Collecting culture

A FEW months ago in an unassuming office block in a commercial city precinct, Business News watched a man unpack a work by Picasso. On the wall above, figures in some Toulouse Lautrec posters could have been watching him work.

One of the latest acquisitions by Kerry Stokes’ Australia Capital Equity, the Picasso joins what has become one of Australia’s most valuable private collections.

The exact value of the collection is a fiercely guarded secret, but industry sources suggest it could be worth at least $100 million.

That is more than the State-owned collection, worth up to $90 million, housed in The Art Gallery of WA.

The big private collections in Australia play an important role in the nation’s cultural development and, in many cases, have helped foster the international interest in indigenous culture.

The base of the art market has broadened recently with global uncertainty prompting collectors to look beyond traditional investments.

There are about 12 major private collections in Australia, including the Kerry Stokes Collection, the Holmes a Court collection and Wesfarmers’ Perth-based collection.

In keeping with many of the major collections around Australia, a large number of the works are on loan to various galleries and museums throughout the country and the world.

The works on loan play an important role furthering the understanding of Australian culture.

In this sense the Holmes a Court collection is a powerful cultural tool that supports Mrs Holmes a Court’s company, Heytesbury Holdings.

“We have a very good relationship with all the galleries and technical staff and we give them works on loan for free, we just recover costs for transport,” Ms Carrigan said.

“It’s really about having access to the works.

“I think the strength is about personal focus and the major strength is access – we’re not trying to be the biggest or the best or the most famous.

“We have a wish list and we do have an acquisition budget. It’s not always the top line work, it’s often the smaller works that make the link.”

The Holmes a Court Gallery provides an exhibition space to explore the strengths of the collection and also exhibit commercial shows for Perth buyers.

The Kerry Stokes Collection is the only private collection in WA that includes a significant number of high-profile international works.

The value of the collection is not well known but the size and calibre of the works suggest it would be in the hundreds of millions.

“It’s safe to say the collections (Kerry Stokes, Holmes a Court and Wesfarmers) are all in the tens of millions and even hundreds of millions,” an industry source said.

“We all know some of the works in the collections but it’s hard to estimate the value.”

The Stokes Collection’s acquisition policy is simple, says Australian Capital Equity art curator John Stringer.

“Essentially it’s what appeals to Mr Stokes, and Aboriginal art is one of our targets,” Mr Stringer said. “We’ve always had Aboriginal things in the collection but we’ve become very committed to that about four years ago.”

Most of the major purchases are made at auction.

The total collection numbers just less than 1,800 objects, including about 640 paintings about 100 sculptures, and about 240 drawings.

There’s a commitment to acquiring works not currently held in other public and private collections in Australia.

As with the Holmes a Court collection, a large number of the works are loaned to other galleries as part of exhibitions.

“He’s (Kerry Stokes) been pretty savvy and we have good examples of all the greats,” Mr Stringer said.

Those greats include such pretty high-profile names as Monet, McCubbin, Blackman and Toulouse Lautrec.

The Wesfarmers collection is guided by a strong acquisition policy with a focus on Australian art.

Wesfarmers Arts manager Helen Carroll said the collection boasted a number of key works, many acquired from national and international collections.

“It’s all Australian artists and Australian themes … every work in the collection is one of the best examples of work by that artist,” Ms Carroll said.

“It was set up to be focused on the best possible work available – museum quality works that provide an alternative to what is held in other public collections.

“Every few years we mount a significant exhibition and next year the collection turns 25 and we’re planning a major show at the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

“Unlike most of the collections we don’t have storage, the majority of our work is on the walls of the building.”

Wesfarmers Arts maintains the art from its collection should be enjoyed and shared with staff.

“It’s a fantastic work environment and everyone has access to top quality work,” Ms Carroll said.

“The employees are very supportive and really appreciate the collection.”

Wesfarmers’ collection is not only a valuable investment, it also demonstrates Wes-farmers’ ongoing commitment to the arts in Australia.

Wesfarmers refuses to disclose the value of its collection, although industry sources suggest the figure is well below the value of the Heytesbury collection.

Despite having one of Perth’s better-established collections, BankWest has opted for a major refocus in the past 12 months, resulting in the sale of a number of high-profile Australian works.

BankWest head of group public affairs Ray Jordan said the collection, estimated to be worth about $2.5 million, has remained largely untouched for a number of years.

“We decided to look at how we could refocus … we want to go into contemporary WA art and we looked at what we already had in the collection,” Mr Jordan said.

“Since starting last year we’ve acquired more than 100 pieces, funded out of the sale of other works, and this is ongoing.

“It’s our intention, when we get the collection to a certain level, to have an exhibition and look at other opportunities to promote contemporary art.”

The Holmes a Court collection, estimated to be worth more than $20 million, was started in the 1970s by Robert and Janet Holmes a Court.

Holmes a Court Gallery general manager, collections, Belinda Carrigan said the collection began with a number of Western Australian and indigenous works.

After the death of Mr Holmes a Court, a number of the international works in the collection were sold and Mrs Holmes a Court made a move into Australian art.

“There’s nothing that’s considered a major focus but it has a completely Australian focus and a very strong Western Australian focus,” Ms Carrigan said.

“One third of the works are indigenous, one third are on paper and the remainder are paintings, with a very small representation of sculpture. The focus of the collection seems to bubble to the surface.

“There’s a really strong interest in the history of WA … it’s not about famous names it’s really about stories. It’s really about the connections that are in the collection.”

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