When Philip Bacon was a boy, he remembers his grandmother sitting at the family dinner table and asking anyone who got ahead of themselves: ‘Who invited Mr Boasty tonight?’
Many years later, the anecdote stands as a predictor of the discrete and understated approach Philip has taken to a lifetime of philanthropy. He admits he’s not comfortable putting himself forward, but in the space of two months Philip Bacon has been given rare recognition: as the 2019 Leading Philanthropist, Queensland Community Foundation’s Philanthropist of the Year and admission to the Queensland business Leaders Hall of Fame. It adds to an impressive list of other honours, including an AM (Member, Order of Australia) in 1999.
He sounds a little bemused at the recent attention, especially when he feels that what he has done is really an extension of his career in visual art. There wasn’t an overt sense of giving in his family, although Philip remembers his father’s willingness to roll up his sleeves and help the local community, especially the Catholic church. It led to one vivid memory of his father trying to teach one of the nuns to drive. The learner driver happened to be Philip’s formidable third grade teacher and the image of the severe nun in her habit and wimple, shrieking while she tried to control the steering wheel, stayed with the young Philip.
He was studying a law degree at the University of Queensland when a group of artists convinced him that he should open an art gallery in Brisbane. That was in 1974, and since then, the Philip Bacon Galleries has become one of the nation’s most highly regarded galleries, featuring the work of some of Australia’s finest artists, many of them with international reputations – Margaret Olley, Fred Williams, Jeffrey Smart, Ray Crooke, Cressida Campbell, Robert Dickerson and Charles Blackman. Philip befriended Olley and through their 40-year association, she helped shape his approach to supporting the arts. “Margaret was very good at telling people to do things,” Philip recalls. “‘What’s it all about?’ she would say.”
The question only had one answer – if you had the opportunity, you had to do what you could. Olley was a noted mentor and investor in young artistic talent. And Philip saw the difference it made. “Margaret was right,” Philip says, “you do have to support the culture and institutions you believe in.”
And he has, not only donating across a range of cultural pursuits but also giving time, expertise and insight as a board member on organisations including the Queensland Art Gallery - Gallery of Modern Art Foundation, the Brisbane Festival, the Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University and the National Gallery of Australia. At Opera Australia, Philip has helped promote new Australian work that captured unique Australian stories. He commemorates his friend Olley with the Olley Project that will eventually provide a comprehensive database of all the artist’s exhibited works.
“I don’t have a structure for my giving. I don’t have a foundation, so my giving is instinctive and personal. I can’t hide behind a set of rules and you can make those decisions yourself,” Philip says. Over the years, he has become aware of what he calls the ‘ecology’ of the arts, that embraces a holistic view of the creative process. It revealed itself to him during his first board appointment, to Opera Australia in the 1990s. “I realised how hard it was to get a show up, and as a result I donate more to performing arts because institutions can’t operate alone or without people,” Philip says. “I rarely give direct financial support to visual artists (except, obviously, by exhibiting their work in my gallery) – I don’t really approve of handouts and the idea of the struggling artist in the garret, really doesn’t exist anymore. And the closer you get to any institution, you realise how important it is to contribute to it.”
Philip has seen up close the range of altruism hundreds of Australians show each year during his time as the former Deputy Chair of the Order of Australia Council. Twice a year, he would immerse himself in about 1200 nominations, many of them extending to 25 pages each, that he and the awards committee would sift through to try to recognise with Australia Day and Queen’s birthday honours. “They were so often amazing and wonderful people. It was overwhelming what some people were doing,” Philip says. “And the Council secretariat would get the most beautiful letters from award recipients who would say things like: ‘I can’t accept this. I was just helping out’. It’s a lovely Australian trait. And it has certainly reinforced for me, just how much giving, below the radar, we Australians are apt to do.”
Not surprisingly perhaps, Philip is no fan of pretence: art is art, and an art gallery is a shop. He tells new staff about one gallery visitor he had years ago who appeared at the front door, looking disheveled and a little disoriented. She was carrying a big bag. Philip started to chat to her. It turned out the woman had lived on Thursday Island. Co-incidentally, one of Philip’s stable of artists– the late Ray Cooke – had spent a great deal of time on the island. The conversation took off. The visitor told Philip that she had been to other galleries around Brisbane, but no one had treated her so well until she met Philip. He showed her around the gallery and she identified some paintings she wanted to buy. Then she opened her big bag and handed over wads of cash to pay for the paintings. “This is a shop. We are open to the public,” Philip explains. “I hate the thought of us appearing to be so aloof that visitors feel it isn’t for them. I like to think we’ve made a whole generation of people feel more comfortable about going to a cultural institution.”
The tenor of Philip’s relationship with his artists – so many of them on the list of Australia’s finest– is multi-faceted. “A good art dealer is an artist’s banker, psychiatrist, marriage guidance counsellor, sometimes a bully, sometimes a brother, a funder. And then they can leave you,” Philip says. Discretion is at the heart of the relationship.
“There is growing philanthropy in my space. It’s helped by organisations such as Philanthropy Australia, and the high media presence of fundraisers, plus the universities are very good at their staff giving. The [cultural] institutions are also getting better at it, with their philanthropic development officers – not in the league of the US – but we’re getting better at asking. With government funding declining, philanthropy has become more important for our cultural institutions.”
For all of that, Philip, 72, doesn’t subscribe to any ulterior motive or spiritual impetus to drive his philanthropy. “I don’t think I’m buying my way into heaven,” he says. “But it’s very fulfilling. I really do believe in ‘give while you live’ – you can see the results and I do get a buzz from that.”