Danny Goldberg …or the perils of philanthropy

May 5, 2017
Picture by Nic Walker
Picture by Nic Walker

Danny Goldberg is the only Australian to appear in Artnews’s annual list of the world’s top 200 collectors of contemporary art. His modern harbourside home in Sydney’s eastern suburbs is crowded with works by figures such as David Hammons, Rudolf Stingel, Urs Fischer, Danh Vo, and other high-priced superstars you’ve probably never heard of. The fact that such artists are so little known in Australia is one of the things that gets under Goldberg’s skin. He believes there is a huge interest in contemporary art that is not being met by Australia’s public galleries, and he thinks he can fix the problem.

There’s nothing ostentatious about the Goldberg residence. It’s modern and filled with light; spacious, but crowded with furniture and artworks. Danny’s wife, Lisa – a serious force in the kitchen – is holding a meeting of her Monday Morning Cooking Club in one corner of the dining area. It’s a family home – a place for kids and conviviality, not a frosty temple for the display of a collection that has grown by almost 600 pieces over the past five years. Every acquisition has a story attached, from visits to artists’ studios, to purchases from art fairs and top-end galleries in New York or London.

Although he may be a compulsive collector Goldberg is not a hoarder. “There’s no point spending money on art that sits in storage,” he says. “It needs to be seen or I can channel my funds into some other endeavour.”

One wonders if he’s serious. This man has been bitten so hard by the art bug that to stop buying and put his money elsewhere would be like trying to turn around an express train.

Small, trim and bespectacled, Goldberg speaks in precise, deliberate sentences. He has a logical mind that has served him well in the finance business. Today he is Executive Chairman of private equity firm, Dakota Capital – Australia, but he got his big break in the early 1990s when he entered the property market at a time of recession. Since then he has built what he calls “a diversified international portfolio of investments. Some of it is a bit arcane.”

While he’s happy to spend money on art, Goldberg needs to have a greater goal than simply enriching his trophy cabinet. The trick is to convince everybody else – notably the directors of Australia’s art museums – that he’s concerned with the public, not just himself.

Goldberg has a dream. He wants to share his collection with the people of Australia – not merely those in Sydney or Melbourne, but the entire country. He wants the public galleries to share the works, but this goes against their ingrained tendency to compete rather than co-operate. He’s found that instititutions don’t take kindly to a rich collector telling them how they can improve their act.

Others would have given up the fight by now but Goldberg is stubborn. He knows he has a good idea and believes museums can’t afford to be aloof when they no longer have the resources to acquire high-priced contemporary work.

Goldberg grew up in Dover Heights, the second son of an upper-middle class Jewish family. His father was a GP and his mother, a teacher. Food and art were the family’s ruling passions, and a weekend’s activities would often include a visit to a restaurant and a gallery. With money he’d saved from a summer job in year 11 he bought his first work of art – a painting by Robert Juniper from the Barry Stern Galleries. Two years later he acquired a Tim Storrier.

His first international purchase came in May 1993. It was a work on paper by Gerhard Richter, who according to Artnet News has been the world’s most valuable artist in the period from 2011-16, with sales worth more than US $1.65 billion. Not a bad start, but further progress was slow. Goldman estimates he owned only four or five international works until five or six years ago. He had done what so many casual collectors do, ceasing to buy when there was no more room on the walls of his home and office.

In 2011 he spent extended periods in New York while his family remained in Sydney. He set himself a challenge: to buy works by ten emerging artists, thinking that in ten years time he’d be able to judge how good his eye had been. Three months later he’d acquired more than 50 works and realised he’d have to “find something intelligent to do with this art or stop buying.”

From this time onward he began to divest himself of his Australian holdings, through donations and occasional sales. He had multiple works by artists such as Bronwyn Oliver, Rosalie Gascoigne and Robert Klippel, but has kept only one of each.

“I began to realise how fantastic this international art was,” he says. “And I was sure that others would want to see it. The number of people who attended the Sydney Biennale, and flocked to the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, told me there was genuine interest. I felt I could use my passion for art to do something for the community.”

The urge to do something for the greater good was not a new departure for Goldberg, who has spent ten years as Chair of Planning at the Jewish Communal Appeal. Now his sights are set on the broader national interest.

“Some people who give to charity are happy to support any good cause,” he explains, “but in the new world of philanthropy donors are more likely to give money to a project that resonates with them. This is how it works in America, where they have different kinds of acquisition groups in museums that vote on what they want to acquire.”

