The Women Propelling the Arts


At least since the opening in 1929 of ‘mother’s museum’, as Nelson Rockefeller dubbed the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), established with advocacy from his mother Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, contemporary art has been associated with support from women. In Australia, connections between contemporary art, women artists, and their audiences have been understood at least since the 1920s, but what is the situation today for women supporters of visual arts? Have women emerged as important philanthropists in the arts in Australia? And have they made an impact on the cultural landscape?

The short answer is yes. Women are increasingly potent in the country’s cultural affairs as donors, both individually and collectively. But first, and importantly, there is very little hard data on women and philanthropy in general, let alone in the arts. Philanthropy Australia’s ‘fast facts’ quotes Australian Tax Office figures from 2018, suggesting women give slightly more per capita than men, though they earn considerably less—but Philanthropy Australia has no statistics on women donors in the arts, so the field is overdue for serious research. (PhD, anyone?) That said, a number of analysts believe women have become more influential in recent years. In 2016, Australian Women Donors Network CEO Julie Reilly noted, “Whether as donors or recipients, the evidence is clear that women are key to achieving social change. Given women’s growing economic capacity, and their relative edge in generosity, it’s vital that we encourage and support women in philanthropy.”

This is borne out by professionals in arts philanthropy. Dominique Jones, philanthropy manager at Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), pointed out to me the recent increase in significant bequests from women to the gallery— such as curator Jennifer Phipps’s transformative bequest to establish the Oceania Women’s Fund, devoted to the commissioning and acquisition of works from the Pacific. These bequests to QAGOMA are now recognised through the gallery’s Schubert Circle, a donation group named for its most generous (woman) donor, the late Win Schubert.

Louise Bourgeois: Late Works at Heide Museum of Art, 2011, Installation view.


Moreover, Fiona Menzies at Creative Partnerships Australia reports anecdotal evidence that women are choosing to fund projects led by or for women both in the visual and performing arts; the Stella Prize for women’s writing, initiated in 2012, is exemplary of this trend. Additionally, there are wonderful accounts of women supporting projects investigating women’s achievements; for example the 2011 exhibition Louise Bourgeois: Late Works at Heide Museum of Art, which was supported by an all-woman group of patrons, alongside corporate exhibition partners.

But what of more sustained and targeted forms of support? A major and recent example comes from Sheila: A Foundation for Women in Visual Art. Known simply as ‘Sheila’, it launched in May 2019 and aims “to overturn decades of gender bias by writing Australian women artists back into our art history and ensuring equality for today’s women artists.”

Sheila grew out of the arts philanthropy of the late Lady Sheila Cruthers, who initiated the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art. Now housed at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery in Perth, this collection numbers over 700 works and is the largest, and the only stand-alone, collection of its kind in the country. Not surprisingly, Sheila’s donor list is dominated by women, and it has been described by artist Elvis Richardson of the Countess Report (Australia’s best data platform for gender diversity in the arts) as “the face of new cultural philanthropy desperately needed in Australia.”

Sheila and Jim Cruthers at home in Perth in 1995, with their new women’s gallery behind them. Photograph: Richard Hatherly. Courtesy of the Sunday Times.


Cue the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) and its current Know My Name project, which aims to increase awareness of Australian female artists through exhibitions and publications, and to expand its collection to include more women artists—it was one prompt for this article. The NGA raised over $10 million to stage this ambitious multi-platform project, and it was so well supported, even in the 2020 Covid year, that NGA director Nick Mitzevich reports raising 10% over the target figure. Half of the 450 donors were new patrons with whom the project’s social relevance, and national reach, resonated. Not surprisingly, both the Sheila Foundation and the Countess Report are affiliated with Know My Name as project partners, and perhaps the signal achievement of Know My Name, above its many parts, is to pull these existing energies together. Indeed, Mitzevich remarked to me that he has worked for decades with women supporters and patrons, and while he does not think they are becoming more numerous, he does believe women are becoming increasingly confident in articulating their commitments and desires.

So, who are these women? In the visual arts perennially generous donors include leading figures such as Melbourne businesswoman Naomi Milgrom, and in Sydney architect and arts patron Penelope Seidler, and businesswoman and philanthropist Judith Neilson, who also co-founded White Rabbit Gallery.

The two largest single gifts to Australian art museums in recent years also come from women: the late Diana Ramsay’s gifts to the Art Gallery of South Australia (establishing the James and Diana Ramsay Fund), and Win Schubert’s bequest of $35 million to QAGOMA, announced in late 2020. Significantly, both women had been long-term supporters of their respective state galleries. While it is true that a great deal of philanthropic heft comes from couples committed to the arts, with many driven by women with strong views about the disposition of family monies, increasingly women philanthropists are independent— women with particular passions that they can support, whether with family wealth, or inherited or earned funds.

