Sebastian Smee

Giving something back

Sebastian Smee talks to James Fairfax about his gifts to Australia's public galleries

In the past, great benefactors to the visual arts have generally doubled as tastemakers. Their success, as the US critic Jed Perl recently noted, is often best judged by the extent to which their avidities become what the culture takes for granted. But how does taste, which is private, become public in this way?

It’s a complicated question, and in answering it one can never hope to filter out sheer force of personality as a decisive factor. In curmudgeonly cases such as Grenville L. Winthrop, whose spectacular collection is showing at the National Gallery, and Albert Barnes, as well as more effervescent personalities such as William Beckford or Peggy Guggenheim, a degree of egotism and grandstanding inevitably play their part.

Although tastemakers are generally what Perl called ‘oxygenators of the new’, in Australia, a country understandably more obsessed with its present and future incarnations than its past, they can usefully take on a contrary role, that of ‘oxygenators of the old’. On a recent visit to Sydney, I went to see an exhibition of James Fairfax’s collection of European Old Masters at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. For many years Fairfax was the director and chairman of the Fairfax media empire, which owned the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age (newspapers of record in Australia’s two biggest cities), as well as a number of television and radio interests in Australia and overseas (including, for a short spell in the Eighties, The Spectator). The Fairfax ownership of the Sydney Morning Herald was one of the longest continuous family ownerships of any publishing house in the English-speaking world. But in 1987, a failed takeover bid by James’s half-brother Warwick sent the company into receivership. The debacle left James Fairfax dismayed and, one can only presume, saddened. But the sale of his shares also left him with an extra A$168 million in the bank, which meant, as he put it himself, ‘I had rather more to spend on paintings than before.’

Philanthropists such as Winthrop and Barnes function as reminders that a cantankerous character and a streak of cultural generosity can go hand in hand.

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