Visualising beyond our backyard

22 August 2012 Lisa Cuthbertson

There’s no sinking feeling when talking to Neil Balnaves about Australia’s representation at the Venice Biennale.

Spring at Bondi Beach is synonymous with Sculpture by the Sea – now a major “not to be missed” arts event on the Sydney calendar, which brings waves of onlookers. At the same time on the other side of the world, where gondoliers glide in much calmer waters, the world’s most revered international visual arts exhibition, the Venice Biennale, is winding up.

The two have in common one Foundation, and its support.

The Balnaves Foundation is a private philanthropic organisation, established by Neil Balnaves AO, which commits $2 million each year to medical, educational and arts causes. The Foundation’s focus is on young people, the disadvantaged and Indigenous communities. Since 2007, The Balnaves Foundation has been the major partner for Australia’s representation at the Venice Biennale. In the lead up to the 2013 event, we give Neil a penny for his thoughts on why Venice is important to Australia.

The basis of your giving is the desire to ‘build a better country’. In your opinion, how can/does the arts sector do this?

If you talk about the ‘whole’ of a country and look at it as a body: education feeds the brain, medicine keeps the body alive, exercise keeps it conditioned, food keeps it functioning. The whole essence of a country is a number of these factors, however the arts is the soul and that can include visual arts, theatre, drama, literature, music, and all derivations of that.

To grow as a country, to grow intellectually and in every possible way, you have to have a vibrant arts community – it’s part of building a nation. Everything has a moment of beginning, flowering, dying. The one enduring theme in history is that of the arts – the arts keeps on evolving and reinventing itself.

Look at all the great societies – they’ve been supportive of the arts. But a large country doesn’t necessarily have the largest arts community… it’s not population based. It has a lot to do with how those societies think and deal with the arts.

The intellectual frustration I have – and don’t think I am alone – is how badly we have been cheated by political forces in Australia.

This will be the fourth time your foundation has been a major supporter of Australia’s representation at the Venice Biennale. Why Venice?

We can’t take a myopic view of the arts: it should be home first, but include the world as well. Venice is a great way of seeing how Australia sits in the arts world and where it is heading. The Venice Biennale is the only forum for countries to present what they consider to be the best of their art – it’s about ‘breaking art’ rather than ‘institutional art’.
I am looking forward to seeing how Australia does in relation to the international arts scene – to soaking it up, walking around, getting a sense of the arts world.

The other art fairs, Frieze and Basel etc, are the vested interest of the gallerists. The Venice Biennale is the democratic process of showing a country’s best.

The Venice Biennale is likened to the “Olympics of the Arts World”. How do we make sure the torch is lit for Australia’s art?

We must invest in the arts. It may be a part of my growing old, but I get more depressed the more I think about the way in which we don’t allow the arts to really grow. We don’t fund it very well. It’s hand-to-mouth – all short-term based. We don’t give our art a long-term chance – we put artists in the garret to starve.

When I see us at the Venice Biennale, I don’t feel Australia is insignificant, or that we are a second class country. We can hold out heads up demonstratively against much bigger nations.

We tend to promote artists and that’s been our history in Venice – giving mid-career artists and curators a launching platform. I’m proud Australia can stand up there and do the job it does.

Why does Australia need to exhibit at the Venice Biennale?

If we don’t understand what we are doing there, we may as well close our borders – and that would be a tragedy. By participating in the Venice Biennale, we are putting Australia on the map. Venice explains our best to the best in the world. The Biennale is a very valuable way to show what we do as a nation. We should never lose sight of that.

Too often this country is capable of criticising when it doesn’t necessarily understand the issue at hand. There’s an educative process that needs to go on all the time. I don’t think the public knows what Venice is about – the arts world does – but the wider community wouldn’t have a clue. In particular, I don’t think the public appreciates the fact that the government doesn’t pay for all the costs of our representation at Venice. We need to “voice Venice” more loudly.

How do we ensure philanthropy in Australia becomes culturally entrenched?

There are two schools of thought: you go out there and set an example – and there are many of others doing it bigger and better than I am. The other method is people do it, without publicity or recognition.

I believe you learn by example. Giving in Australia is shifting away from family trusts and endowments, and moving more towards creative philanthropy – where the philanthropist is alive – “living and giving”.

What makes someone want to give?

It’s the art of giving that is important – it doesn’t have to be money, it can be time – giving of your time- in a hospital ward, helping an older person, or as a volunteer for an arts organisation. You can’t buy that happiness; but you can create it.

It is wrong in my opinion to have wealth pile upon wealth, for personal satisfaction. If you have money, don’t put a curse on your kids – it’s bad parenthood. Don’t take their rights away. Don’t take their choices away; it doesn’t encourage achievement or self esteem. Growing old and rich – I just don’t get it.

Giving is a natural part of what makes a good society. It’s a selfish form of participation in a community when you hold on to everything. For me, giving to Venice is no different from taking our friends out to a meal and buying the wine. I’m capable of having a very good time giving.

As the initiator of Big Brother in Australia, let’s put the camera on you: if you were in ‘the house’, and Big Brother was watching, what would we learn about you?

If you were to ask people who don’t know me, I think they’d say I’m pretty simplistic – ask my family and they would say ‘terribly complex’.

Yes, I think the camera would show the complex nature of me. You’d find out how intolerant I can be, how frustrated I can get; I’m impatient to see change and to get things done. I’m a bit of a perfectionist – but certainly not perfect.

You have a particular penchant for sculpture. If you were a sculpture, what would you be called and where would you be displayed?

I’d be a complex Robert Klippel. I’m very ‘klippelesque’. My favourite sculpture is one of his – the only one he ever named: Opus 266b (Cynthia). It was named after his wife and is a very poetic sculpture.

Favourite haunts in Venice?

There is no place to hide in Venice – people everywhere. I go and sit in the main street of the Biennale and just watch. Venice is a good slice of life. I always go back to St Mark’s Basilica. The mosaics are so daunting – you walk in 100 times and see 100 different things. The other place I like to revisit is Torcello – the original home of Venice. Fascinating place – it’s where the Venetian culture began and blossomed and grew – and then it just sank.

What would your Australia of the future be?

I’d like to see us change. As a businessman, I see our political model as unsustainable. I’d like to see us streamlined, getting rid of at least one level of government. I’d like to see it stripped back, putting $10 billion back into building a better country. Imagine the profound impact that would have on Australia.

Image: (Left to right) Diane Balnaves, Neil Balnaves, Hamish Balnaves, Laurie Muller at press conference and exhibition opening, Australian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2011. Credit: Sandra Hamburg.