Around 80 per cent of the artworks in the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection were purchased through a generous bequest left by a colonial businessman more than 100 years ago. Here’s how his long-lasting legacy is managed.

In December 2017, the National Gallery of Victoria unveiled a new installation by leading sculptor Ron Mueck’s, paid for through a bequest left by a generous art lover named Alfred Felton.

The Mueck piece, titled Mass, was commissioned by the gallery as part of its Triennial Exhibition. Likened to the catacombs of Paris, it features 100 hand-cast skulls, each measuring 1.5 metres and collectively weighing approximately 5 tonnes.

More impressive than the sculpture itself, however, was the fact that Felton’s bequest had been made more than a century ago. Since 1904 the NGV has purchased a total of around $2 billion worth of art, representing around 80 per cent of its entire collection.

Now under the careful and prudent management of Equity Trustees, the Felton Bequest provides a clear blueprint for anyone looking to leave a lasting cultural or philanthropic legacy.

An artistic goldmine

Born in England, Felton moved to the colony of Victoria in 1853, a year before the Eureka uprising. The shrewd entrepreneur quickly identified the real opportunities created by the Victorian gold rush lay in business rather than exploration, and soon began carting goods to miners on the goldfields.

Felton invested the profits from his work as a merchant to become a leading manufacturer across a number of industries, as Melbourne grew to become Australia’s largest city. His business interests eventually spanned from pharmaceuticals to chemicals and glass.

While international artworks were initially difficult to come by in the young colony, that changed with the The International Exhibition of 1888 and the Royal Anglo–Australian Exhibition of 1889, and Felton quickly developed a keen appreciation of art.

The lifelong bachelor spent his final 20 years living at the now-iconic Esplanade Hotel in St Kilda. The walls of his rooms and offices were lined with countless books, paintings and ornate sculptures, illuminated by the then-new technology of the electric light.

Improving the public taste

Upon his death in 1904, the vast bulk of Felton’s wealth was left to the creation of a charitable foundation known as The Felton Bequest.

According to Equity Trustees relationship manager of charitable trusts Stuart McPhee, the bequest “was established with £380,000 – an extraordinary amount at the time, and has a current value of around $46m, distributing somewhere between $1.5m and $2m annually to the nonprofit sector.”

“In his will, Felton instructed that his bequest be placed in the care of a committee and a trustee.  Of the income, one half was to be used to make annual distributions to selected Victorian charitable organisations, particularly those that benefit women and children,” McPhee says.

“The other half was to purchase works of art for donation to the NGV. At the time, it provided the gallery with access to funds greater than those of London’s National and Tate Galleries combined.”

Giambattista Tiepolo The banquet of Cleopatra (1743-1744) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Felton Bequest, 1933

Giambattista Tiepolo
The banquet of Cleopatra (1743-1744)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest, 1933

Along with donating many artworks in his private collection, Felton was keen to secure artworks with “educative value” that would “improve the level of public taste” in the colony.

“Founded in 1861, the NGV is Australia’s oldest and largest art museum. As well as being located in Melbourne, where Felton lived, the NGV predated the establishment of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra by more than a century,” McPhee noted.

The bequest was one of the first major philanthropic gifts to the arts in Australia. It is notable both for the sheer quantity and value of artworks it has secured, including masterpieces by renowned artists such as Monet, Turner, Tiepolo, Arthur Streeton and Frederick McCubbin.

Managing the Felton Bequest

Under the terms of Felton’s will, decisions about how grants are distributed was placed in the hands of a five-member committee, which is currently made up of three continuing members and two nominated members.

“The three continuing members of the committee are currently: Sir Andrew Grimwade (Chairman), Rupert Myer AO and Professor Emeritus Sally Walker AM. One nominated member is from the NGV, usually its president of trustees, which is currently Janet Whiting AM. The other nominated member is Equity Trustees board member Alice Williams,” McPhee says.

Purchases are made based on recommendations from the gallery’s trustees, with advice regularly sought from the director of the NGV and other sources as required. Recent acquisitions have been agreed to unanimously by the committee following extensive discussion.

“It is a collaborative effort which mostly involves ongoing discussion – everyone involved is committed to purchasing great pieces for the NGV collection, and supporting incredible creativity,” McPhee says.

Alfred Felton

A watercolour painting of Alfred Felton, by Ada Whiting.