Australia’s female arts philanthropists seem to come from all ends of the social spectrum: the range of personal histories is broad, interests are eclectic, and perspectives on philanthropy and its workings are diverse. Lawyer Elizabeth Pakchung, originally most interested in fashion, came to art philanthropy through friendship networks, “wants to support cultural projects”, and recently contributed to Know My Name. Pakchung thinks these Covid times have encouraged smaller donors—she says it’s not always the usual ‘heavy hitters’ who are now offering support.

Another contemporary donor, and one-time curator and gallerist, Sally Breen, uses an ESG— Environmental, Social and Governance—screen on all her investments, including in cultural projects. This currently includes The Palms, a studio based at Rockdale in suburban Sydney, which provides spaces for five women artists sharing skills and tools. Breen says she admires the courage involved in this project, and the artists’ belief in themselves. Indeed, many women I spoke to support a range of woman-focused projects, including projects at Sydney’s Royal Hospital for Women, the Asylum Seeker Centre and Lou’s Place, a women’s shelter in King’s Cross.

Consistent threads emerge across female donors: a shared interests in the arts, participation in activities such as openings, lectures, and studio visits, and a further investment in the friendships that arts networks offer. It’s often major museums that foster such motivations and communities of purpose. For example, the Art Gallery of New South Wales Foundation holds many members including the impressive businesswoman Alenka Tindale, leading educator Rowena Danziger, long-term volunteer guide and arts supporter Denyse Spice, and more recently-arrived patron Barbara Wilby, who enjoys supporting younger artists. Wilby spoke to me about a shared social good as the core to philanthropy, about connections to community, and about the foundation’s “pleasure in giving”.

I heard that last phrase—the pleasure of giving— often. It is the key for Brisbane plant scientist and arts patron Dr. Cathryn Mittelheuser, who with her late sister Margaret Mittelheuser—the country’s first woman stockbroker—is a staunch supporter of QAGOMA.

Over a two-decade period the sisters funded the acquisition of more than 100 works, notably by Indigenous artists including Sally Gabori, Yvonne Koolmatrie, Mavis Ngallametta and Lena Yarinkura. This giving has been informed and knowledgeable, fueled by the sisters’ life experiences as pioneers in their professional fields. In his catalogue introduction to the exhibition Two Sisters: A Singular Vision, which celebrated the Mittelheuser sisters’ gifts, QAGOMA director Chris Saines wrote, “Like collecting institutions around the world, QAGOMA is attempting to redress historical inequities in the gender representation in our holdings, and strategic support plays a valuable role in rebalancing the scale.”

Kunmanara Williamson and Nita Williamson (Collaborating artist), Suzanne Armstrong (Collaborating artist), Ngayuku ngura (My country) Puli murpu (Mountain range), 2012, synthetic polymer paint on linen. Purchased 2012 with funds from Margaret Mittelheuser, AM, and Cathryn Mittelheuser, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery. © the artists. Photograph: Natasha Harth. Image courtesy of QAGOMA.


This understanding of gender equity and the determination to redress it runs through much philanthropy by women. Carol Schwartz, named in late 2020 by Philanthropy Australia as the country’s Leading Philanthropist for her work in promoting gender equity, has a strong commitment to the visual arts; she has funded projects including Unfinished Business: Perspectives on Art and Feminism at ACCA, Melbourne in 2017, and the Women’s Art Prize Tasmania, relaunched in 2018. She also enjoys supporting young women artists through collecting and commissioning.

Alongside these individuals, there is considerable energy in giving circles that direct individual donations to common purposes, an efficient and agreeably collaborative method that has allowed women to command their own social space and projects. Such circles include the Women’s Association at the National Gallery of Victoria, and the Women’s Art Group at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

So, how to summarise all this activity? The tide is finally turning in museums worldwide, including in Australia, towards the exploration of cultural and social diversity—a sea-change led by decades of feminist scholarship and advocacy, and by audience awareness of contemporary women’s art. Know My Name is only the most recent, and closest, instance of this trend. Most fascinating, there is now a convergence between women’s power as museum visitors— in an age when museums are sensitive to audience values and expectations, including the increasing participation of families—and the greater economic power of women as patrons of the arts. The future looks bright for women philanthropists: there is so much to be done.

The last word goes to Cathryn Mittelheuser, reiterating what many women said to me: “People don’t realise how much pleasure there is in giving, when you see the results of your giving.” She quotes her sister Margaret’s advice to clients: “Secure a good living, educate your children so they can look after themselves, then give the rest away.” Sound guidance for a shared cultural future.

This article was originally published in the March/April 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Feature Words by Julie Ewington