Goldberg’s growing profile as a collector has been recognised in the United States where he is on the boards of the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC – which has Australian, Melissa Chiu as director; and MoMA PS1 in New York.

Picture by Nic Walker

Picture by Nic Walker

When asked which galleries he buys from, he pauses and replies: “Most”. Pressed further, he admits a preference for Buchholz and Gagosian in New York, Sadie Coles in London, and Xavier Hufkens of Brussels. To be a regular customer at the world’s leading commercial galleries means becoming a member of a highly exclusive club. It’s virtually impossible to walk in off the street and simply buy a painting.

According to fellow collector, Steven Nasteski, Goldberg is proof that a collector can buy his way into this élite circle. “He didn’t get there through natural charm,” says Nasteski. “He’s got a great big wallet – a lot bigger than mine. He’s more adventurous too. Where I might buy one work by a big name artist for $5 or 6 million, he’ll buy speculative things.”

Goldberg says that even though he started with emerging artists he’s shifted focus to more established figures “because that’s what the Australian museums want to show.” Today he estimates that only 25 per cent of the collection would fall under the “emerging” label. Since January he’s purchased works by four of the biggest names in contemporary art.

Having become a valued customer at the über-galleries, the only way one can remain on the books is by constant acquisition. For Goldberg this might mean buying an expensive piece from a set of jpegs sent from New York, trusting in his prior knowledge of an artist’s work.

Nasteski estimates there are no more than ten collectors in Australia who buy international contemporary art at the highest levels, perhaps as few as six. He identifies Goldberg as by far the most prolific and the most driven. Nasteski remembers saying hello at an art fair, only to be told: “It’s the first hour of the fair. I can’t talk!”

Goldberg may have powerful acquisitive urges, but almost as soon as he started buying art he has been trying to give it away. “In 2013 I offered to gift the collection to the Australian art museums if they would share it,” he says. “I believe that proposal was taken to a meeting of the Australian Gallery Directors Council (AGDC) in early 2014, and rejected as being too hard.”

Frustrated by his discussions with museum directors and curators, Goldberg contends that Australian audiences have been “denied the opportunity to see the best the world can offer.” His response has been to sponsor two travelling exhibitions. The first was Stars + Stripes: American Art of the 21st Century, which toured nine Australian regional galleries from October 2014 to November 2016.

His next effort is Eurovisions: Contemporary Art from the Goldberg Collection, which will be shown at Sydney’s National Art School Gallery from 2 June – 5 August, before travelling to Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne; Canberra Museum and Art Gallery; and Bathurst Regional Art Gallery.

He explains: “With Eurovisions I culled the choice of works to a hundred, then said to the curators: ‘I respect the fact that it’s your exhibition, not mine. Here’s a hundred works. You decide which ones you want to show.’ I think Sydney will show about 60, Heide will maybe show 40. Canberra will show a number in-between. It’ll be a different line-up in each venue.”

This unorthodox approach allows local curators more autonomy than they usually have with travelling shows. Among the artists likely to be included are Rudolf Stingel, Urs Fischer, Ugo Rondinone, Isa Genzken, Antony Gormley, Katharina Grosse, Sarah Lucas, Wolfgang Tillmans, Danh Vo, Heimo Zobernig, and many others who are wellknown internationally, but only seen in Australia via the Sydney Biennale or Kaldor Public Art Projects.

Outside of Eurovisions Goldberg is lending an additional 50 works to be shown at the Art Gallery of NSW, Monash University Museum of Art, and the Art Gallery of South Australia in exhibitions generated by those museums.

Since Goldberg first tried to interest the museums in sharing his collection there has been a global trend in favour of so-called “public-private partnerships”, with the flagship being the long-term loan of the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection to San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in an agreement announced in 2009 and implemented in May 2016, when the institution reopened after a full-scale renovation.

Donald Fisher, who made his fortune from clothing retailer, The Gap, had originally suggested a partnership to SFMOMA in 2005, but was turned down. By 2009 the museum had reconsidered, and negotiated a deal with the billionaire shortly before his death later that year. The details are far from transparent, but the term of the loan is 100 years, with many works being gradually gifted to the collection. The Museum’s reopening exhibition featured 260 works from the Fisher Collection, including pieces by Anselm Kiefer, Agnes Martin, Roy Lichtenstein, Willem De Kooning, Philip Guston, Gerhard Richter, and many other big names in American and German post-war art.

