Neil Balnaves: Finding his true religion - Art Collector

Issue 56, April - June 2011

Television executive Neil Balnaves is well known for his philanthropic activities in the arts. What is not so well known is that it took this collector decades to get religion. He talks to Helen McKenzie about his path to collecting while he is the middle of donating a swathe of moderns to his local regional gallery to make way for his burgeoning contemporary collection.

In his extraordinary home with sweeping views of Sydney Harbour Neil Balnaves confesses that as a child he “was dragged through art galleries, didn’t understand them and didn’t get any emotional attachment to art”. Then later in his adulthood he was also “dragged through art galleries,” by his wife Diane. With a wide grin he adds: “I rebelled, for a about 20 years, and then I surrendered and got religion.”

Blue Heelers, Police Rescue and Water Rats are just some of the television productions that Balnaves’s company Southern Star produced in the 1990s. Then in 2000 along came Big Brother, a joint production with the Endemol Group. Balnaves’s success on the small screen enabled him to set up a philanthropic foundation in 2006, which annually makes available $2 million in grants to hand-picked medical and artistic ventures. Balnaves says: “We do not give the money and walk away, we tend to be more proactive than that. Usually the grants are to do with establishing a niche and growing it. It takes time and effort.”

Sculpture is clearly a stand out feature of the Balnaves family home. Alexander Seton’s work is well represented from the suite of bean bags in the main sitting room, to a t-shirt casually hanging outside as if to dry, and the black Belgian marble rubbish bag near the kitchen that looks like it is waiting for someone to take it out. Works by Robert Klippel, Alasdair Macintyre, May Barrie and a seedpod by Bronwyn Oliver (slightly misshapen by the grandchildren) are given prominence. These works also reflect Balnaves’s pleasure in supporting sculpture in Australia, an area of art that he feels had not been thoroughly exposed. He is currently working with Elisabeth Murdoch on the McClelland prize. Balnaves says: “We have come together to pump money back in to it to make it remain the premier park.”

Over the past six years Balnaves has amassed prized historic works depicting the Mosman area. Later this year he will part with all 21 of them. Works by Sidney Long, Arthur Streeton, Elioth Gruner, Henry Fulwood, Margaret Preston, Julian Ashton and Ethel Carrick Fox will be given to the Mosman Art Gallery. Balnaves hopes the works will “inspire kids to look at art as a window to history, or to the future – whatever the window needs to be to encourage art and interest in the local community, so that you can say this is what it looks like today and this is what it looked like then.”

Waiting in the wings, wrapped in brown paper and leaning against the walls are the replacement works for when the collection for Mosman is moved out. They are contemporary works. It is clear that this is the direction that Balnaves art religion is heading. Ben Quilty, Tony Clark, Rosalie Gascoigne, Michael Zavros, Louise Hearman and Marc de Jong, among others, are already represented in his collection. Balnaves says with a laugh: “I could be negative and say that the collection is disjointed or haphazard – there is no central theme, but it really is a collection that reflects where my thoughts are at the time, it’s a personal view about things.”

Alan Constable
An older artist who has been part of Arts Project Australia, an artist run initiative for outsider art that is close to Fay’s heart, Alan Constable has become a well-known painter and ceramicist in mainstream circles, including as a finalist in a number of major art awards. While the subject matter of his paintings can be serious, his use of colour and form imbue his work with a sense of joy. “He’s simply amazing,” says Fay.

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