Cover Photo: Alina Gozin'a/Headpress

Billionaire arts patron Judith Neilson, who owns one of the world’s largest collections of contemporary Chinese art, reflects on the first decade of her non-profit White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney—and reveals what she’s working on next

Judith Neilson was just a child when she caught the collecting bug. She was eight or nine years old and living in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, when on a day out with her family she bought a tiny bottle of Coca-Cola for a single penny. Neilson was hooked. She loved the drink’s looping logo—and of course its taste. Now, the 72-year-old Sydney-based philanthropist owns more than 1,500 items of Coke paraphernalia, from run-of-the-mill red cans to a rare bottle covered in gold crystals that was released to celebrate the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Her sister has said Neilson has the largest Coke bottle collection in the world, something Neilson claims is not true.

But Neilson’s early experiences hunting for Coke have inspired her subsequent collecting, which has been record breaking—over the past 20 years, Neilson has built what is widely described as the world’s largest collection of Chinese art made since the turn of the millennium, numbering more than 2,500 works by almost 700 artists. Many of those pieces are exhibited on rotation in curated exhibitions at Neilson’s White Rabbit Gallery, a nonprofit, free-to-all space in Sydney that is celebrating its 10th anniversary and attracts roughly 120,000 visitors annually. This year Neilson marks another milestone: around the corner, she has opened Phoenix Central Park, a cultural centre envisioned as a gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art that combines architecture, interior design, visual art and performing arts. 

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Historical Record

Neilson’s passion for collecting changed from a private pursuit into an ambitious, civic-minded mission in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when she began travelling to China with the artist Wang Zhiyuan, a family friend. Neilson was already an avid collector, but she sensed that the work she was discovering in China was unparalleled in scale or ambition. “I decided to focus on Chinese art because China has the greatest number of practising artists in history—therefore, I would see more of the good, bad or ordinary than would be possible anywhere else,” explains Neilson, who at the time was a stay-at-home mother to two daughters, Beau and Paris, while her then husband, Kerr, managed Platinum Asset Management, a finance company that would later go public, making the couple billionaires overnight.

From those first trips to China, Neilson was focused on acquiring art made since the year 2000. “Several individuals had focused on and acquired magnificent collections of Chinese art pre-2000, holding key and important pieces; it would have been impossible for me to duplicate that,” she says. “I decided to take a very dedicated path and am fortunate I did, as in the last 20 years, the world has changed significantly. China has become a very important part of our world—and I have a wonderful document of that through art.”

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Neilson has experienced many of those changes firsthand. She has travelled to China more than 50 times and goes up to three times a year to visit artists the length and breadth of the country. Unlike many major collectors, she refuses to buy art at auction. “I don’t like acquiring art on the secondary market,” says Neilson, who rarely grants interviews and answers in short, to-the-point sentences, only occasionally elaborating. “By visiting and following artists, I see art at the start of the process.”

These trips aren’t always as glamorous as they might sound. “You’re in the car; you’re out of the car. You’re sitting down; you’re drinking tea. You’re looking at terrible stuff; you’re looking at nice stuff. You don’t speak the language. You’ve got these people trying to flog you rubbish. You’ve got these really nice people that want to maybe show you a friend. It is totally exhausting,” Neilson has previously said.

Open Mind

Nevertheless, they are crucial to Neilson and her collection. Aside from limiting herself to contemporary works, Neilson keeps an open mind on these journeys, happily seeing—and collecting—art regardless of size, medium, theme or whether the artist is old or young, male or female, emerging or established. She often travels with David Williams, curator of White Rabbit Gallery, who has worked at the institution since it opened.

“Judith is a force of nature when it comes to these trips. She relies on her amazing eye to buy on instinct and doesn’t go to China with any preconceived ideas of what she is looking for,” says Williams. “When we board the flights to China, Judith always says to me that we may not find anything on this trip, but it won’t be a waste of time. So far we have never come back empty-handed.”

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Two recent exhibitions that Williams curated to mark the White Rabbit Gallery’s 10th anniversary illustrate how the seismic social changes that have rocked China over the past two decades are reflected in Neilson’s collection. Then, which closed in February, featured works made before 2010 by more than 60 artists, many of whom explored how ideas of personal freedom, consumerism and nationalism played out in this decade of change in China. A painting of a Chinese flag made up of hundreds of tiny corporate logos by artist duo Zhu Yiqing and Xue Yongjun was a comment on the economic reforms that swept through the country in the 2000s, while a 3.5-metre-tall fibreglass sculpture of underpants by Wang Zhiyuan that lights up and plays music was an allusion to the growing commodification of love and sex in the country.

