big art

Bil­lion­aire phi­lan­thropist John Gan­del un­veils his great­est gift – an ex­tra­or­di­nary sculpture park

The Weekend Australian - Magazine - - FRONT - By Me­gan Lehmann

In 2008 John Gan­del, the reclu­sive Mel­bourne bil­lion­aire who made his for­tune in re­tail and prop­erty devel­op­ment and counts among his as­sets the south­ern hemi­sphere’s largest shop­ping cen­tre, bought a magic por­tal. A 5m-high fi­bre­glass arch­way, tall as a gi­raffe and just as funny-look­ing. Freck­led with a mo­saic of brightly coloured ce­ramic tiles, Por­tal to An­other Time and Place by cel­e­brated Aus­tralian sculp­tor Deb­o­rah Halpern takes the shape of a face, arc­ing over to lean on its nose. Two sets of lips pout, in­scrutably, be­low the cy­clops stare of one un­blink­ing eye. What to do with such a fan­tas­ti­cal thing? Lock it away in a vault? Steal miserly glimpses while ca­vort­ing nearby in your Scrooge McDuck pool of gold coins? Not if you’re Gan­del.

The 83-year-old is, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est Forbes es­ti­mate, worth $5 bil­lion. Though he keeps a low pro­file, he is con­sis­tently ranked among the top 10 wealth­i­est Aus­tralians and is one of the na­tion’s rich­est prop­erty de­vel­op­ers, along­side house­hold names such as Frank Lowy and Harry Triguboff. The busi­nesses he has helped to build in­clude women’s fash­ion chain Sus­san and ­Mel­bourne’s colos­sal Chad­stone Shop­ping Cen­tre. But Gan­del in­her­ited the char­i­ta­ble in­stincts of his hard-work­ing Pol­ish im­mi­grant par­ents and has al­ways had more on his mind than the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of wealth. Since 1978, he and his wife Pauline have headed one of Aus­tralia’s largest fam­ily ­phil­an­thropic funds, Gan­del Phi­lan­thropy.

Dis­creet, hum­ble and in­tensely pri­vate, the rich-list cou­ple be­queath as they live: out of the pub­lic eye. Over the years, they have dis­trib­uted tens of mil­lions of dol­lars to or­gan­i­sa­tions ­sup­port­ing youth ed­u­ca­tion, med­i­cal and biotech­nol­ogy in­no­va­tion, and var­i­ous Jewish causes. They are also evan­gel­i­cal in their view of art as a source of so­ci­etal uplift, a de­fence against medi­ocrity, and they do­nate to a range of cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing $7.5 mil­lion to the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia and $1 mil­lion to Mu­se­ums Vic­to­ria to de­velop a fan­ci­ful “di­nosaur dig” for chil­dren.

So what to do with a magic por­tal if you’re John Gan­del? If McDuck-div­ing into pools of moolah is not your style? Share it with the peo­ple, of course. Place it in a mag­i­cal land­scape, along with 50 sim­i­larly epic three-di­men­sional art­works, from volup­tuously moulded fig­ures to large-scale feats of en­gi­neer­ing. Then in­vite all the non-bil­lion­aires, any­one with some small change and a big imag­i­na­tion, to come to your for­merly pri­vate do­main, 135ha of rugged coastal ter­rain on the south-east­ern tip of Vic­to­ria’s Morn­ing­ton Penin­sula. In­vite them to step through the por­tal’s cy­clops-eyed arch­way to an­other time and place, into your $50 mil­lion late-life pas­sion project, the most ex­tra­or­di­nary new sculpture park in the coun­try: Point Leo Es­tate.

The sense that you’re fol­low­ing the dream­logic of in­ter­di­men­sional travel be­gins soon af­ter leav­ing the ur­ban grey of Mel­bourne’s outer sub­urbs. Head south on the EastLink to­wards the Morn­ing­ton Penin­sula and re­al­ity falls away. A gi­ant black bird, 13m high, looms to your left, ­frozen mid-peck over a yel­low cuboid worm. (Or is it a chip? Must ask sculp­tor Emily Floyd, the most play­ful of the artists com­mis­sioned for this pub­lic art pro­gram.) Cal­lum Mor­ton’s Ho­tel, an al­most life-sized ar­chi­tec­tural folly that prompts Psy­cho chills, is the next road­side sur­prise, fol­lowed by Michael Rid­dle’s Icon­o­clast, a twisted steel py­lon that looks to have been crushed by a large red me­te­orite. An im­pos­si­bly tall, pol­ished-steel gar­den gnome whizzes by and the first-time vis­i­tor is left blink­ing in dis­be­lief. Did that just hap­pen?

