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The late Gordon Darling and the gentle art of philanthropy

Through the Gordon Darling Foundation, the Darlings undertook a vast range of activities in keeping with their vision for the arts in Australia. Gordon Darling handing over a portrait of Sir Donald Bradman AC to Andrew Sayers, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, in 2008. AAP Image/National Portrait Gallery

The late Gordon Darling and the gentle art of philanthropy

The death of Gordon Darling AC, CMG, on August 31, 2015, at the age of 94, reminded many in the arts community of the key role that he played in fostering the visual arts in Australia.

Darling was dubbed “the patron saint of Australian printmaking” for the very generous support he gave to the print collection of the National Gallery of Australia, while the support and vision provided by him and his wife, Marilyn Darling, led to the establishment of the National Portrait Gallery.

Through the Gordon Darling Foundation, which they established in 1991, they undertook a vast range of activities, including acquiring and commissioning artwork for national, state and regional public art galleries, support for the publication of many hundreds of scholarly art books and exhibition catalogues, training programs for curators and a broad range of innovative and scholarly research art projects.

Outside the visual arts community has anyone heard of Gordon Darling? Although he died a day after Bart Cummings, a death that stopped a nation, Gordon Darling’s death was noted in passing in federal parliament and the general media ran a number of short news stories and tributes, but at some distance from the headlines.

One could argue that Darling made a more significant and longer lasting contribution to Australian culture than Cummings, but we, as a nation, are shy in acknowledging our philanthropists. Arguably, more Australians have seen art works which the Darlings acquired and commissioned and exhibitions they subsidised and read catalogues that they funded, than those who saw Cummings’ horses race.

The media, however, is shy about the arts and boastful concerning sporting events. The 2011 review of private sector support for the arts, the so-called Harold Mitchell Report, lamented the lack of public recognition given to our philanthropists and cautiously suggested:

Perhaps it is not too far-fetched to think one day the arts will be considered as newsworthy as sport and be featured as prominently.

Philanthropists have made a major impact on the visual arts in Australia, and we only need to think of the Alfred Felton Bequest, John W Power Bequest, Rex Nan Kivell Collection , Ian Potter Foundation , John Kaldor Art Projects, Balnaves Foundationand Dame Elizabeth Murdoch, among many others, who have altered the cultural landscape of Australia.

Eva and Marc Besen’s TarraWarra Museum, David Walsh’s MONA and Judith Neilson’s White Rabbit Gallery have all had a significant impact on the display and understanding of art in this country. The Fairfax family and the Myer family, in their many and varied manifestations, have supported the visual arts magnificently, as well as a number of maverick benefactors, who include Simon and Catriona Mordant, Gene Sherman, Peter Weiss, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, the Smorgon family, the Keir Foundation, Roderick Carnegie, John Gandel, Andrew Grimwade, Margaret Olley and Jeanne Pratt, all of whom have made significant contributions to the promotion of the visual arts in this country.

This list of multi-million dollar Australia philanthropists who have supported the visual arts is far from comprehensive, but goes some way to dispel the myth that Australia lacks a tradition of gift giving to the arts in general and to the visual arts in particular.

Several other points also emerge.

The first is that the burgeoning eruption in the ranks of Australia’s super-rich has not been matched by a similar eruption in the number of philanthropists and anecdotal evidence suggests that the recent deaths of Dame Elizabeth Murdoch, Margaret Olley and now Gordon Darling have not been matched by the number of emerging new wealthy philanthropists.

The second is that the cuts to federal funding for the visual arts, in real terms, have meant a greater reliance on philanthropy. There have been various calculations made on the proportion of the arts budget picked up by philanthropists but, with the advent of the federal Coalition Government’s “culture wars”, the situation is dire. It remains to be seen if Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will intervene to reverse the policies of his predecessor.

The third is that philanthropists receive only limited acclaim and recognition for their labours and owning a racing yacht or a football team brings faster government gratification and public adulation. Would Alan Bond be equally remembered if he had donated A$20 million to the building of a new Art Gallery of Western Australia rather than funding Australia II in the 1983 America’s Cup? I suspect the answer is no.

For us in the visual arts, Gordon Darling represented the ideal philanthropist. He was generous, committed, but, perhaps more importantly than anything else, he possessed a vision and the administrative and organisational skills necessary to bring this vision into reality and to endow it and make it future-proof.

He was a director on the board of BPH from 1954 to 1986, as well as a director of several other companies, and brought to arts administration both the administrative experience of the corporate world as well as his extensive circle of corporate friends.

What he set up, as the inaugural chair of the board of the Australian National Gallery, as the National Gallery was then known, and at the National Portrait Gallery, has taken root and will now continue for the long haul.

In dense forests there sometimes grow great trees in whose shade many cultures and forms of life thrive. When such a tree falls, many mourn its passing, so we mourn the passing of the great philanthropist in the visual arts, Gordon Darling.