Art

Wendy Whiteley’s extraordinary $100 million gift to NSW

The Wendy and Arkie Whiteley Bequest honors in name and spirit the couple’s daughter Arkie, who died in 2001 from cancer, aged just 37, nine years after her father. With the passing of Arkie in 2001, Wendy became the sole custodian of the collection and her former husband’s legacy.

“Certainly this is Brett’s legacy, but it is also mine and my daughter’s because we made it happen,” Wendy said.

Wendy and Brett Whiteley were married for 32 years after meeting as teenagers, a couple who personified the Bohemian spirit and became darlings of the global art scene.

One Walker Street became home to the Whiteleys upon their return to Sydney from New York, via Fiji. The couple’s outlook over Lavender Bay features famously in Brett Whiteley’s major works including the Archibald Prize-winning Self portrait in the studio 1976, his Sir John Sulman Prize-winning Interior with time past 1976, and The jacaranda tree (on Sydney Harbor) 1977.

The significance of the home’s view and setting was recognised with state heritage listing in 2018, along with the house and former studio, and parts of a waterfront oasis that Wendy Whiteley has transformed from derelict railway land.

Proceeds from the future sale of the Lavender Bay home will contribute towards the management and conservation of the collection, many items on current loan to the Art Gallery of NSW. It will also support management of the Surry Hills studio, exhibitions, regional tours and public and education programs.

Wendy Whiteley on the balcony of the heritage-listed Lavender Bay home.

Wendy Whiteley on the balcony of the heritage-listed Lavender Bay home. Credit:Jessica Hromas

Brett Whiteley bought the Raper St warehouse in 1985 and converted it into a studio. After his death in 1992, it was purchased by the NSW government and ownership transferred to the Art Gallery.

As one of the few artist studios open to the Australian public, Wendy regards the Brett Whiteley Studio as an important source of inspiration for young artists and a corrective to her ex-husband’s rock star reputation. “That’s where his real life was,” she said.

The Art Gallery will be the repository for the Whiteley archives, containing papers and letters significant to the couple’s life and art practice, which Whiteley has been progressively bringing together for at least two years.

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Whiteley said it was her wish that the bequest inspire a creative life and provide more opportunities for young artists to experience Whiteley’s art.

“When we were really young, and that’s the ’50s we are talking about, the support for young artists was minimal,” she said.

“You would go to the Art Gallery of NSW in order to get what was the most important support of all and that was inspiration and the feeling that it was all possible.”

Chair of the Brett Whiteley studio Samantha Meers said Wendy had made an extraordinarily generous gift in support of a remarkable space.

“It is not only an opportunity to display Brett’s work where much of it was made, it also allows visitors access to the broader act of art making, educating emerging artists and the public about what can, at times, be a mysterious and solitary process .”

Major artists’ gifts to the nation

  • John Kaldor’s gift of 260 works of contemporary art in 2008, valued then at $35 million, included pieces by Christo, Jeff Koons, Robert Rauschenberg, Sol LeWitt, Gilbert & George, Richard Long, Carl Andre and Andreas Gursky.
  • Tweed River Regional Gallery in Murwillumbah received a million-dollar bequest in 2011 from Margaret Olley to build a replica of the beloved painter’s home studio decorated with her own works.
  • In 1993 Paul Keating accepts Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people of their south coast property of Bundanon, and a collection of the artist’s works along with those of Sidney Nolan, John Perceval, Charles Blackman and others.

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