These other­worldly bea­cons set amid the land­scape her­ald en­try to a re­gion that has

emerged as Aus­tralia’s cap­i­tal of out­door art. Mon­u­men­tal sculpture, de­fined as any­thing over seven me­tres, is all the rage among the world’s af­flu­ent art col­lec­tors. At the same time, Henry Moore’s sense that “there is no back­ground bet­ter than the sky” has gained pop­u­lar­ity and multi-mil­lion­aires from Ja­pan to Brazil, New York to New Zealand have turned their backs on the white-walled steril­ity of mu­se­ums, pre­fer­ring to let their col­lec­tions breathe in the grand gal­leries of Mother Na­ture.

In Aus­tralia, so-called cul­tural tourism – the en­joy­ment of art, fine food and wine in a beau­ti­ful nat­u­ral land­scape – is re­shap­ing the Morn­ing­ton Penin­sula. Gan­del made a for­tune fore­see­ing the growth in pop­u­lar­ity of ex­pe­ri­en­tial shop­ping and he hopes to cre­ate a last­ing legacy by catch­ing this lat­est wave. Point Leo Es­tate evolved or­gan­i­cally, he says, from an ini­tial hold­ing of 20ha on the “wild and woolly” side of the Penin­sula play­ground, bought 30 years ago as a bu­colic es­cape for the Gan­dels and their de­scen­dants which, to­day, in­clude four chil­dren, 12 grand­chil­dren and one great-grand­child. The Gan­dels bought up ad­ja­cent parcels of land over the years, ex­panded a lake at the en­trance to the prop­erty and, in 2006, planted 20ha of cool-cli­mate vines.

There was no light-bulb moment – the Gan­dels were sim­ply cor­ralling beauty – but at some point they re­alised they had an im­por­tant col­lec­tion of sculp­tures, from lead­ing in­ter­na­tional fig­ures such as Tony Cragg and Ge­orge Rickey to Aus­tralian pi­o­neers of mod­ernism Len­ton Parr and Inge King. Some were housed at their Toorak man­sion; oth­ers, such as Riff, Cle­ment Mead­more’s jazz-in­spired twist of painted alu­minium, were al­ready at Point Leo. They de­cided the art should be shared and the seed of a sculpture park was sown.

“We’ve been very for­tu­nate in our lives,” ­Gan­del says now as he picks his way across the con­struc­tion site that has since risen to be­come the es­tate’s cen­tre­piece, a dra­matic curvi­lin­ear struc­ture de­signed by Mel­bourne ar­chi­tect ­Stephen Jol­son. When Point Leo opens later this month, the build­ing will house a cel­lar door and a restau­rant with two din­ing ar­eas over­seen by ex-Rock­pool chef Phil Wood. “We’ve worked very hard and we’ve been able to achieve quite a lot and you get to a stage where you feel that you like to do things for other peo­ple,” he con­tin­ues. “You like other peo­ple to en­joy what you en­joy.”

The Gan­dels are so me­dia-shy, they are al­most mys­te­ri­ous. “Not only do they not court the spot­light, they ac­tively avoid it,” says Sarah Davies, CEO of Phi­lan­thropy Aus­tralia. Even when she learns of the strict pa­ram­e­ters set for their ­ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with The Week­end Aus­tralian Mag­a­zine, Davies ex­presses sur­prise they have granted an in­ter­view at all. “They rarely speak pub­licly and every time they do the mes­sage is sin­gu­lar: put the spot­light on those do­ing the work, the sci­en­tists, re­searchers, artists and com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tions they do­nate to.”

To­day, Gan­del is keen to turn the spot­light on

his legacy project. He leads the way past the cer­e­mo­nial black curves of the 5m-high Grand Arch, by ab­stract sculp­tor Inge King, who died last year aged 100, just months shy of see­ing her com­mis­sioned work in situ. “I don’t have a favourite,” he says diplo­mat­i­cally. “In a way it’s more that I love all of them ex­cept for the odd one that I’m not in love with.” Gan­del speaks in low tones, barely au­di­ble above the whine of the work­men’s power tools, and each word is weighed care­fully.

But then we reach the sculpture park proper and an aes­thete’s ex­hil­a­ra­tion over­whelms the but­toned-down busi­ness­man. On this side of the magic por­tal, Gan­del is a shin­ing-eyed art lover. He takes in the panoramic vista, a huge sky arc­ing over land­scaped grass­land that slopes down to the sea. Phillip Is­land crouches in the near dis­tance. Banksias and eu­ca­lypts bris­tle along the fringes, and lime-coloured clumps of ec­cen­tric spurge sug­gest Dr Seuss had a hand in the land­scap­ing.

