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Remarkable bequest from arts patrons in Adelaide inspired by legendary philanthropy

November 23rd, 2019

One of the most extraordinary Australian cultural gifts ever made has been revealed with the announcement of a $38 million bequest to the Art Gallery of South Australia from noted philanthropists James and Diana Ramsay.

Diana Ramsay and her favourite painting 'Diana and her nymphs bathing c.1778-82 - Angelica Kauffmann

The Ramsays had a long and distinguished commitment to the Art Gallery, starting with a Japanese lacquer tray from the 1700s that Diana Ramsay donated in 1972, which became part of an on-going gift of 80 works of art for the gallery’s collection.

The size of this bequest rivals the famous Felton Bequest that has been integral to the development of the National Gallery of Victoria. That remarkable bequest was an inspiration for the Ramsays during their philanthropic journey.

Under the terms of the James and Diana Ramsay bequest, it can only be used for the purchase of major works and cannot be used to expand the gallery, which has the smallest footprint of any of the state-based galleries.

AGSA director Rhana Devenport said the gallery’s great strength was the quality and depth of its collection and the bequest was an opportunity to build on that reputation.

“It will enable us to further enhance the excellence and depth of collections: it catapults us into another level,’’ Rhana said. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.’’

Central to that will be a strategic focus that will enable the gallery to expand its offering, potentially in international contemporary art. The diversity of those offerings – whether they are interactive media, arts working with AI, or large-scale works – represent a potential new stream of work that will build on the rich British, European, Australian and Indigenous art in the gallery.

“Patrons think about us in a particular way,’’ Rhana said. “This is a perfect scenario for major works to enter – to surprise, to treasure…’’

The bequest was established in James Ramsay’s will in 1994, two years before he died. When Diana died in 2017, the entirety of James’s estate was bequeathed to the Art Gallery of South Australia. Combined with a portion of Diana’s estate, the result is one of the nation’s greatest cultural gifts.

James and Diana Ramsay

In 2008, Diana established the James and Diana Ramsay Foundation that has an on-going role in providing additional programs for the gallery. It supports the successful children and family programs, which have seen over 300,000 children and families visit the Gallery since inception in 2013.  And on Diana’s 90th birthday, the AGSA and the Foundation launched the $100,000 acquisitive Ramsay Art Prize in perpetuity, one of Australia’s most generous and dynamic art prizes, which will also enhance the collection of the AGSA. 

Foundation Chairman Nicholas Ross said that James and Diana would not have known at the time of pledging their gifts that their own legacy would rival the famous Felton Bequest.

“We believe that this bequest will be the largest single cash donation ever given to an art gallery or museum in Australia, which is extraordinary,’’ Nicholas said.  “It is a very large capital fund that will continue to grow for the benefit of the community and has the capacity to transform the Gallery’s collection.’’

James Ramsay was the son of surgeon Sir John Ramsay, the first Australian surgeon knighted and the nephew of painter Hugh Ramsay. James and Diana bought many of Hugh’s works for the gallery. James’ family were heirs to the Kiwi boot polish business, while Diana was born into the Hamilton wine family. She started her love affair with art when she was only 10, when her father took her to the Gallery, and she was entranced by Nora Heysen’s painting Scabious.

Prophet Isaiah, Apostle St Peter, Sundar Singh 1936  - Christian Waller

The couple were well-known philanthropists, supporting not only the Gallery but the Australian Ballet, the Australian National Gallery, the Adelaide Youth Orchestra and the Helpmann Academy, among others. There was also support for medical research, at the University of Adelaide and at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute.

Philanthropy Australia CEO Sarah Davies hailed the inspiring gift. “It is one of, if not the largest cultural gift in Australia’s history,’ she said. “And, in addition to this, the James and Diana Ramsay Foundation was set up in 2008 to continue their long tradition of giving in perpetuity. The vision and foresight are absolutely inspiring.’’

Rhana is well-aware of the power and obligation that goes with such a remarkable bequest.

“It’s our duty, honour and responsibility to imbue this [gift] with the same sense of longevity as the Felton Bequest,’’ she said.

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