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Whiteley bequest one of Australia’s greatest cultural gifts and largest in Art Gallery of NSW's history

20 June 2022

Wendy and Arkie Whiteley at the opening of the Brett Whiteley Retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1995. Photo: AGNSW 

Wendy and Arkie Whiteley at the opening of the Brett Whiteley Retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1995. Photo: AGNSW 

The Art Gallery of New South Wales is honoured to be the joint recipient with the Brett Whiteley Foundation of the promised Wendy and Arkie Whiteley Bequest.

Comprising nearly 2000 artworks by Brett Whiteley, one of Australia’s most celebrated artists, the promised bequest, currently valued at over $100 million, will be one of the largest single donations in the Art Gallery’s 151-year history and among the most valuable collections of artworks donated to an Australian public art museum.

The bequest pays tribute to Wendy and Brett’s daughter Arkie, who died in 2001 aged just 37. With the passing of Arkie, Wendy became the sole custodian of the collection and her former husband’s legacy.

The bequest’s artworks are drawn from across the breadth of Brett Whiteley’s celebrated career and reflect the depth of his practice. Ownership of the collection is to be divided equally between the Art Gallery of NSW and the Brett Whiteley Foundation. The bequest includes paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, collage and ceramics, many of which have never been on public display before. A number of the rarely shown ceramics are included in the current Brett Whiteley Studio exhibition, Brett Whiteley: Blue and White.

Major paintings in the bequest include Autumn (near Bathurst) – Japanese Autumn 1987-88 and Grey harbour circa 1978, and early career highlights Somewhere in summer 1961 and The blue bathroom 1963, recently acquired by Wendy. Other major works reflect the artist’s travels and life spent abroad, such as The 15 great dog pisses of Paris 1989 and New York 1 1968, his love of birds and animals in The Lyrebird 1972-73 and Two giraffes no. 1 1965 and the Australian landscape in paintings such as Oberon (summer abstract) 1987.

The Art Gallery of NSW, which owns and manages the Brett Whiteley Studio, is also to receive the artist’s archive. To be held in its National Art Archive, which houses Australia’s largest collection of artist archives, the Brett Whiteley archive will be managed by Art Gallery archivists with the newly appointed senior curator of the Brett Whiteley Studio, Beatrice Gralton.

Proceeds from the future sale of Wendy Whiteley’s private Lavender Bay residence, her home since 1970 and where Brett, Wendy and Arkie lived, are to be left to the Brett Whiteley Foundation. Managed by a board of directors, including representation from the Art Gallery of NSW, the Brett Whiteley Foundation promotes and encourages knowledge and appreciation of the work of the late Brett Whiteley. Through the Brett Whiteley Studio, these funds will be directed towards the management and conservation of the collection, the staging of exhibitions – including in regional areas – the continuation of public and education programming and to support external projects.

Wendy Whiteley said: 'It's my great wish that the bequest provides incentives for people to have a go at a creative life. I want to encourage our young people and contemporary artists to think deeply and creatively, to be inspired by art history and to travel and see the world. Artists make people’s lives more interesting!

'I hope the gift of the collection and archive provides more opportunities for the public to experience Brett’s art. The bequest is an extension of the benefits that the Brett Whiteley Studio offers. The Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship provided by Brett’s mother Beryl is also available for young artists. It was inspired by the Italian Government Travelling Art Scholarship Brett received at the age of 20. Brett’s work is an example for younger generations that with a strong desire, hard work and talent, a creative life can be achieved. It is still possible.'

Art Gallery of NSW director Dr Michael Brand said: 'I thank Wendy Whiteley on behalf of the Art Gallery, and personally, for this extraordinary gift to the people of Sydney, New South Wales and Australia. Wendy has been an extremely generous Art Gallery benefactor over many years. She is a passionate collaborator and creator, as well as a great friend.

'Her extraordinary generosity extends from her ongoing curating of the Whiteley collection – to which she has added many works over recent years, including from the 1960s, the abstract series and the bathroom series – to the staging of exhibitions, some of which we have been delighted to share with our regional gallery partners. Like the Art Gallery, Wendy’s Secret Garden in Lavender Bay that she has worked tirelessly to create and maintain for the public, looks out over Sydney Harbour, the subject of some of Brett’s most famous paintings. This gift is yet another example of what an outstanding citizen of our harbour city Wendy Whiteley is, and why she continues to be so admired and revered.'

Samantha Meers, Brett Whiteley Foundation Chair said: 'Wendy’s extraordinarily generous gift will ensure that, alongside the Art Gallery of NSW, the Brett Whiteley Studio will continue to offer its visitors the inspiring experience of being immersed in a unique artist studio and at the same time, enjoying a collection of works made by one of Australia’s greatest artists.

'The Brett Whiteley Studio is 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. I admire Wendy enormously and am inspired by her generosity of spirit and her belief in the value and power of art,' Meers said.

Art Gallery of NSW Head curator of Australian art and Brett Whiteley Foundation member Wayne Tunnicliffe said: 'The promised bequest secures the future of the collection and the Brett Whiteley Studio. Changing exhibitions are developed from the collection, along with works owned by the Art Gallery, allowing new ways of looking at Whiteley’s art and times. Our popular touring programs attract large audiences around Australia. The collection will be made even more accessible now that it will be digitised, and students, artists, art historians, and the public will be able to view works online from anywhere.

The Foundation and the Art Gallery have a highly productive partnership and have supported many education, theatre, film and book initiatives in recent years as well as the Whiteley exhibition program.  A new jointly funded initiative is the creation of a senior curatorial position at the Studio. The appointment of Beatrice Gralton, with her record of curating innovative exhibitions by leading international and Australian artists, is indicative of the ambitious future we foresee for the Studio as a creative hub and the potential to continue to grow audiences.

About Wendy Whiteley

Wendy Whiteley (née Julius), herself a trained artist, met Brett Whiteley in 1957. She became his friend, then lover, model and wife for 32 years. Following the death of the couple’s daughter and only child, the actor Arkie Whiteley, in 2001, Wendy has managed the artist’s estate, acquiring new works for the collection, as well as curating and collaborating on exhibitions at the Brett Whiteley Studio and at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Wendy has also been responsible for the transformation of what was once a derelict and overgrown parcel of land owned by Rail Corp into Wendy’s Secret Garden, a living artwork adjacent to the Lavender Bay house she and Brett shared with Arkie, and which remains her private residence.

About Brett Whiteley

Brett Whiteley (1939-1992) is one of Australia’s most celebrated artists. He won the Art Gallery of NSW Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes, and his artistic career was entwined with his celebrity status in Australia and overseas. He worked across painting, sculpture, ceramics and the graphic arts, and is best known for his sensual and lyrical paintings of interiors, nudes and Sydney Harbour.

In 1976, Brett Whiteley won the Archibald and Sir John Sulman Prizes and in 1977 the Wynne Prize. In 1978, he became the first, and he remains the only, artist to win the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes in the same year.

Whiteley’s art was intimately connected to his tumultuous, creative life. From the late 1970s, his self-portraits – such as Art, life and the other thing 1978 – began to trace his heroin addiction, which increasingly impacted his life and career. Whiteley died on the New South Wales south coast in 1992.

About the Brett Whiteley Foundation

Managed by a board of directors, including representation from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Brett Whiteley Foundation promotes and encourages knowledge and appreciation of the work of the late Brett Whiteley. The Foundation is a company limited by guarantee and is a registered charity with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.