Remarkable collectors & philanthropists: Colin McDonald - Art Collector

Issue 59, January - March 2012

This profile appeared in the Remarkable collectors & philanthropists feature, part of the annual special issue 50 Things Collectors Need to Know 2012.

Collectors don’t always stick to the same path. Soon after Colin McDonald arrived in Darwin in 1976 as a legal adviser with the St Vincent de Paul Society, he began collecting Aboriginal art from a then nascent Darwin-based market of mostly bark paintings and sculptures from Top End Aboriginal communities. Then, when McDonald first set foot in Bali in 1983, it was the start of what he calls his “love affair with Indonesia”. His art collecting changed tack entirely. On this visit, McDonald met one of Indonesia’s leading artists, the Balinese painter Made Budhiana whose work has become a cornerstone of his collection and who was McDonald’s initial inspiration for collecting contemporary Indonesian art. At the time, McDonald was also taken with a quote from Kenneth Clark, from his popular BBC TV Civilisation series about the “limited content of the Western aesthetic” and the need to look elsewhere.

Not that McDonald has abandoned the Western aesthetic – far from it. He introduced then Darwin-based painter Geoff Todd to Bali in 1983, and has collected some of his ongoing Balinese-related works over the years. His collection also includes a strong selection of Donald Friend works, spanning the artist’s career from 1939 up until one of his final works in 1989.

McDonald has also set up an artist residency at his newly built Pandan Harum Villa just outside Ubud in Bali (artists-in-residence have included the Sydney-based Indonesian artist Jumaadi and Japanese-American dancer Mitsu Moriama) and an international artists camp, which first kicked off last November with artists from Indonesia, Australia, America and Japan. There are plans to show work from this camp in Darwin in a Top End style camp hosted by 24HR Art and Gunbalanya in early 2012.

Given the demands of a busy international legal practice (McDonald, now retired, has been a QC since 1997, and regularly worked in Indonesia on high-profile cases including one of the Bali Nine), it’s surprising McDonald has had time for any aesthetic interests, but his collection has steadily grown in stature and size, and now totals around 400 works. A prized possession is a landscape painting by Dullah, which McDonald acquired from the auction of the late Sir Percy Spender’s estate, reportedly outbidding the Department of Foreign Affairs. Spenders, a career politician who served as a foreign minister during the Menzies era, was gifted Dullah’s historical work as a gesture of cultural diplomacy. Like many works in McDonald’s collection, it hangs in his Darwin chambers.

Overall, McDonald’s collection favours paintings, including work by many leading Indonesian artists over the past three decades, and ceramics. Painters represented include Dullah, Dadang Christanto, Pande Gede Suparda, Made Djirna, Wayan Wirawan and Ardyanto Pranata, to name only a few. And, of course, Made Budhiana, after whom McDonald named the purpose-built gallery in the artist residency part of his villa.

Works from McDonald’s collection were shown as part of a 2002 touring exhibition in Southeast Asia called Crossing Boundaries, Bali: A window to 20th century Indonesian art. He also gifted his collection of Aboriginal art to the National Gallery of Victoria after his passions headed further north. McDonald has a keen eye for an emerging market and his collection in this regard anticipates the phenomenal rise in interest in contemporary Indonesian art. He claims merely that he is “confident in what I like,” and that his likes pertain to the “intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic dimension of fine art,” in contrast to many of Indonesia’s new wave of art collectors driven by investment alone.

Maurice O’Riordan



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