JOHN KALDOR AO
ON GIVING BACK
“All of our projects are free to the public, whether they are lectures, performances or exhibitions”
OThe founder of Kaldor Public Art Projects looks back on a half-century of bringing contemporary artists to Australia and reflects on the role of philanthropy in ensuring the future of our culture.
a trip to New York in 1968, I met [artists] Christo and Jeanne-Claude and invited them to come to Australia to hold an exhibition and give a series of talks. Christo’s reply was straightforward and direct: “I don’t want to make an exhibition. I don’t want to give a lecture. I want you to find a coastline to wrap!” Like a present. The fact that I took his request seriously literally changed my life.
Unbeknown to me, Christo and Jeanne-Claude had attempted to find a coastline in California for a number of years but were unable to get permission. So their first thought when they met someone from Australia, with its thousands of miles of coast, was to make it a priority to ask. Christo and Jeanne-Claude were both so charismatic that they convinced me it was the most important thing I could do.
On my return to Australia, I systematically went along Sydney’s coast, both north and south, seeking permission. In those days, it was mostly in the hands of the army, navy and government, and they all thought my request was absurd. Fortunately, when I approached the director of the Prince Henry Hospital at Little Bay, he decided that if we could cover the insurance and they could charge a small admission fee, he would give us permission. That was the breakthrough.
With great effort from everyone Wrapped Coast, One Million Square Feet was shown at Little Bay in 1969, and became a great success nationally and internationally.
At the time, I wasn’t thinking of doing a number of projects: I only wanted this one to succeed. But when it finished to great acclaim, I thought it was too good to be a one-off, so that’s how Kaldor Public Art Projects started.
From the very beginning, I wanted to bring artists to Australia who represented the latest developments in contemporary art. It could be sculptural, it could be film, it could be a performance – small organisations like ours have the flexibility to change. We are not bound by anything except excellence. The early projects were very important because at that time Australia was really isolated and people were eager to see what was happening internationally.
In the 1970s, we did projects with artists like Richard Long, Sol LeWitt, Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik, who were at the start of their careers; they’re now masters of contemporary art and their work is taught at high schools. Temporary projects that lasted a couple of weeks then disappeared have become part of our collective memory, and a new generation, whose grandparents may have seen the projects, are learning about it. In a way, that’s the thing I’m happiest about.
Most of our projects are not in art galleries, so people encounter them not knowing what to expect. People go to a gallery as a destination to see art. Those who see our projects don’t really know what they are seeing, it’s just there for them to see – and, by the way, it’s art. We have the chance to engage a totally different audience. All of our projects are free to the public, whether they are lectures, performances or exhibitions. I insist on that, and I believe very strongly in art education; for the last 15 years, each of our art projects has been accompanied by a bigger and better education component.
I gave my art collection to the Art Gallery of New South Wales [AGNSW] after discussions with my wife and children – it’s their inheritance that I have given away. I never looked at the collection as a commercial or a financial asset. I collected it because I loved it, and I hated the idea of it being sent to auction when I’m in the big gallery in the sky, so the alternative was to donate it.
I think philanthropy is still at an early stage in Australia. In America, people are used to giving, and they are used to being asked to give. In Australia, it is much more difficult. Fortunately, we [Kaldor Public Art Projects] get help from the government and several foundations, but that’s not enough so we have to look to individuals for support. Financing is the most difficult part of my role.
When it comes to philanthropy in Australia, there is a strong trend, especially among younger people, to support social and environmental causes. Culture is not especially important to them; it’s more climate change, migration – which are terribly important – but I think that culture, whether it’s music or literature or visual arts, is still very important.
In the end, Venice, which was the biggest naval power in the 13th and 14th centuries and would turn out a fighting galleon a day, is not remembered for that; it is remembered for its cathedrals and works of art and architecture. Florence invented double-entry bookkeeping. Well, you don’t go to Florence today to look at double-entry bookkeeping. People are remembered by the culture they leave behind.
I think we are at a time in Australia when we must create our own culture – the country is changing with the arrival of migrants like myself (though that was 70 years ago) – and I don’t think we’re doing a very good job of it. Working with Australian artists who come from different cultures and races, and getting them to articulate how they see the country, could be one way to start building a national agenda.
There are more artists I’d like to work with in the future, but I haven’t formulated my ideas yet. I still haven’t cleared my head of my latest project [ Making Art Public: 50 Years of Kaldor Public Art Projects, at the AGNSW until February 16, 2020]. I’m as passionate about art as ever. I couldn’t imagine myself sitting on the terrace, just reading in a rocking chair. I love reading, but not as a full-time job. Looking back on my life, I survived the Second World War and I survived communism. Australia has been wonderful to my family and me; I feel very fortunate. But if you start to think about your legacy that really makes you feel old, and I have too much to do.