The Balnaves Gift

Posted: 12 Feb 2013  |  By: Jeremy Eccles

Mosman is on the move. Not the whole of the wealthy municipality on Sydney’s Middle Head, which conserves more than it develops, but the art gallery (MAG), where a series of events add up to serious change.

Did it all start with Neil Balnaves? The TV and film entrepreneur has lived in Mosman for many a year. But a move from Federation to harbourside-modern led him to rethink an art collection that had been built around Mosman and Harbour landscapes, which ranged delightfully from Conrad Martens and Arthur Streeton to Margaret Preston and Adelaide Perry — many of whom had also been local residents, even if only camping at Balmoral or Sirius Cove. They, and their gilt frames, no longer suited the architecture around them, although the elongated Streeton Harbour impression hung on in Balnaves’ office longer than the others.

“It was like giving a child away,” he said of the painting that matched the view from his window. But give it — and fifteen others valued at $1m — he did, requiring the gallery to expand from two into five working spaces, one of which is ‘semipermanently’ dedicated to The Balnaves Gift.

Could that act of generosity have been the spur to winning council money for that expansion? Director John Cheeseman insists there was pre-existing community demand for it. And says that permanent display was not a condition of the Gift. “But of course we like them on show — they give us a ‘destination factor’, even when we’re changing shows over elsewhere. It’s something for collectors to bear in mind when donating their art; it can have a huge impact here.” Or as Neil Balnaves himself put it, “It’s more important as a complete collection in Mosman than in the Art Gallery of NSW warehouse.”

And though the gift was only unveiled in early July, that ‘impact’ is already felt with the development of an application that matches the paintings with contemporary photos. This will be part of the regular education program for local schools. “There’s also a great wall just outside the Gift gallery where we could commission contemporary artists to respond. And I’d love to build a show around our Martens — he’s not been touched much recently.”

Curator Katrina Cashman, on the other hand, wants to develop something around the almost unknown Fullwood (Albert Henry), whose 1885 View from Balmoral she feels is “a gem — the broken light beautifully captured by his brushwork”. But then Cheeseman adds a reflective note that rings bells. “There’s an emptiness in an unpeopled painting like Sydney Long’s Clifton Gardens (1905), you’d have no idea there’d ever been a human presence. The Aboriginal history of the area — reflected in many local rock engravings — has been erased or ignored.”

Which may be why MAG’s next serious project is Bungaree — Mosman farmer and Australian circumnavigator — whose roles in life have been reflected on by a group of fifteen NSW Indigenous artists. That’s on in Mosman until 25 November — but then circumnavigates the country for at least two more years. All this dynamism is not unrelated to another facet of Neil Balnaves’ generosity. He has co-funded a Philanthropy Officer at MAG, hoping to lever off his own example of giving. Already, a Creative Circle in Mosman has thirteen members stumping up a minimum of a thousand dollars. One might conclude that Balnaves’ is a Gift that goes on giving.

Images from top:

Adelaide Perry, Taronga Wharf, 1939, oil on pulp board, 25 x 35cm.

Ethel Carrick Fox, On Balmoral Beach, Sydney, 1913, oil on canvas on board, 26 x 34cm.

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Issue 38