Remarkable collectors & philanthropists: Ray Wilson - Art Collector

Issue 55, January - March 2011

profile appeared in the "Remarkable collectors & philanthropists" feature, part of the annual special issue "50 Things Collectors Need to Know 2011"

Ray Wilson and his late partner James Agapitos created not one, not two, but three distinct art collections, before divesting the first and second in their entirety. If that is not sufficiently surprising then what is even more extraordinary is that they effectively gave the collections away.

Wilson is softly spoken, warm, considered and, it is tempting to say, shy. But every so often the most joyful, raucous laugh bursts out of this gentle man and it is clear, he is most certainly not shy. In their home – designed by architect Alex Popov “as a vehicle for art,” with a central glass atrium that allows the correct amount of ultraviolent light to illuminate but not damage works – Wilson is happy to talk philanthropy and collecting.

Wilson and Agapitos’s first collection was broadly based 20th century Australian art. In 1990 they purchased their first James Gleeson painting, The attitude of lightning towards a lady mountain and their collecting lives changed. Wilson explains: “We were just walking past our Australian collection – we had some good works – but the stimulation just wasn’t there. Generated by James, we started looking at Australian surrealism. As we got deeper and deeper in we got more exited and decided to concentrate on that; so all the other works were either sold or given away to institutions.” Within 15 years the pair had amassed some 300 works and commissioned a book on the subject. “It was a passion. We did a lot of research and even located families of artists to secure works.” In 2003 highlights of their collection were exhibited at the Art Gallery of South Australia and then toured the nation for two years.

Wilson says “the reaction from the art critics, the academic world and the public was very strong. We realised that we had created something unique and that the collection should stay together.” After considering many options the collection was given to the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. But the walls of their home did not remain bare for long.

“We tend to like radical change and wanted to do something different that excited and stimulated us,” says Wilson. “Instead of collecting work by dead artists we decided to collect work by living artists, where the artists get the money.” However, they felt that their surrealism collection had worked because it concentrated on a narrow field. “We’d learnt a lot, the works had to resonate with each other.” After visiting the Melbourne Art Fair in 2005 the pair decided on Aboriginal art. Wilson says “I’m treating it as contemporary abstraction. It is an aesthetic choice made by asking myself ‘is this a good painting?’ I love the way they fit with the feel of the house, the stone and the timber.” The new collection consists of more than 60 works, including paintings, poles and spirit figures. When asked if he has a favourite work he affectionately quotes Agapitos and says “the next one” – adding that “collecting is all about the search and the passion for the next work”.

Wilson and the late Agapitos, have a legendary philanthropic reputation, with the major beneficiaries being the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Australia, the Sydney Symphony and Opera Australia. Wilson often hosts fundraisers in his home and with a warm smile he says “I’ve become quite good at asking people for money” and then laughs that laugh that proves he is not shy.

Helen McKenzie

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