Devoted to art

For over 50 years Janet Holmes à Court has championed the arts, and now holds the honour of 2018 Western Australian of the Year for Arts and Culture.

LYN DI CIERO

Janet Holmes à Court, philanthropist extraordinaire and indefatigable supporter of the arts, says being awarded the 2018 Western Australian of the Year for Arts and Culture was very much a surprise. “I had in fact supported someone else and would have loved them to receive the award. It’s certainly a great honour I really share with other people I’ve had the privilege to work with in many organisations. I believe you can’t achieve anything much in life on your own.” 

Janet Holmes à Court, awarded the 2018 Western Australian of the Year for Arts and Culture. Photo Frances Andrijich.

We meet at her new state-of-the-art storage facility for her 5000-strong art collection - a converted paint factory, tucked away in an unremarkable industrial area in West Perth. Inside, offices have also been created alongside a cavernous gallery space running the length of the building. As we settle in for a chat, the view from her office - with a wall of glass at one end - is not quite what you’d expect. As the lights turn on beyond the glass, racks of stored artworks stretch out into the distance. Both a private and public collection, with 300 to 400 works out on loan at any one time, she says it’s a collection accessible to the public. “I feel it’s a great privilege to have had the wherewithal to put it together.”

Apart from her Collection and a gallery at Vasse Felix winery in the South West showing a range of exhibitions throughout the year, Holmes à Court is busy on many arts fronts. She is Chair of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, a Board member of the Australian National Academy of Music, the Australian Major Performing Arts Group, the Chamber of Arts and Culture, the Australian Institute of Architects Foundation, and is a member of the Centenary Trust for Women Board of Advisors at the University of WA. She has won numerous awards recognising her contribution to the community and to business, including a Companion of the Order of Australia.

View from Mt Eliza, 1827, watercolour, 15 x 37cms by Frederick Garling. Janet Holmes à Court Collection.

Her extensive art collection had humble beginnings in 1960s Darlington, WA, during the early years of her marriage to entrepreneur Robert Holmes à Court (1937-1990), later Australia’s first billionaire. “We started collecting paintings like most people do - to decorate our walls. We were fortunate enough to live in Darlington at a time when many artists lived there. Each year there was an exhibition at the Darlington Town Hall and the first few we bought, by Bob Juniper, Guy Grey-Smith and Wim Boissevain, are still in the Collection. I have very fond memories of living there and I’ve often said Darlington is my spiritual home. It’s a gorgeous place.”

It wasn’t long before Holmes à Court began thinking of her art purchases as a long-term venture. “It was very early on I thought it would be fantastic if one day we had a gallery, so a lot of the collecting was about which works went with others with an exhibition in mind. Even now, when I see a catalogue for an exhibition, in the back of my mind I’m thinking, ‘what does that fit with in the collection?’”

Dusk Shadows, 2017, acrylic and oil on board, 60 x 120cm, by Peter Usher, hangs directly above Janet Holmes à Court’s desk in West Perth adjoining the Holmes à Court Gallery @ No. 10 Douglas Street. 

After her husband Robert’s death in 1990, the Collection moved to a purpose built facility in Keysbrook. While the building materials for the facility were considered safe at the time, in recent times they were considered unsafe by insurers and a hunt for new home for the Collection was underway. Holmes à Court says she found the current premises by mistake. “I hadn’t thought of West Perth as an option, but I was on my way to Backlot Studios, a little cinema a block away, when I noticed a ‘For Sale’ sign. It was very fortuitous. It took a couple of years to convert it, because the art storage area had to be climate controlled and be safe in terms of the security of the artworks. The great thing is it’s five minutes from where I live and closer for everyone who works here, and having the art together with a work space and gallery and performance space for the first time is very exciting.”

It’s unlikely the gallery/performance space will be used year round. “It will be impossibly expensive to air condition that part of the building,” she says. “Because of the corrugated roof, when it’s raining you can’t hear yourself think, and in summer it’s pretty hot, so we’ll use it when we can, climate permitting.” On the cards is the possibility of installing an air-conditioned ‘Quartet House’ inside the gallery space in summer. The circular, portable building, designed for string quartets, seats 52.   

 

Holmes à Court says she can’t imagine a world without music, theatre, painting or any of the arts. “I don’t think the world would be a very happy place without it. I think the fact human beings have been creating art ever since human beings could, is an indication it’s an essential part of people’s lives.”

UWA Publishing CEO Terri-ann White in conversation with Janet Holmes à Court at her new art storage facility in West Perth for a short film included in the 2017 exhibition Scratching the Surface: A selection of works from the Janet Holmes à Court Collection at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery. the University of WA. 

Asked about her favourite works in the Collection, Holmes à Court cites the book Muse: A Journey through an Art Collection, released last year by UWA Publishing, which offers a glimpse into her collecting. The book coincided with the exhibition Scratching the Surface: A Selection form the Janet Holmes à Court Collection at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery. She says her brief for the book was to choose 80 works from the Collection she would save if there was a fire. “There ended up being 150. There was a whole lot of other works I would have liked to include, so I’d certainly like to do a second book. It’s too hard a question to pick my favourite works in Collection, but I guess the list would include Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Rover Thomas, works by friends of mine, and the earliest work in the Collection, View from Mt Eliza by Frederick Garling, painted in 1827. It’s small, but exquisite. There’s also a work by Dobell titled the Char Lady - I absolutely love that work. Then there’s the work in my office by Peter Usher. Then there’s the ones my children have done.” I am convinced Holmes à Court could simply go on naming her favourite works until her Collection was exhausted. She mentions her recent marriage to mining businessman Gilbert George and shows me an exquisite hand-made wedding card on watercolour paper she received from sculptor Tony Jones. “Is marriage a shock after being single for so long?” I say. “No, it’s nice,” she says with a reassuring laugh. 

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