney Biennale in one of the earliest acts of private support for contemporary art in Australia. Four decades on, and private philanthropists are again transforming the landscape of contemporary art in the city.

“Ten years ago, international contemporary art was very poorly represented in Australian museums,” says Gene Sherman, a contemporary art dealer-turned-philanthropist who oversees the spending of A$1m a year on the commission of new art works through her eponymous foundation. “It was very, very difficult to get major shows here ... today, things have changed dramatically.”

One of the biggest changes has taken place at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) which is currently host to a section of the Sydney Biennale. Artist Lee Mingwei sits at a wooden table and fixes ripped items of clothing brought to him by the public as part of “The Mending Project, 2009”. His performance takes place in a gallery newly renovated as part of a A$53m expansion to the museum that has increased display space by 50 per cent and given the institution new facilities. Upcoming shows include a survey of the work of Anish Kapoor in December, the British artist’s first major exhibition in Australia.

The MCA had tried (and failed) twice before to raise funding for an expansion. It was only when Simon Mordant, joint chief executive of Greenhill investment bank, made a gift to the institution of A$15m with his wife Catriona, and agreed to lead the campaign to raise the remaining money, that the museum was able to meet its target. “Armed with the A$15m commitment from us, Liz Ann [McGregor, MCA director] accelerated her efforts in Canberra and the federal government agreed to contribute A$13m towards the expansion project as long as the state government increased their pledge to A$13m,” recounts Mordant. The remaining funds came from the city government and other private donors.

An untitled work by Jonathan Jones at Cockatoo Island, one of the venues of the Sydney Biennale

Like the MCA, the Art Gallery of New South Wales was able to raise considerable government money once it had obtained a major gift from a private donor. In 2008 retired textile magnate John Kaldor donated to the institution 200 works of contemporary art assembled over 50 years. The gift was valued at about $A35m and transformed the museum’s contemporary art holdings into the best in the country. Today, works in the Kaldor collection by artists such as Sol LeWitt, Jeff Koons, Donald Judd, Andreas Gursky and many others are displayed in galleries renovated with A$20m from the state government, funding which authorities agreed to give once Kaldor had made his gift.

Meanwhile in the eastern suburb of Paddington, Sherman has been showing newly commissioned artworks for the past five years in the space where she used to run her gallery. Her first non-commercial show, devoted to the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, attracted 21,000 visitors in three months. Upcoming projects include Go Figure! Contemporary Chinese Portraiture, drawn from the holdings of the Swiss collector Uli Sigg, which Sherman is co-hosting with the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra and to which her foundation has contributed A$100,000.

Lee Mingwei’s ‘The Mending Project, 2009’

One of the biggest changes in recent years that has enabled shows such as these was the introduction in 2001 of Private Ancillary Funds, which made it much easier for individuals to give money away. “Previously, if you tried to set up a foundation, you were made to feel as if you were trying to avoid tax,” says Sherman. In the past 11 years, almost 900 such funds have been established in Australia, several of them with the purpose of giving money to contemporary art.

Australian philanthropists say that another positive development was the establishment in 2003 of Artsupport Australia, a government organisation that aims to increase arts philanthropy. Its director Louise Walsh is optimistic about the future of philanthropy in the country but says that relying on big gifts from single individuals, no matter how generous, is not the way forward: Artsupport Australia’s efforts are also focused on the potential of new forms of raising money, such as crowd funding.

Nevertheless, single acts of philanthropy have transformed Sydney in recent years and have brought contemporary art to the most unexpected places elsewhere. In January 2011, gambling millionaire David Walsh opened a spectacular underground museum outside the Tasmanian capital Hobart to show his collection of contemporary art alongside antiquities and Australian modernist paintings, footing the $A80m construction bill himself. Since then, the gallery has been seen by 550,000 visitors – proving that the appetite for contemporary art is enormous, even in the remotest of places.

Sydney Biennale runs to September 16. www.bos18.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.