The grandeur of the set­ting is breath­tak­ing enough, but the enor­mous sculp­tures dot­ted about lend it the un­re­al­ity and evanes­cence of a dream­scape. The spiny ten­drils of Len­ton Parr’s Plant Forms, com­mis­sioned for the open­ing of Chad­stone Shop­ping Cen­tre in 1960, seem stirred to life by the bound­less reach of their new coastal home. A man­dala-like struc­ture of weather­ing steel, To the Cen­tre by Aus­tralian sculp­tor Greg Johns, frames a shift­ing patch of ocean; to the left of it, the tow­er­ing pro­file of Bri­tish-Is­raeli sculp­tor Zadok Ben-David’s Big Boy is out­lined in wa­tery sun­shine. Rear­ing sky­ward against a vast conifer wind­break, Ja­panese artist Tomokazu ­Mat­suyama’s steel ren­der­ing of Napoleon’s fa­mous war mount, Marengo, looks primed for bat­tle.

A wild southerly gal­lops in across the bay, ­fling­ing sil­ver gulls side­ways and pin­ning Gan­del’s ­cop­per-coloured hair to his head. In his navy wool coat and bright blue Asic train­ers, he looks mo­men­tar­ily un­leashed and is moved to dis­cuss the capri­cious con­duct of the light, the way longer per­spec­tives add drama to the art­works, and even the mood­i­ness of the coast­line. “We’ve been here for a num­ber of years and the beauty of this bay is that it changes colour from blue to green to grey as the clouds change,” he says. “On the odd day in win­ter when the clouds are low and grey and the sea is grey you al­most feel that you’re in the mid­dle of fog, but it’s just the two meet­ing.” On a roll now, he leans in to con­fess a se­cret crush. It’s not a favourite, mind you, but he does have a soft spot for Laura, a colos­sal head in cast iron by Span­ish sculp­tor Jaume Plensa that is, as we speak, mak­ing its way by ship from Spain. “It’s quite lovely; an un­usual shape, a lit­tle bit elu­sive,” he says.

Geoffrey Ed­wards, the for­mer direc­tor of ­Gee­long Gallery and for­mer head of sculpture at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria, joins us to dis­cuss Four Lines Oblique Gyra­tory, the ki­netic stain­less steel mo­bile by Amer­i­can sculp­tor Ge­orge Rickey, which has been po­si­tioned near the main build­ing. It’s a finely tuned in­stru­ment, its spindly arms

de­signed to swivel with the air cur­rents, and there is some con­cern that wind off the roof line is caus­ing it to spin crazily rather than drift as in­tended. “It’s a big ex­er­cise get­ting them all into place,” says Ed­wards, who came on board as cu­ra­tor a year ago and has been ad­vis­ing on place­ments, the ac­qui­si­tion of new works and site-spe­cific com­mis­sions.

Ed­wards de­scribes the col­lec­tion as “a se­lec­tive and rep­re­sen­ta­tive group of im­por­tant Aus­tralian sculp­tors” com­bined with a num­ber of “key in­ter­na­tional artists”. More sculp­tures will be added over the next few years, “so it’s very much an evolv­ing site”, he adds. “It’s not meant to be en­cy­clopaedic – that would be a leaden hand. It is a pri­vate col­lec­tion so there can be a greater sense of whimsy and per­sonal taste, but Mr Gan­del has taken ad­vice and is re­ally try­ing to iden­tify the key play­ers in the sculp­tural scene.” Ed­wards en­vis­ages Point Leo Es­tate, when fin­ished, will be Aus­tralia’s fore­most sculpture park “with­out doubt”.

Be­fore em­bark­ing on their Morn­ing­ton ­Penin­sula project, the Gan­dels toured well-known in­ter­na­tional sculpture parks Storm King in up­state New York, Hakone Open-Air Mu­seum in Ja­pan and millionaire busi­ness­man Alan Gibbs’ stun­ning 485ha Gibbs Farm in New Zealand. They de­cided they wanted a more com­pact park; the re­sult­ing lay­out, with two ser­pen­tine path­ways thread­ing through the land­scape, in­vites vis­i­tors to “prom­e­nade rather than trek”, as Gan­del puts it. “The beauty of the park is that it’s user-friendly,” says Pauline Gan­del when she joins us for a quick whizz around the grounds in a golf buggy. “I’m al­ways sur­prised at peo­ple who’ve been suc­cess­ful who don’t think of oth­ers,” Gan­del says, help­ing him­self to one of Phil Wood’s el­e­gant canapes. We’re hav­ing lunch in a low-slung modernist build­ing a stone’s throw from the ocean. It’s one of two guest houses on the prop­erty and sits apart from the Gan­dels’ two-year-old manor house.

