Michael Maher, an Australian New Yorker and President of the American Friends of the National Gallery of Australia, explains its mission of mutual cultural enrichment.
In the embroidery of New York’s cultural life there are threads which irrevocably link the city to the National Gallery of Australia. After all, it was
in New York that Jackson Pollock’s Blue poles was lowered with ropes and pulleys from the window of an apartment high above Central Park West
in 1974 to begin its long journey to Canberra.
Around the same time as the inspired Pollock acquisition, the master American printmaker Ken Tyler, his friend and art critic Robert Hughes and the Australian surrealist James Gleeson gathered at the Algonquin Hotel before moving to an Italian restaurant on 53rd Street to arrange for the National Gallery to become the custodian of Tyler’s remarkable body of work.
One of the finest collections of postwar American art outside of the US was taking shape on the streets and in the parlours of Manhattan. Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker magazine once joked that it was an undertaking akin to the British making off with Greece’s treasured Elgin Marbles.
Australian art was coming to New York as well. As early as the mid-1950s the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) had acquired works by Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker. In the midst of the racial strife and political tumult of 1968, Brett Whiteley was encamped in the penthouse of the Hotel Chelsea, working obsessively on his 18-panel opus The American dream. Years later, when I checked into the storied hotel, a Whiteley picture still hung above the front desk (given as part-payment for the artist’s rent). In the 1980s an exhibition of Aboriginal art at the Asia Society on Park Avenue broke attendance records and ushered in New York’s ongoing embrace of Australian First Nations artists. Then, photographs and films by Brisbane-born Tracey Moffatt began to assert themselves in the sinews of New York’s cultural anatomy, as did the much-celebrated novels of Shirley Hazzard and Peter Carey. Carey’s Booker Prize-winning, quintessentially Australian True history of the Kelly gang was not written beneath a blazing Antipodean sun, but rather at his desk in Greenwich Village. In fact, the author told me he was moved to write the novel after viewing an exhibition of Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series, on loan from the National Gallery collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art up on 5th Avenue.
This is all to say that when the Melbourne businessman and arts patron Gordon Darling AC CMG struck upon the idea of founding the American Friends of the National Gallery of Australia (AFNGA) nearly 40 years ago,
New York was the obvious place to start. It was, as the Americans say, a ‘triple threat’: the capital of the art world, the capital of the financial world and the capital of the philanthropic world. Delving into his extensive rolodex, Mr Darling recalled that he “approached a small number of prominent Americans in New York who had links and friendships with Australians…[and] sought their help to enrich our national collection of art”. He also saw the not-for-profit AFNGA as a vehicle to strengthen cultural bonds between the two countries.
Over the years the American Friends became one of the largest private donors of art to the National Gallery, garnering support from some of New York’s leading financiers and philanthropists. The Sydney-born, ex-Olympian and cello-playing banker James Wolfensohn, who led the campaign to restore Carnegie Hall, was a generous benefactor, as was the chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, David Rockefeller, and the venture capitalist Benno C Schmidt Snr.
Together — in the early 1960s — Rockefeller and Schmidt bought a 5000-hectare farm in Esperance, Western Australia, and on his frequent trips there Schmidt began to assemble a fine collection of paintings. Among the works he purchased was one of the most iconic images in Australian art, Russell Drysdale’s The drover’s wife.
In 1987, through the auspices of the American Friends, Benno Schmidt donated a significant part of his collection to the National Gallery. At the time, the gift was valued at nearly US$1.5 million (AU$2 million) and was one of the most substantial ever made to any Australian gallery. So it was that The drover’s wife, a work the writer Frank Moorehouse has described as “Australia’s Mona Lisa”, came to be where it should rightfully be: in our national collection.
“Today, new threads are being sewn into the richly embroidered fabric of cultural ties between America and Australia. And the visual arts are at the very centre of those bonds”
In 1994, the American Friends also helped to buy one of the key works of the National Gallery’s abstract expressionist collection, Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic. The work was secured in no small part due to the efforts of the AFNGA trustee and New York-based Australian artist Judith Cotton. Works by Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Philip Guston, Frank Stella and numerous others came through AFNGA’s portals as well. And perhaps the most unstinting patron of the American Friends and the National Gallery has been the man who attended the aforementioned lunch on 53rd Street back in the early 1970s. The master printmaker Ken Tyler collaborated with a good number of the most acclaimed American artists of the 20th century and redefined the medium of printmaking. The National Gallery’s purchase in 1973 of his private collection of printers’ proofs is an integral part of the Gallery’s creation story. The Kenneth Tyler Collection — which now encompasses 77 artists — has grown into the most comprehensive body of postwar American art outside that country’s borders and continues to be generously supported by Tyler and his late wife, Marabeth.
Today, new threads are being sewn into the richly embroidered fabric of cultural ties between America and Australia. And just as it was in the past, when the National Gallery’s inaugural director, James Mollison, was astutely acquiring masterpieces from the abstract expressionist canon, the visual arts are at the very centre of those bonds. Almost four decades after its founding, the American Friends is still on hand to help ensure the National Gallery of Australia and its collection are embraced by art lovers and patrons throughout the United States.