And Now, the follow-up show featuring works made since 2010, is currently closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but is scheduled to run until early 2021. “After that heady rush from 2000 to 2010, Judith saw a change in the art being produced,” says Williams. “Artists in China no longer merely reflect the transformation of China, but also echo an entire world in flux: eco-anxiety, governmental crackdowns, digital imprisonment disguised as liberation.” One of the highlights of the show is One Hundred Years of Repose, a six-metre-long painting by artist Yu Hong modelled on Jan van Eyck’s 1432 Ghent Altarpiece. At first glance, the painting appears to show a mixture of children and adults in blissful slumber, but on closer inspection, many of the subjects appear simply exhausted, some of them slumped uncomfortably against each other. Yu has said the work was partly inspired by the worn-out commuters she’d see on Beijing’s subway, many of them struggling to keep their eyes open after a day’s work. “The pace of development is too fast and the pressure on the individual is too high,” says Yu.

Art for All

Somewhat unusually, the publicly funded National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), the largest, oldest and most visited museum in Australia, hosted an exhibition last year specially to mark the White Rabbit Gallery’s 10th anniversary. “We curated a major exhibition to honour this occasion,” says Tony Ellwood, director of the NGV, referring to the show A Fairy Tale in Red Times: Works from the White Rabbit Collection. “I am just so impressed by the quality and depth of Judith’s collecting. There is no private collector like her in our country. White Rabbit Gallery has ensured that the importance of Chinese art and contemporary culture is respected and understood in Australia.”

More collaborative exhibitions may be on the cards for the White Rabbit Gallery, possibly at international institutions. “I believe that [people in] North America and Europe should be made aware of the incredible work and the many brilliant artists who live in China but do not have a voice outside it,” says Neilson. Adds Williams: “We really enjoyed the experience of working with the National Gallery of Victoria and more recently with the National Gallery of Australia on Xu Zhen®: Eternity vs Evolution [on until September 13]. The opportunity to share Judith’s collection and the incredible work by China’s leading contemporary artists with international institutions and audiences is a great goal for the next 10 years.”

Coming Up Next

Closer to home, the impact of the White Rabbit Gallery has been felt even by Sydneysiders who are not interested in art. The gallery is located in the inner-city district of Chippendale in a converted 1940s Rolls-Royce service depot that Neilson commissioned leading Australian architect William Smart to transform into a world-class exhibition space. As recently as the early 2000s, the area was associated with drugs and crime, but—partly thanks to the opening of White Rabbit Gallery—is now filled with buzzy restaurants and trendy apartments.

Neilson has become something of a fairy godmother to the area, pouring millions into a series of spectacular architectural projects. In 2016, she moved into a curvaceous concrete mansion in Chippendale named Indigo Slam, again designed by Smart, which is as much a sculpture as a home. Two years later, in the neighbouring industrial suburb of Alexandria, Neilson opened Dangrove, a storage facility designed by architect Alec Tzannes to house her White Rabbit Collection.

This year, Neilson has opened her most ambitious building yet: Phoenix Central Park, a performing arts centre and gallery next door to Indigo Slam. Phoenix has been designed by two architectural studios working in close collaboration, Durbach Block Jaggers and John Wardle Architects, the founder of which recently won the highest honour in Australian architecture, the Gold Medal of the Australian Institute of Architects. “I had seen their previous works and I believed they would be the most capable of executing my vision,” says Neilson.

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That vision was for a gesamtkunstwerk, a building that unites all art forms and is, in fact, a work of art itself. Several historic buildings embody the term, most famously Palais Stoclet in Brussels, which was completed in 1911 by architect Josef Hoffman and features mosaic murals by Gustav Klimt. But Neilson bats aside any connection to these past examples, many of which are ornate private homes. “I was not inspired by anyone or anything. All ideas are my own.”

She wanted to create a space where the connections between art forms become clear, and where different types of creative expression can mingle and enhance each other. The result is a striking building with a rippling brick façade and enormous circular windows, housing a gallery, stage, library and spaces for artist residencies. “Performing and visual arts are intrinsically connected,” says Neilson. “Visual art has performance [elements] and performing arts have sets, costumes—they are absolutely entwined. Architecture provides a home for all art.” Shows at Phoenix will range from the traditional—think solo piano recitals and opera—to edgy contemporary dance and performance art. Unlike the White Rabbit Gallery, creative groups from around the world—not just from China—can apply to host shows at Phoenix, and members of the public can’t walk in off the street.

It is yet to be seen how Phoenix will impact the neighbourhood or the arts, but, as with White Rabbit Gallery, Neilson is thinking big—and far into the future. “All of my buildings are designed for a specific purpose and function,” she says. “They are required to stand for at least 100 years.”

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