Fifty Years of the Sir William Dobell Art Foundation

Last Tuesday, 4 October, the Sir William Dobell Art Foundation celebrated a half-century spent commissioning, donating, and supporting education and exhibition programs in the visual arts across New South Wales. A longstanding vision and deep ties to institutions throughout the state have supported the foundation through challenging circumstances, including changes in their capital provision.

The Sir William Dobell Art Foundation was established a year after the artist’s death in 1970, from a bequest with a deceptively simple, yet open-ended statement of purpose: to work “for the the benefit and promotion of art in NSW.” Quite what this “benefit and promotion” has entailed has, of course, varied over the foundation’s now-fifty-year history; what has remained the same is a commitment to supporting artists and art educators at all stages of their careers, and a belief in the place of visual art at the centre of public life. 

At the time of its establishment, this was a foundation uniquely well provisioned with works from the artist’s personal collection –  as well as other, more liquid capital resources which could be used to fund significant commissions. According to the foundation’s Chair, Michelle Belgiorno-Nettis, “In the early days the Trustees were able to give away to galleries and museums valuable art works from Dobell’s personal collection. These included a sculpture by Robert Klippel, and nine hundred drawings by Dobell which were donated to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Dobell’s sketch books to the National Gallery of Australia, and a painting by Arthur Boyd which was donated to Macquarie University.” Other early moves included the commissioning of John Olsen’s Five Bells mural for the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973, and Bert Flugelman’s Pyramid Tower sculpture in 1978, which is now located on the corner of Spring and Pitt Streets.

As Dobell’s collection was slowly dispersed amongst other collecting institutions, the focus of the foundation’s work has moved towards partnerships with a view to providing professional development, exhibition opportunities, and quality art education from high school. This is where the state-wide scale of the foundation’s work comes to the fore, as opposed to commissioning projects which have historically been focussed on Sydney. There is funding to support an artist in residence at Bundanon, and the Dobell Exhibition Grant with Museums & Galleries NSW. There are also a series of  initiatives co-delivered with the National Art School: the Regional Teacher Training Workshop, which offers an intensive drawing program for high school art teachers biannually, and the Dobell Drawing School program for Year Eleven students in regional government schools throughout the state, in which over 1,500 young people have participated so far. Evidently, the stamp of Dobell himself as an artist is on these programs; the foundation resolutely supports the development of drawing practice in an art world ever expanding into new media.

Directly before the foundation’s anniversary event at the Opera House on the evening 4 October, a strategic planning meeting was held to, in Belgiorno-Nettis’s words, “workshop and consider what we can and should do going forward.” She notes that the greatest challenge facing the foundation from the inside is the inevitable slow diminishment of the initial capital. To this we might add the challenging funding environment in which artists operate today, and the increasing demand being placed on private organisations to fund artistic works for public benefit. In any case, Belgiorno-Nettis is optimistic about what the foundation can continue to do: “We are firm believers in the social benefits of a rich and vibrant cultural environment. Dobell himself through his own experience recognised the importance of supporting individual artists and the institutions that underpin this ecosystem. We look forward to exploring ways with our partners and others to extend our resources and continue his legacy into the future.”

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