In October last year Goldberg booked a meeting with SFMOMA director, Neal Benezra, and senior curator, Gary Garrels, to ask: “How do I take this idea to Australia?”

He lays out their reasons as to why any museum should enter into a public-private partnership: “Firstly, there is no prospect, given the inflation of art prices, that more than three or four museums worldwide will have the money to build world class collections. Those days have gone.”

“Secondly, one of the big issues with museums, in terms of costs, is not simply acquiring the work, but dealing with insurance and storage. Then there’s this question of deaccessioning, which means museums struggle morally to sell works. So what a public-private partnership – which is really a long-term loan – provides, is the ability to return all the works at some point in time and request some of them back.”

“Neal Benezra looked at my collection and said: ‘If we say the Fisher Collection was worthy of a 100-year loan, because the majority of these works will probably be shown for 100 years, the right number for your collection is 25-40 years.’”

It may seem that SFMOMA is a special case but Melissa Chiu, who has worked as director of the Asia Society in New York before taking the job at the Hirshhorn Museum, says: “Partnerships between public museums and individuals have always been prevalent but with the increase of the numbers of private collectors globally, this has greatly increased. In the US where most museums are privately supported this is simply a way of doing business. The practice has had an enormous impact on collections and exhibitions.”

When Goldberg took the public-private partnership idea to the directors of four Australian art museums. He told them: “This is what’s important to me if I’m to lend my collection on a long term basis: ‘How many other museums are you prepared to share it with? I’m not going to make this an all-or-nothing proposition. You can choose as many works as you like, but I want to know an average number you will commit to showing each year.’”

Choosing his words carefully, Goldberg says the reactions were “interesting”. He didn’t get a strong sense that anyone was particularly keen.

“The basic response was: We want to expand. We have proposals before the government. When we get our expansions going we’ll need you, as we don’t have work to represent the current decade. But right now we have limited space and sharing doesn’t interest us.”

In defence of the museums the idea of a public-private partnership with a collector may seem untried and potentially dangerous. Museum directors and curators are a deeply territorial breed who resent any imposition on their own authority when it comes to choosing works. They are also concerned about being perceived to be “adding value” to private collections, although there seem to be plenty of exceptions to this rule.

Michael Brand, director of the Art Gallery of NSW, says it’s potentially a great idea but that “its ultimate benefits would depend on the conditions, including costs”. He says he has had a number of discussions with Goldberg over recent years about both gifts and loans, as well as this specific proposal.

“The opportunity to supplement our collections by showing works of art that it is not possible for us to acquire for our own collections is a benefit but the drawback is if the terms of such loans undermined ongoing patterns of philanthropy or interfered with the independent curatorial voice of each institution.”

Goldberg hit another stumbling block when three out of four directors suggested that if he agreed to lend his collection to their museum alone, they’d be willing to listen. He says that his own response was: “Don’t you have a national obligation? Can’t this be about Australia, rather than your museum?”

Apparently not, as the museums have become increasingly unwilling to co-operate over the past decade, partly due to pressure from state governments that insist on exclusivity as a way of cornering the tourist dollar. The upshot of this demand is that art museums are saddled with huge fees and costs that have to be recouped from attendances. But when institutions refuse to share there are less people who get to see an important exhibition, smaller profits, and vastly increased pressures.

Picture by Nic Walker

Picture by Nic Walker

Nevertheless, because state governments are responsible for the annual budgets of the major galleries it’s entirely predictable that directors will stick with the imperative of putting their own constituencies first.

Nick Mitzevich, of the Art Gallery of South Australia, is cited by Goldberg as the director who is most willing to listen and try something new. This is partly because Mitzevich has a painfully small budget from the state government, which means he is obliged to work with private collectors in a more proactive fashion.

When I spoke to Mitzevich he praised Goldberg’s generous contribution to the AGSA show Versus Rodin, an innovative blend of modern and contemporary art that draws heavily on important private collections. Typically, Goldberg had gone beyond what was requested, even buying new works for the occasion. Of the 14 pieces he contributed, works by Wolfgang Tillmans, Cecily Brown and Seth Price were acquired for the exhibition.

