Jan 10 2017

Biennale of Sydney gains major support from the Neilson Foundation

by Michael Young

Kerr Neilson, founder, director and gifting committee member of the Neilson Foundation, which announced its donation of four years of major funding to the Biennale of Sydney.

On January 10, Kate Mills, chair of the Biennale of Sydney (BoS) announced that the Neilson Foundation will commit four years of major funding to the BoS. This underscores the foundation’s commitment to Australia’s premier visual arts event and one of the world’s oldest biennials that was established in 1973. The Neilson Foundation donation will support BoS through its 21st and 22nd editions.

Mills was unavailable to put a dollar figure on the amount, but one assumes it is a substantial sum given that Kerr Neilson, founder, director and gifting committee member of the foundation, is also one of Australia’s wealthiest individuals. In 2007, he floated his funds management company, Platinum Asset Management on the Australia Securities Exchange.

Following his divorce from his long-time wife, in 2015, Neilson’s personal fortune was AUD 1.95 billion to place him at number 22 on the 2016 Business Review Weekly’s Rich 200 list of wealthy Australians. His former wife Judith Neilson occupied number 32 with AUD 1.45 billion. She remains the sole funder of Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery, which opened in 2009 to show the Neilson family collection of post-2000 Chinese contemporary art.

The Neilson Foundation was the inaugural principal patron of BoS in November 2014 after corporate giant Transfield, BoS’s founding partner since the Biennale was established in 1973, pulled out in the face of a threatened boycott of the 19th edition in 2014 by a small group of participating artists, which left BoS scrambling for funding. The artists objected to Transfield subsidiary, Transfield Services’ operation of Australian government detention centers for asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island and Nauru.

The Neilson Foundation has been a sponsor to the BoS since 2010. In today’s media release Kerr Neilson said, “We hope this donation will encourage others to join us in giving generously to the Biennale.”

Funding into the future beyond 2020 of Australia’s most internationally-recognized biennial event remains unclear. Mami Kataoka, chief curator of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum is the artistic director of BoS’s 21st edition which will open in 2018. Currently the BoS is reviewing its future with almost every aspect of its operation up for grabs. There will be several new initiatives that will dramatically alter the direction of the Biennale; there will be a permanent curatorial leader appointed to work alongside the guest artistic director; there will be a brand identity and marketing overhaul; its website will become a more social media-friendly inclusive experience; commissioning partnerships will be explored; and the structure and staffing of BoS will change. The first to fall victim to the new structure was chief executive Ben Strout who resigned before Christmas. He had been in the role since February 2015.

Kate Mills spoke to AAP in early January before the current announcement was released. She said, “We are trying to reinvent BoS . . . we will appoint four new board members to bring in fresh ideas . . . And we will ask the question: What is the relevance of the Biennale today?”

Mami Kataoka, the first Asian curator to be appointed to the role of artistic director of BoS, is also preoccupied with these same questions. Last November AAP caught her on a brief visit to Sydney. “I am reconsidering the role of a biennial. I am very much looking at the history of the Biennale of Sydney. I think the role of the biennial has changed quite a lot. I don’t think of it as only an art event. I would like to consider it as a major celebration of contemporary art in the city,” Kataoka said. 

To read more of ArtAsiaPacific’s articles, visit our Digital Library.