04/03/2010 - 00:00

All heart and art

04/03/2010 - 00:00

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Janet Holmes a Court is a ‘living treasure’, a tireless advocate for the arts, and a proud mother and grandmother

All heart and art

IF pressed, the matriarch of one of Western Australia’s most prominent families would acknowledge she holds two things above all others among her vast range of business, social and philanthropic activities.

For Janet Holmes a Court it’s simple – family and art, in that order, are her two great loves.

She is, first and foremost, a very proud mother and grandmother, as well as a tireless advocate of the arts with various local and national board positions.

She’s chairwoman of the John Holland Group, the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra, and the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, and founding patron of the Black Swan Theatre Company (which she helped establish about 20 years ago).

Other board positions include eye health advocacy group Vision 2020, the Australian National Academy of Music, and the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

The National Trust of Australia includes her on its list of 100 Australian Living Treasures alongside former prime ministers, Olympic and sporting heroes, and leading Hollywood stars.

Mrs Holmes a Court served on the board of the Reserve Bank of Australia for five years (between 1992 and 1997) and only recently retired as a governor of Sony Foundation Australia.

In her limited spare time, she is a Sudoku enthusiast and a keen follower of the Western Force.

But the thing about which that Ms Holmes a Court is most passionate, after her four children and “15 and a half” grandchildren, is art.

“It’s my greatest indulgence,” Ms Holmes a Court tells WA Business News.

It’s this self-confessed indulgence and the sizeable Janet Holmes a Court art collection, consisting of more than 4,000 registered artworks and 5,000 individual pieces, that inspired the Holmes a Court Gallery in East Perth.

The Janet Holmes a Court art collection was renamed (previously called the Holmes a Court collection) after she took complete ownership of the collected works as payment when her son, Paul, bought the family’s private Heytesbury business including Heytesbury Cattle (one of the country’s biggest beef producers), Vasse Felix winery in Margaret River, and the Heytesbury Stud.

Mrs Holmes a Court had taken over the debt-laden company in 1990 and successfully restructured the organisation following the death of her husband, Robert, who had built up the business.

“I was absolutely delighted that Paul was interested in taking it on and continuing the company in the structure it was in because I spent quite a lot of time working with a great team of people to put the company together in the form it got to after Robert died,” she says.

“And there were a tremendous number of people still in the company to whom I owed a debt of gratitude and loyalty, I guess.”

Last month, Mrs Holmes a Court celebrated the gallery’s 10th anniversary with the opening of its 70th exhibition, aptly called TEN.

“Ever since Robert and I started collecting art I’ve had it in my head that one day I’ll have a gallery,” she says.

Mrs Holmes a Court, who admits to being a hoarder of artworks, recalls purchasing her first pieces, a Guy Grey-Smith and a Bob Juniper, which remain in the collection, in 1966.

“I’m just not very good at selling art,” she says.

This devotion supports her relentless pursuit to raise the profile of the arts in WA, which she believes most businesses recognise as a valuable tool in attracting and retaining staff.

“The Western Australian corporates are very aware of the importance of the corporate social responsibility and are also very aware of the fact that, if they want to attract good quality people from overseas or interstate to come and live in Perth, we have to have more than holes in the ground,” Mrs Holmes a Court says.

“We have to have a vibrant artistic life, we have to have good schools and good healthcare for their employees; otherwise people simply won’t come here.”

However, she still feels all arts organisations (including those she is not directly involved with) would benefit from greater government funding.

“My personal view is I would absolutely love it if the corporate sponsorship was for doing extra things, the icing on the cake, rather than day-to-day operations, but the reality is that is not so,” she says.

As such, Mrs Holmes a Court doesn’t shy away from hounding state and federal politicians for funds at every opportunity.

“But we have employed corporate supporters to act on our behalf … and it’s to be hoped they will say to governments ‘how about you come to the party as well?’,” she says.

Beyond art and a short career teaching chemistry, Mrs Holmes a Court has led a very colourful life.

She dispels the urban myth about Michael Jackson being persuaded to play Telethon in return for her husband selling the back catalogue of The Beatles songs (suggesting the ‘King of Pop’ only really wanted to secure the works of artists such as Nat King Cole) but divulges how Sammy Davis Jr was corralled into playing for the kids.

“We met Sammy Davis Jr in Las Vegas, and he knew we owned the Paladium at the time in London, and (he) said he always wanted to play it. Robert said ‘Well, you can play it but you’ll have to come via Perth’,” Ms Holmes a Court says.

“And he (Sammy) goes ‘Perth? Where the hell is Perth?’

“And that’s how he became involved.”

What would you do if you were premier?
I'd approve funding for a home for the WA Symphony Orchestra; definitely. And I guess I would certainly think long and hard about how the people of WA could benefit from 10 to 15 years of boom that we've had, and we're about to have, because I think there are many people who wonder where it all goes because some haven't got a house to live in or they can't pay the mortgage.


Do you have a favourite mantra or quote?

What's your favourite piece of art?
I'm not very good at that. It's different things for different occasions and for different places and so on. But there are a few standouts in the collection I would be taking to a desert island with me; one of them is a Lloyd Reece called 'September Sunshine', which is an amazing painting of a sunrise over Sydney Harbour.

What's your greatest achievement?
I often think my greatest achievement is I've had four children; they're all happily married, none of them killed themselves in a car accident and none of them got involved in a drug culture - for a mother that's the best thing.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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