With the starter’s gun cocked and stakeholders primed to give, the Art Gallery of NSW undertook a quick-fire $16 million capital campaign to purchase an iconic piece of art. Jane Wynter recounts the inside story on how the race was won.

During a whirlwind 10 months in 2008 the Art Gallery of New South Wales raised $16.2 million to acquire Paul Cézanne’s Bords de la Marne (c 1888), a sum believed to be the highest amount paid for a single artwork in Australia.

Although plenty of work had been done in preparing the ground for gallery supporters and stakeholders to commit to a major acquisition, perhaps the greatest challenge was actually finding the right artwork to purchase. And with time ticking away … it was all hands on deck when the painting was finally discovered.

Gallery Relies on Philanthropy

The gallery – Australia’s leading visual arts museum – opened in 1874 and today attracts over 1.3 million visitors each year. Although a ‘public’ gallery, its collection relies exclusively on private benefactors, and its long-serving and much-loved director, Edmund Capon AM OBE, instigated the Art Gallery of NSW Foundation in 1983 to build an endowment fund for artwork acquisitions.

Auspicious Anniversaries Spur Action

2008 was a landmark year for the gallery with the foundation celebrating its 25th anniversary and Capon chalking up 30 years at the gallery’s helm. Under his direction, the gallery has transformed into an institution passionately loved and owned by the community.

He has overseen the expansion of the building several times, increased the number of exhibitions from five to 35 a year, steadfastly refused the government push for entrance fees, introduced late night openings, and essentially made the gallery one of Sydney’s main cultural hubs.

On Your Marks …

At the end of 2007 the foundation’s board agreed to mark these two important anniversaries in a truly memorable way. It would support the acquisition of an iconic work by an internationally renowned artist – without setting a price limitation. At the time, the foundation had over 600 donors contributing a minimum of $1,000 per year and its capital base was around $30 million.

The foundation traditionally purchases one major work per year. As it had effectively earmarked several years’ income towards a single work in 2008, support from the gallery’s entire ‘family’ (that is, its various stakeholders across its many structures) was essential.

The foundation’s 14 trustees are a mix of donors and people appointed in part by the Art Gallery of NSW Trust. Currently headed by Steven Lowy from Westfield, the trust comprises 11 individual trustees appointed by the state government. The Art Gallery Society of NSW (a friends’ organisation with over 30,000 members) has its own separate Council and the gallery has 150 employees, 300 volunteers and more than a million visitors a year. The one common denominator shared by all these groups is the gallery director, Capon.

In December 2007, foundation supporters were alerted to the fact that 2008 marked the significant anniversaries and that the celebrations would feature an as-yet undetermined major acquisition, which they would be asked to contribute towards. The trust and the society were also approached and each pledged support in principle, and the campaign was expected to be well underway before 30 June 2008.

Get Set …

In order to succeed, a capital fundraising campaign usually requires a clearly defined objective as well as solid reasoning behind it. Given that nearly all major art works of the requisite quality for a public gallery are sold at auction, the job of choosing the target work was a very difficult one. From the very beginning of 2008, all of the gallery’s senior curatorial staff were on the lookout for a suitably iconic work. Suggestions were sent from all around the world. Yet when Edmund Capon set off for France for three months leave in April, an appropriate work had not been identified.

May passed and June almost did too, with still no progress. On 26 June, Capon phoned from Paris. He thought he’d finally found the perfect work (in private hands) in Zurich. When an image of the Cézanne was ‘beamed’ back to the gallery, we all knew it was the one. Our head conservator flew to Zurich to collect the work, which arrived under a cloud of secrecy and was kept in Capon’s office.

It was now early July and, with a purchase price of US$13.7 million (approximately AU$14 million), we needed to be very confident that we could raise the funds before the press got wind of our plans.

Go! Go! Go!

The foundation board met and instantly agreed to commit $5 million. The individual trustees pledged over $2 million between them. The intrepid foundation chairman, Rowena Danziger AM, met with the Art Gallery of NSW Trust and campaigned for their support, using the pledges of the foundation trustees as leverage. Although the response from the trust was mixed at first, by the end of 2008 they had all made a donation towards the work.

Potential high-level donors were personally invited to come to Capon’s office to view the work. The sense of secrecy, privilege and urgency added to the excitement. Margaret Olley AC immediately pledged $1million; an inspiring gesture given her status as a popular artist and leading philanthropist.

Another benefactor deemed the work so important to the collection that he gave the gallery permission to sell works he’d previously donated and put the proceeds towards the Cézanne. In addition, many well-known Australian artists offered to donate a work for a special fundraising auction. Meanwhile the Art Gallery Society had agreed to pledge $1 million and to assist with the fundraising campaign through a series of special events.

By August, the Australian dollar was falling and our anxiety levels were rising. In September we finally got permission from the State Government to buy the work, and the foundation agreed to underwrite the shortfall for the final instalment (due in December). The contract was signed and the new purchase price of $16.2 million was locked in. We paid half ($8.1 million) upon signing on the dotted line.

The Home Straight

With the full support of the trust, foundation and society boards, we were then able to ask all our benefactors for their financial support. Rowena Danziger AM wrote to every foundation donor, enclosing an image of the work and a pledge form with each letter. The response was staggering – not just from benefactors, but also from members, volunteers, staff, artists and the visiting public alike.

By 30 June 2009 the Cézanne was paid for in full, and all donors were thanked in a variety of ways including personal phone calls, letters and invitations to special functions.

How the Race Was Won

We attribute the success of the capital campaign to the following key factors:

The enormous popularity of Edmund Capon. The gallery’s ‘institutional readiness’ to mount such an ambitious project. The leadership provided by the trustees, who commenced the giving. The gallery’s large base of benefactors, who are well versed in giving and were amply ‘primed’ for the 2008 campaign.

Gift Amount ($)

No. of Gifts (Donors)

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* The balance of some $3.4 million came from a large number of gifts under $1,000.

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