A private benefactor has given the National Gallery of Victoria its biggest ever cash donation — a staggering $6 million towards a new fund for buying Asian art.
Australia's richest lawyer, Allan Myers, QC, a long-time gallery supporter and president of its trustees since 2004, donated the money, emphasising the growing importance of Asian art to Australia.
"Most of the new citizens of Australia these days are coming from Asia and we must now not only seek to understand Asian cultures but we must adapt our institutions to the changes in the make-up of the population," Mr Myers said yesterday.
His $6 million cash injection is part of a new $10 million Asian Art Acquisition Fund, which the gallery announced last night. The fund also includes donations from the Yugilbar Foundation, NGV trustees Jason Yeap and Bruce Parncutt, and two major bequests.
Of the $10 million, $2.5 million is immediately available for the purchase of art, with the remainder becoming part of a permanent endowment.
Australia's increasing economic, social and political ties to Asia have fuelled a surge in the collecting and exhibiting of Asian art among state galleries. The Queensland Art Gallery has long been at the forefront of presenting contemporary art, launching the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in 1993, while the National Gallery of Australia opened a new gallery of South-East Asian art two years ago.
Although already in the possession of a distinguished Asian art collection, the NGV has lagged somewhat behind. The art fund signals the NGV's revived commitment to Asian art, a commitment that was underscored when Dr Vaughan revealed his desire last year to expand the NGV Australia at Federation Square over the railway yards, including a proposed eight galleries for Asian art, double the space now held at St Kilda Road,
"Engagement with contemporary Asian visual culture is very important," Dr Vaughan said yesterday.
"Young Victorians know who the hot artists are in London and New York, we want them to know who the hot artists are in Shanghai, Beijing, Mumbai, Delhi or even Tokyo."
Those hot Asian artists are very hot indeed. The market for contemporary Asian art has spiralled in recent years, especially for contemporary Chinese art. A New York Times article noted that in 2006, Sotheby's and Christie's, the world's biggest auction houses, sold $190 million worth of Asian contemporary art, most of it Chinese, in a series of record-breaking auctions in New York, London and Hong Kong.
But there are opportunities to be had in collecting historic Asian art, which has yet to peak. "That's an opportunity that won't be around much longer," Dr Vaughan said.
Yesterday, he revealed the first major piece to be bought with the fund — a rare, early 17th century Japanese screen, depicting six bucking stallions, possibly the idealised portrait of the prized horses of a feudal lord, indicating his wealth and status.
"Melbourne is obsessed with horses, so it's not a bad thing to have in Melbourne," Dr Vaughan said.
The gallery also has its eye on several other Asian works, including a curvaceous, medieval north Indian sculpture of a female deity, or devata, her body draped in distinctive jewellery.
Contemporary Asian art is also on the gallery's wish list, including the work of one of China's most noted contemporary photographers and performance artists, Zhang Huan, who was born in Henan Province in 1965.
As for Allan Myers, pastoralist, property investor and part-owner of a Polish brewery, his fortunes have slipped a little of late — he dropped off the BRW 200 rich list in 2006, not quite making the $130 million entry point. But that minor readjustment doesn't appear to have affected his prodigious philanthropic drive.
"(My wife) Maria and I don't particularly want to get a very fancy style of life, and we don't want to have hordes to bring to heaven. So we might as well give it away," he said yesterday.