White Rabbit Contemporary Chinese Art Collection Is One Of Australia’s Largest, Eagerly Anticipated Privately Funded Art Museums
We have written recently on privately-funded contemporary Chinese art museums, which have sprung up everywhere from Beijing to Singapore and elsewhere. Recently, Australia’s White Rabbit Contemporary Chinese art collection has opened to the public, giving art fans the opportunity to view more than 400 works by 160 artists, and significantly bolstering Sydney’s Chinese art infrastructure. The collection, which focuses specifically on works created since 2000, and as The Australian points out, takes up “2000sqm of space, reportedly developed at a cost of about $10 million, on four levels. The publicity material describes it, with some justification, as one of the most significant collections of contemporary Chinese art anywhere in the world.”
Ashleigh Wilson, writing for The Australian, notes that the White Rabbit collection — one of several privately-funded art museums to have opened in Australia in the last few years — gives Australians interested in Chinese art an excellent venue to learn more about the country’s artists and evolving artistic trends. With the growing contingent of large-scale domestic Chinese collectors in China growing year-by-year, I would forecast that it is only a matter of time before privately-funded museums like White Rabbit begin to pop up in mainland China as well.
Edmund Capon, director of the Art Gallery of NSW and a specialist in the art of China, says the collection is a significant addition to the cultural infrastructure of Sydney. He says the works capture some of the essence of contemporary China, where tensions remain between maintaining social order alongside a “degree of liberty” for citizens.
“Everything here, however dramatic, different, energetic or global it might be, has some subtle nuance, some subtle stamp, that says: ‘Made in China,”‘ Capon says. “There is this subtle battle between freedom and authority. It’s absolutely an indelible part of contemporary Chinese life and I think it’s manifested in the works here.”
The collection was founded by Judith Neilson, who has made repeated trips to China to source work withZhiyuan’s help. Neilson is the wife of Kerr Neilson, founder of Platinum Asset Management, whose fortune was valued in this year’s BRW Executive Rich List at $1.6billion, three places behind another businessman turned art investor, Kerry Stokes.
But while Stokes takes an active interest in his collection, Kerr Neilson seems to prefer a more hands-off approach. Developing, maintaining and building the collection falls to Judith Neilson and daughter Paris, who manages it.
At a preview of the gallery yesterday, Judith Neilson was reluctant to talk about the work, nominating her daughter instead. But she did say, when pressed, that she wanted the museum to be be accessible to all and that she hoped to show a different side to contemporary Chinese art to the public.
“I was wanting to show Australian and international viewers how different the art was to what they had expected,” she says.
Zhiyuan, who moved from China to Sydney after the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989 before returning to Beijing eight years ago, says contemporary Chinese artists are embracing outside influences like never before. He says the White Rabbit collection has the potential to expand Western knowledge of the Chinese scene. “Judith said she wanted to make a connection with Australia and she wants to take the collection to the world.”
Paris Neilson appears flustered as people come and go, dealing with last-minute preparations before the collection opens to the public next Thursday. She says the works tell the “evolving story of China”, but insists they should not be seen as definitive. (The name, her mother says later, was “just a little flash that happened”.) “It’s things that we really respond to, that make an impact,” she says of the selection process. “Some of the works are really bold and in your face, but other pieces are incredibly delicate and fragile. We have such an eclectic mix of work, it’s really just about what we respond to.”
White Rabbit is one of only a handful of large privately funded, non-commercial museums in the country, an exclusive set that will include, from next year, David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania. By their nature, private museums operate differently from state-funded institutions, often reflecting their owner’s tastes.
Paris Neilson is at pains, though, to point out that her family’s collection is far from being a fanciful exercise. “It’s not like we’re doing this on a whim at all. This is a serious gallery and the quality of work here is fantastic and a very high standard, but we’re different from a public gallery,” she says. “But I think we just add to the scene. We’re just another cultural space that the public have access to. We’re not trying to fill in gaps, we’re not trying to be exhaustive. We can sort of do our own thing in a way.”
She has accompanied her mother and Zhiyuan on several trips to China and says the country’s art has shifted in recent years from the overtly political to the personal.
“When (Chinese art) started to take off in the 80s and 90s, it was a lot more about Mao and the Cultural Revolution and politics, and now the issues are really universal. Whether it’s love or hate, or consumerism, or degradation of the environment, there are a lot more of the issues that apply to everyone.”
Asked to point out a favourite, Paris Neilson suggests one artist in particular, Bingyi, whose painting Six Accounts of a Floating Life hangs in the collection. Bingyi, 34, divides her time between Beijing and Buffalo, New York, and White Rabbit has brought her to Australia for the first time. She says her painting — a colourful narrative of love, tragedy and imagination, based on an 18th-century memoir and told over five panels — has experienced a similar journey, being completed in the US, transported to China, then taken by the Neilsons to Sydney. Wandering through the exhibition space, Bingyi says the collection has given her a new perspective on Chinese art. “I never thought I would see anything like this,” she says. “It’s completely refreshing here.”