Mitzevich believes the major galleries are gradually coming around to the idea of collaboration under the pressure of budget cuts, increasing costs, efficiency dividends, and the perennial struggle to find private and corporate sponsors. Yet he also thinks Goldberg’s initiative is premature. He can’t see anyone being prepared to put the “national interest” ahead of their own state. It simply doesn’t work like that.

Faced with this impasse, Goldberg fired off an email to the Office of the Prime Minister outlining his proposal and the resistance he’d encountered. Three hours later he received a phone call from Malcolm Turnbull, who was intrigued by the idea, and organised a meeting with the Federal Minister for the Arts, Mitch Fifield. The promptness of the response surprised Goldberg, who had met Turnbull only once before, in relation to Jewish communal planning.

Given the intractable, factional problems that have plagued the Turnbull government, Goldberg’s proposal must have seemed like a no-brainer. Here was a wealthy businessman willing to lend his entire collection to the art museums of Australia if only they’d agree to share it around. No cost to the taxpayer involved. Not even a tax break for the lender.

Goldberg is keen to address suspicion about his motives. On the idea that he wants the public gallery imprimatur to drive up the value of his collection, he says he’s only sold one work from his 600-strong international collection – for less than $10,000. “The reason I have not sold any other works has been to ensure that no-one suggests I am doing this for profit,” he says. He adds: “Were you to ask a qualified auctioneer of international art what value is attached to the provenance of an Australian museum, I believe the likely answer is zero. To further confirm that value accretion is not what is driving this exercise: there have been instances where works were requested by Australian museums at the same time as overseas museums and I have chosen to lend them to the Australian ones.”

As to whether showing in Australian public museums will push him higher up the pecking order of the international galleries he buys from: “I’m sure it is a factor, but not as significant as the fact that I am a significant client of most of the galleries from whom I buy art, as well as being a trustee of two major American museums and sitting on one of their acquisition committees.”

Goldberg’s mantra in his dealings with the museums and the government is: “It’s not about me.” The grand concept he is now trying to sell is called The Library. Rather than entering into a public-private partnership with a single museum, as the Fishers did with SFMOMA, Goldberg would like Australia’s collectors of international art to join with him to create a ‘library’ of works to be drawn upon by all the major institutions. This was another proposal he put before the AGDC in 2014 which found no favour.

There may be only a small number of top-level collectors in Australia but they have amassed significant holdings. Goldberg assumes that, like him, these collectors have more work than can be shown on the walls of their homes and offices, and would like their acquisitions to be seen by a bigger audience. The Library would also act as an encouragement to wealthy Australians who are only beginning to collect art.

The concept has an elegant simplicity that must appeal to politicians, who are unwilling to hand over money to the arts when the budget comes under pressure. The scheme is less appealing to museums learning to adjust to a new operating environment in which they need to work more Goldberg has held meetings about The Library with both Brand from the AGNSW and with Senator Fifield. He says the response of the former was “unsatisfactory”.

For his part, Brand points out that there is precedent for this kind of lending program, but can see some issues and concerns. “For many years Eli Broad generously shared his collection in this way before he established his own private art museum in Los Angeles,” he says. “A significant impediment would be the notion of public art museums sharing at least some of the storing and insuring works from a private collection, and signing an agreement guaranteeing to display them publicly for certain periods, without any understanding that at least some of those works would eventually be donated or bequeathed to the art museum. Another impediment would be if such loans reduced our curatorial independence or our ability to show works of art from our own collection.”

Fifield was more positive, and wanted to hear details of Goldberg’s ideas. The problem, however, is that the Senator’s powers are limited when it comes to the art museums. He can’t force new procedures on the states if they are unwilling to co-operate. The best he could do was refer the matter to his advisors who will analyse the practicalities of the scheme.

This means Goldberg is back where he started, having to convince the museum directors, one by one, that he is offering them something of great civic value. He’s even prepared to subsidise storage and insurance costs to neutralise the accusation that he is simply after free accommodation for his collection.

“I’ve been trying for five years,” he says, “and I’m happy to continue for another five if I feel I’m getting somewhere. The problem is making a sustainable difference, and that’s where I’m hitting a brick wall. The real challenge of leadership is responding to change. We know that state and federal goverments aren’t going to increase their funding for the arts, so I’m offering an idea. It’s not for me to make policy.”

Published in the Australian Financial Review Magazine, May 2017

(With thanks to Katrina Strickland for the Michael Brand quotes, and Nic Walker for the brilliant photos)