In line with Felton’s desire to purchase educative artworks that “improve the public taste”, McPhee noted that all future acquisitions “will continue to focus on outstanding artworks that build on the existing strengths of the NGV or pioneer important new directions”.

Meanwhile, the financial affairs of the Felton Bequest and the investment of its funds are the responsibility of its sole trustee, Equity Trustees, which manages around 450 trusts and foundations, distributing over $70 million to charities annually on their behalf.

“By appointing a trustee company, Felton (like others who have done this) was assured that the management of the trust would be ongoing and not dependent on the health and life of any individual,” Equity Trustees general manager of charitable trusts and philanthropy Jodi Kennedy says.

“We are regulated to have a higher duty of care to our clients (living or no longer with us) and have to make decisions on instructions and as if in their shoes. In the case of the Felton Bequest, we do this in partnership with the committee.”

Adapting to a changing world

The age of the fund has, in some cases, posed challenges for the committee as the art world has evolved and the price of world-class pieces has risen.

For instance, Felton’s will originally stipulated that all of its annual net income must be spent each year. However, this prevented the fund from banking its earnings over a number of years in order to purchase more expensive pieces.

Kohei Nawa PixCell-Red Deer 2012 National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Felton Bequest, 2013 © Kohei Nawa, courtesy Sandwich, Kyoto

Kohei Nawa
PixCell-Red Deer 2012
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest, 2013
© Kohei Nawa, courtesy Sandwich, Kyoto

To respond to this challenge, in May 2013 the trustees applied to Victoria’s Supreme Court to modify the terms of Felton’s will so that up to 15 per cent of the fund’s income each year could be ‘saved up’ to purchase artworks in the future.

“This was approved by a court order on 17 July 2013. At the same time, a future fund within the Bequest was created to set aside funds for a major acquisition to gift to the NGV,” McPhee says.

“The first acquisition made possible by this future fund is the Ron Mueck commission – featured in this year’s NGV Triennial and one of the key drawcards of this ambitious exhibition.”

A few words of advice

Kennedy’s advice for anyone looking to follow in Felton’s footsteps by leaving a lasting legacy to the arts is to be aware that there are three ways to structure charitable giving via a trust, and to seek advice as to which model is best for your circumstances.

“The most common [structure] is to provide instructions via your will to set up a testamentary trust from your estate after you are gone. But there are ways you can do it in your lifetime which will satisfy the urge to donate and be a part of making a difference,” Kennedy says.

Auguste Rodin The thinker (Le Penseur) (1881-1882); cast (1884) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Felton Bequest, 1921

Auguste Rodin
The thinker (Le Penseur) (1881-1882); cast (1884)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest, 1921

“There are two types of ‘ancillary funds’, with both giving vehicles offering tax advantages and the ability to name the fund (or sub-fund) after a family member, past or present.

“One is ‘public’ – which means that the funds are set up as a sub-fund of a much larger pool of money (called a public ancillary fund), enabling people to establish a fund of this type for around $20,000. The second is a ‘private’ ancillary fund, which as the name implies, is a stand-alone fund. A minimum of $500,000 is needed to establish a fund of this type.

“It’s great to donate, but setting up a philanthropic fund means you structure your money so that it can keep giving sustainable income back to the sector – including long after you’re gone.“

10 notable artworks purchased through the Felton Bequest:

Artist Artwork Year purchased
Bertram MacKennal Circe (1893) 1910
E. Phillips Fox The arbour (1910) 1916
Auguste Rodin The thinker (Le Penseur) (1881-1882); cast (1884) 1921
Tom Roberts Shearing the rams 1890 1930
Giambattista Tiepolo The banquet of Cleopatra (1743-1744) 1933
Rembrandt Two old men disputing (1628) 1936
Claude Monet Vétheuil (1879) 1937
Frederick McCubbin Lost (1886) 1940
Fred Williams Upwey landscape 1965
Classical Greek/Italian sculpture Torso of an athlete
(1st century BCE-1st century CE)
Kohei Nawa PixCell-Red Deer (2012) 2013

Equity Trustees general manager of charitable trusts and philanthropy Jodi Kennedy will be a speaker at the 2018 Generosity Forum.

Subscribe to access this article.

Continue reading your article with an F&P subscription

Join with other top fundraisers to receive insight, analysis and inspiration to help you raise more funds.

subscribe now for $1

Cancel anytime.

Already a subscriber? LOGIN HERE