Remarkable collectors & philanthropists: James Sourris - 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.

“Film is an art form,” James Sourris says simply. It’s an art form he grew up with. He was born into a cinema-owning family and was three months old when he was first taken to a movie. He began working in the industry toward the end of the 1950s, just as it started to be threatened by television. Half a century later film exhibiting and developing multiplexes have allowed him to accumulate sufficient resources to be a major philanthropist and film has remained an important factor in his art patronage.

The James C Sourris Collection at the Queensland Art Gallery began at the end of the 1990s as a collaboration with Doug Hall, then director of the gallery. Hall bought video with funds provided by Sourris, acquiring works by the likes of Bill Viola, Justine Cooper and Patricia Piccinini. The scope of the collection has expanded considerably since then. Brisbane art dealer Peter Bellas directed Sourris’s attention toward the work of leading contemporary Australian artists in other media. “He changed the way I look at art,” says Sourris. Together they settled on a specific timeframe for the collection – art made between 2000 and 2010. When Bellas Gallery became Milani Gallery, Sourris maintained his close relationship with the artists represented there. Rather than cultivate working relationships with curators and risk planning acquisitions or projects that might be thwarted by the internal workings of the institution, Sourris works with the director, currently Tony Ellwood. “I never wanted to be involved in the politics behind the scenes.”

The large exhibition currently at the Gallery of Modern Art, Ten Years of Contemporary Art: The James C Sourris AM Collection, is the first public opportunity to view the depth of his collecting. There are multiple works by individual artists and an entire series of big format photographs by Luke Roberts. Sourris has also aimed to buy the key work from each exhibition by Gordon Bennett. A lot of space in the GoMA exhibition is devoted to Aboriginal works, though Sourris denies having a particular interest in Indigenous art. His substantial acquisitions of work by Aboriginal artists in Brisbane is the result, he says, of wanting to buy the best art currently being produced in Australia.

His approach to acquisitions is as systematic as a museum’s collection policy. He carefully balances purchases of work by five categories of artists who he identifies as senior, mid-career, emerging, Indigenous community (from settlements and outstations) and urban Indigenous. There is no narrow personal aesthetic forming the overall character of the collection, but there are revealing similarities shared by some of the works he lives with at home. The subtly hatched grid of a surprisingly geometric John Mawurndjul bark painting looks very comfortable with the minimalist works of Robert Hunter, the first artist that Sourris began to collect seriously.

The State Library of Queensland also benefits from his philanthropy. Sourris has also funded an interview series that so far has recorded four conversations with Queensland artists. “They’re four of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen,” says Sourris, “and I’ve seen a lot of movies.” Unsurprisingly for a man whose life has been formed largely by the film industry, Sourris always wants to know the backstory. He also wants Australian artists to be better appreciated. “They’re brilliant artists and are not adequately recognised … On the world stage we don’t even register,” he says. “All I want is for them to break through internationally.”

Timothy Morrell

Ten Years of Contemporary Art: The James C Sourris AM Collection is at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane until 19 February 2012.

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