The power of giving

By Michael Visontay

Over the past 50 years, John Power’s landmark bequest to the University has nurtured generations of Australia’s leading curators, historians and artists.
Image of John Power

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Power bequest to the University to foster the study of art and art history, a gift estimated to be worth $42 million in today’s money, according to Julia Horne’s recently published history of the University. It is the single largest donation ever made to the University and has helped educate generations of students who have developed into some of Australia’s leading curators, historians, artists, gallery directors and critics. The notable Power alumni have made their mark at home and overseas (see accompanying story).

In addition to the education of students, the bequest has also provided seed funding to the Museum of Contemporary Art, at Circular Quay, to the value of $23 million over 20 years or so.

The bequest by John Wardell Power was to “make available to the people of Australia the latest ideas and theories in plastic arts by means of lectures and teaching and by the purchase of the most recent contemporary art of the world … so as to bring the people of Australia in more direct touch with the latest art developments in other countries,” according to the terms of his will.

The bequest might be best understood as a response to Fascism and war – an affirmation of his belief in the humanist values of art and cosmopolitan exchange.

Power graduated as a doctor from the University in 1904 and left Australia in 1906, the same year he inherited the greater part of his father’s fortune from an insurance company, according to Dr Ann Stephen, Senior Curator of the University Art Gallery and Art Collections.

“The bequest might be best understood as a response to Fascism and war – an affirmation of his belief in the humanist values of art and cosmopolitan exchange.”

Power joined the Royal College of Surgeons in London and served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in World War 1. After the war, with the encouragement of his wife, Edith Mary James, Power gave up medical research to study art in Paris. He became an artist and benefactor in Paris to many artists in the 1930s.

He became closely involved with the Paris-based Abstraction-Creation, its membership was international, based on exiles from Russia, Poland and the Fascist regimes in Spain, Germany and Italy. Although Power had a solo exhibition in Paris in 1938, according to Stephen, the threat of war prompted the Powers to leave Paris that year for the apparent safety of Jersey in the Channel Islands.

“It proved a terrible choice, as Jersey was occupied by the Germans in June 1940. Power wrote his will the week after war was declared,” says Stephen. He died of cancer, in 1943, still on the island.

His will and the University bequest did not come to light until after the death of Power’s wife, Edith, in 1962. Dr Stephen says his bequest “might be best understood as a response to Fascism and war – an affirmation of his belief in the humanist values of art and cosmopolitan exchange in engendering international understanding.”

The legacies of Power exhibition series

The University is holding four exhibitions to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Power bequest, based on the Power Collection.

The first, Joseph Beuys and the “Energy Plan”, focusing on the groundbreaking German artist and his photographer Werner Kruger, ran from April until June. The second is Vibration: Latin American Art of the Sixties, which runs from July to September.

It will be followed by two exhibitions specifically dedicated to Power: JW Power and Abstraction Creation, which is a recreation of Power’s 1934 exhibition in Paris.

“Power’s career in Paris was unprecedented for an Australian, and its avant-garde status demands our attention,” writes Dr Stephen. “Through the forthcoming exhibition, that recreates his 1934 one-person exhibition with Abstraction Création in Paris, we will reveal how Power was an artist at home in London, Paris and Brussels in the interwar years. He learned to paint as a cubist, and his painting evolved into part-abstract surrealism, part-surreal abstraction.

“Power was also deeply engaged in the art worlds in which he moved and worked, contributing to artists’ groups and societies, exhibiting and writing, particularly as a member of the international avant-garde gathered in Paris in the 1930s. His work illuminates the relationships between Sydney and Paris, and between France and Australia, an exchange that goes to the heart of our modernism.”

Finally, Atelier Paris: the Power Studio, looks at the legacy of the studio for Australian artists and art writers.

Power alumni include

  • Bruce Adams, writer/art historian
  • Neil Armfield, theatre director
  • Geoff Batchen, Professor of Art History, Victoria University, Wellington
  • Nicholas Baume, Director, New York Public Art Fund
  • Mara Braye, CEO Biennale of Sydney
  • Gordon Bull, Head, School of Art, ANU
  • Meredith Burgmann, NSW Labor politician
  • Rex Butler, Associate Professor, Art History, University of Queensland
  • Jane Campion, film director
  • Deborah Clark, Curator of the Canberra Museum and Gallery
  • Dinah Dysart, author, former editor of Art & Australia and inaugural editor of Art Asia-Pacific, and former director of the SH Ervin Gallery
  • Deborah Edwards, Senior Curator, AGNSW
  • Julie Ewington, Curatorial Manager, Australian Art, Qld Art Gallery
  • Felicity Fenner, Chief Curator, National Institute for Experimental Arts, College of Fine Arts, UNSW
  • Blair French, Director of Artspace
  • Benjamin Genocchio, art critic
  • George Gittoes, artist
  • Helen Grace, Professor, Hong Kong Baptist University, founder of MA in Visual Studies Culture at Chinese University of Hong Kong
  • Jocelyn Hackforth-Jones, Director of Sotheby’s
  • Mark Hughes, former director of Galerie Lelong, NY
  • Craig Judd, former Director, Wollongong City Gallery
  • Victoria Lynn, Director of Tarra Warra Gallery – pictured
  • Andrew McNamara, Associate Professor, School of Visual Art, QUT
  • Peter McNeil, Professor of Design History, UTS
  • Jacqui Menzies, Head Curator Asian Art, AGNSW
  • Gael Newton, Senior Curator photography, NGA
  • Ingrid Periz, art writer and lecturer; New York University and University of Melbourne
  • Mary Roberts, Associate Professor, Department of Art History, University of Sydney
  • Andrew Sayers, Director, National Museum of Australia
  • Sebastian Smee, art critic The Boston Globe
  • Ann Stephen, Senior Curator of the University of Sydney Art Gallery and Art Collections
  • Terry Smith, Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory, University of Pittsburgh
  • Imants Tillers, artist
  • Anna Waldman, art advisor, former Director of Visual Arts, Australia Council