JOHN KALDOR, CHRISTO and JACK CLANCY looking over an aerial photograph of Little Bay, Sydney, 1969. Courtesy Christo.

The Great Commissioner

John Kaldor


In late June, John Kaldor, the Hungarian-born Australian art entrepreneur had just returned from a trip to New York via London, Venice and Basel. He spent four of the five evenings he was in New York with artist-duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude and lunched with sculptor Jeff Koons. In London, he persuaded his pals Gilbert and George to emerge from the bohemian confines of the East End and dine with him at a swanky West End eatery. “John, you are the only person we would go west for,” they said. In Venice, there was the Biennale, where according to Kaldor, “Bruce Nauman shone above all else.”

I met Kaldor early one morning in the restaurant of Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). It was closed, but the staff prepared a table for Kaldor anyway. At the AGNSW, doors open for Kaldor. Last year he gave the museum his personal collection of contemporary art, built up over 50 years and currently valued at AUD 35 million (USD 29 million)—“the most significant single gift of contemporary art in Australian history,” the AGNSW’s director Edmund Capon remarked.

Below the café where we sat, a storage area is being transformed into the 1,500-square-meter John W. Kaldor Family Gallery for Contemporary Art, which will open in 2010 with an exhibition of works from his bequest. Kaldor’s gift last year serendipitously coincided with the museum’s new gallery expansion plans; the AGNSW board decided to name the gallery after Kaldor in recognition of his generosity.

Kaldor, Australia’s foremost patron of contemporary art, has been bringing work by internationally acclaimed contemporary artists to Australia through his foundation, Kaldor Public Art Projects, since 1969, when he invited Christo and Jeanne-Claude to wrap more than two kilometers of rocky coastline south of Sydney’s central business district with 92,900 square meters of fabric—Kaldor’s first and perhaps his most audacious commission. Since then there have been 17 more projects.

Kaldor’s entrance into the contemporary art world is intertwined with a career in the textile industry. In 1948 at the age of 13, Kaldor arrived in Australia from Hungary with his family, refugees from the upheaval sweeping post-war Europe. After high school at one of Sydney’s finest schools, St Ignatius’ College, Riverview, Kaldor went to London to study textile design under Sir Nicholas Sekers—another Hungarian who had established mills in England in the late 1930s. In 1969, at the time of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s project, Kaldor worked for an Australian fabric-maker, Dunlop, which was the main sponsor of the fabric-intensive project. Kaldor recalls: “The company was very conservative and when the notoriety started the owners didn’t want anything to do with it anymore, so I did it all myself. After I managed the Christo project, which involved hundreds of workers wrapping the coastline, I thought that if I can do that then I can run my own business.”

In 1970, Kaldor established his own fabric-design company in Australia and went on to make his fortune. “Usually the rule is that people who are successful in business get into art. I was successful in art and then I got into business.” At the time of Wrapped Coast – One Million Square Feet, Australian art was still inward looking and parochial. Kaldor remarks, “There was no Biennale of Sydney, no Museum of Contemporary Art. Communication was in the dark ages compared to today. What we knew about contemporary art came from magazines.” Of the Christo and Jeanne-Claude project, he recalls: “I was considered crazy at the time. A public garbage dump borders the site, and the workmen made fun of us—‘Mate, what the bloody hell are ya doing?’ But by the end of the first day the garbage workers were under Christo’s spell.”

Over the years, the local response to Kaldor’s commissions has been unpredictable. Among his commissions, Kaldor says that Gilbert and George’s Singing Sculpture, which he brought to Sydney, “was very special”; it was “a mesmerizing and hypnotic performance that captivated people for hours on end.” Perched on a table at the AGNSW, the duo sang the classic English mid-century popular favorite by Flanagan and Allen Underneath the Arches. But the Australian press and public reacted less favorably to the British duo’s campy renditions. The Sydney Morning Herald reported: “To the sound of the old vaudeville song, Gilbert and George shuffled around in circles, on the same spot, occasionally lifting an arm or a leg for variety . . . Most of the audience, which numbered about 25, lasted two renditions of the song, then moved off.”

Since then, as interest in contemporary art has grown in Australia. Several of Kaldor’s projects have delighted the public, none more so than in 1995 when Jeff Koons’ topiary-like Puppy, composed of flower-pots arranged on a steel armature in the shape of a sitting terrier, rose three stories in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, staring benignly across the harbor. This decade, Kaldor struck a different tone with Gregor Schneider’s Bondi Beach (2007), consisting of metal-wire cells installed on Australia’s iconic stretch of sand. Schneider’s menacing prison had beach beauties lounging inside a steely critique of contemporary alienation, immigration, asylum and terrorism.

Kaldor’s friend Edmund Capon of the AGNSW describes him as an extraordinary human being with “a natural empathy for artists and comfortable in the company of creative people.” However, Kaldor conceals this fertile mind behind a conservative persona. He speaks precisely, formally and with a heavy Hungarian accent. When we met he was dressed almost entirely in gray, from his jacket to his trousers, and his spectacles are ordinary to the point of being dull. Yet here is the rub: Kaldor can command an audience with almost any contemporary artist and remains close friends with several artists from his projects.

But Kaldor’s interests range beyond the contemporary. “People ask me why I only love contemporary art. They’ve got it totally wrong. When I was in Venice I spent more time with the Bellinis, Titians, Tintorettos and Veroneses than contemporary art. I work with contemporary art because it should reflect what is going on today and point the way to the future,” he says. Capon claims that several years ago Kaldor confessed to him that Raphael’s The Entombment (1507) in Rome’s Galleria Borghese is his favorite painting.

A restless spirit, Kaldor is always focused on the next project and, says Capon, he truly believes in the redemptive quality of art. On October 2, the exhibition “Kaldor Public Art Projects: 40 Years” at the AGNSW will celebrate Kaldor’s contribution to art in Australia. Complementing the AGNSW exhibition, Japanese installation artist Tatzu Nishi will construct two of his signature prefabricated rooms around the pair of massive equestrian statues that stand in front of the museum. What Sydneysiders will make of it is anybody’s guess—indicative of an enterprising confidence that has served Kaldor well in the past 40 years.