“There are peo­ple I’ve been friends with my whole life and they wouldn’t think of wor­ry­ing that there are peo­ple who are suf­fer­ing or what their needs are,” Gan­del con­tin­ues. “I think the feel­ing of try­ing to do some­thing for other peo­ple came from our fam­i­lies, to be quite can­did. ­Pauline and I grew up that way. Our par­ents didn’t have a lot of money but they were rais­ing money for char­i­ta­ble causes with lit­tle card nights and things like that. That’s how it was in those days, go­ing back 60 or 70 years.”

Gan­del’s par­ents were, like Pauline’s, Jewish im­mi­grants from Poland. Sam and Fay Gan­del opened a women’s cloth­ing store in Mel­bourne when John was five and his sis­ter Eva was 11. That store be­came the cor­ner­stone of an em­pire: in the 1950s, John and Eva’s hus­band, Marc Be­sen, took over the busi­ness, build­ing the Sus­san brand into a chain of more than 200 stores. (Gan­del’s niece, Naomi Mil­grom, took over Sus­san Corp in 2003.)

In the early 1980s, John sold his stake and shifted his fo­cus to real es­tate. He paid $37 mil­lion to the Myer Em­po­rium for Chad­stone Shop­ping Cen­tre in 1983 and devel­oped it into the $3 bil­lion be­he­moth it is to­day. The cen­tre is home to more than 600 re­tail­ers, in­clud­ing luxe la­bels such as Ba­len­ci­aga, Valentino and Chanel, and sprawls over an area roughly the size of 10 MCGs. Gan­del re­fuses to an­swer even the most an­o­dyne ques­tions about his busi­ness in­ter­ests, but has pre­vi­ously at­trib­uted his suc­cess to the dereg­u­la­tion of shop­ping hours and the pub­lic’s em­brace of ­shop­ping as a leisure ac­tiv­ity. What he will hap­pily talk about is his phil­an­thropic foun­da­tion, which ­Phi­lan­thropy Aus­tralia’s Davies says is “a big ­op­er­a­tion that re­quires the same zeal, in­tel­li­gence and rigour as build­ing a busi­ness”. Last year, the Gan­dels gave 167 grants, each de­ter­mined af­ter much strate­gis­ing. “You can never get phi­lan­thropy 100 per cent right – there’s al­ways some­one who thinks you should be giv­ing to this and not that,” Gan­del says. “The im­por­tant thing is, as your phi­lan­thropy gets into the big­ger league, that you limit the range of things you’re giv­ing to. ­Phi­lan­thropy is a lot like busi­ness and – this may sound funny – but you’ve got to get bang for the buck. You have to judge where to get the max­i­mum ben­e­fit for the re­cip­i­ent; just throw­ing money around is not good phi­lan­thropy.”

Gan­del is a fit oc­to­ge­nar­ian, a happy sit­u­a­tion he at­tributes to a per­sonal trainer and reg­u­lar tread­mill work­outs. He puts in long work­ing hours in the of­fice, too. “I look around at many of our friends who are re­tired and semi-re­tired and, to be quite can­did, I think they lose their in­ter­est in things,” Gan­del says. “They lose their abil­ity to talk about things, and they lose the ex­cite­ment in do­ing new things. The smart ones – and there are a few – are the ones who pre­pare them­selves for the sec­ond part of their life. We’ve said we’re go­ing to keep on go­ing as long as we can and keep on do­ing new and dif­fer­ent things.”

Un­like its owner, Gan­del’s magic por­tal was this year start­ing to show its age. Sculp­tor ­Deb­o­rah Halpern has been mak­ing the hour­long jour­ney to Point Leo from Mel­bourne over re­cent weeks, watch­ing as Por­tal to An­other Time and Place, her 15-year-old, four-tonne baby, was care­fully craned into place. While there, she took the op­por­tu­nity to re­place some of the ce­ramic tiles flak­ing off the bot­tom of the ­mag­nif­i­cent arch, for­ti­fy­ing the work in the face of the re­gion’s wild weather.

“She’s one of those re­ally spe­cial sculp­tures you make in your life and I’m so thrilled she now lives where she does,” Halpern says. “It’s such a dra­matic and pow­er­ful piece of coast­line, it blows your mind re­ally.” Op­por­tu­ni­ties to make large, sub­stan­tial sculpture are “few and far be­tween”, she says, and the pa­tron­age of com­mit­ted and pas­sion­ate art lovers like the Gan­dels is prized.

“The thing I was re­ally moved by when I saw Point Leo and met the Gan­dels was that this is a gift to all of us,” she says. “They un­der­stand that what creative peo­ple and cre­ativ­ity pro­vide for the planet is just as im­por­tant as a big shop­ping cen­tre.”

Strik­ing: Deb­o­rah Halpern’s Por­tal to An­other Time and Place

En­thu­si­asts: clock­wise, Pauline and John Gan­del; Tony Cragg’s Luke; Inge King’s Grand Arch; Zadok Ben-David’s Big Boy

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