From small screen to deep philanthropy – Neil Balnaves

A deep commitment to the arts, education, health and social justice was at the heart of Neil Balnaves’ broad philanthropy. Earlier this week, it was announced that Neil had passed away in a boating accident near Tahiti, at the age of 77.

Neil had a stellar career as a television executive who was behind a long list of popular program successes at Southern Star productions, before he established The Balnaves Foundation in 2006.

The Balnaves Foundation is a proud supporter of a range of arts organisations, including Sydney’s Ensemble and Belvoir St theatres, the Art Galley of NSW, the Australian Museum, the TarraWarra Museum of Art, the Art Gallery of South Australia, the Adelaide Festival and Bangarra Dance Theatre. Neil believed that culture helped define Australia and often expressed his frustration that governments did not provide more support for the nation’s artists.

But the Foundation is also involved with education, medical research and our First Nations, ranging from the University of NSW’s Indigenous Law Centre to Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital and the Black Dog Institute. In recent years, the Foundation has been supporting Indigenous Affairs reporting at Guardian Australia, which has generated groundbreaking coverage of Indigenous issues and garnered numerous journalism awards, and also an Australian Philanthropy Award. More recently the Foundation has supported Australian Arts in Focus reporting at Guardian Australia.

After a serious boating accident in 2002. Neil emerged with the idea that became the family foundation. “I really came to the conclusion…that it was good to give something back to the country that has been good to me,” he said in 2013.

The Foundation has committed more than $40 million in grants since it was established, with more than $20 million of that total going to the arts.

Many of the nation’s leading arts administrators praised Neil’s commitment to all forms of artistic expression, from visual arts, to theatre and dance, describing him as “…never a passive philanthropist.’’

Neil described the arts as “the soul of the country.’’ “What defines Australia is its culture,’’ he said last year. “If we have a vibrant arts world – whether it’s theatre, playing music, reading books at the library, whatever it is, it opens up the soul.’’

His approach was often to undertake long-term partnerships – such as the Story Factory, a writing centre for young people in Redfern and Parramatta and the Museum of Contemporary Art– and to leverage his funding.

Neil explained this approach in an interview last November: “We also took the decision that when we give money, we add value to it. Say if we gave a grant to somebody, we would help them with other grants in a similar area to cross-fertilise ideas to get more value out of it.’’

In the Foundation’s 2021 annual report, Neil outlined just how committed he was to maintaining that support for Australian culture.

“As we look forward, we will continue to promote and advocate for the Arts, a vital yet unacknowledged catalyst for connection and interaction throughout the pandemic.” he wrote.

“The Foundation is proud to foster and support emerging creative talent, and make arts and culture in all forms accessible to all Australians. It is our goal that through our collaborative partnerships we will achieve lasting change and long-term positive impact.”

More than a decade ago, the Foundation started funding an Indigenous Medicine Scholarship at the University of NSW, recognizing that financial disadvantage was a challenge for some Indigenous students. That initiative became something of a template for the Foundation’s decision last year to support the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) with a scholarship for First Nations students, that includes student support, through an Elder in Residence, a mentoring scheme and paid internships to help the artist start a network that can nourish further opportunities. The Balnaves Foundation became NIDA’s Principal Patron of its First Nations Program. The Foundation has also funded the Balnaves Chair in Constitutional Law at UNSW (a position held by Professor Megan Davis), and helped to build Nura Gili, the Centre for Indigenous Programs at the UNSW.

Neil was a long-time supporter of Philanthropy Australia through the Foundation and in 2010 he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for his services to business and philanthropy.

He was a former Chancellor of Charles Darwin University, and a former Director and Trustee Member of Bond University. He received a honorary doctorate from Bond University in 2009 and a honorary doctorate from the University of NSW in 2010. Neil had also been a former member of the Advisory Council and Dean’s Circle at the UNSW’s Faculty of Medicine as well as previously serving on the Board of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Director of the Sydney Orthopaedic Research Institute and a member of the Chairman’s Circle at Sydney Theatre Company.

Neil is survived by his wife Diane, daughter Victoria, both of whom are Trustees for the Foundation and son Hamish, who is the Foundation’s Chief Executive Officer.

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