bmag Brisbane Person of the Year candidate Philip Bacon is a lover of art, a generous nature and a keeper of friends – an all round man of compassion.
Philip Bacon didn’t become a Queensland great and have a gallery named in his honour at the state’s art headquarters merely by being successful at trading art. It comes from an unstinting generosity and genuine love and interest in the world that has been the much loved art dealer’s life and livelihood for nearly 40 years.
Financial largesse is only part of the support Philip Bacon, OA, and a former Able Goldman Sachs Philanthropist of the Year, gives to artists and arts bodies Australia wide. For nearly 40 years he has owned and operated one of the country’s most commercially successful art dealerships. He has served on a string of influential arts boards, most notably The National Gallery and Opera Australia, as well as Major Brisbane Festivals, the Board of Trustees of the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane Biennial International Music Festival, the Brisbane Institute, Australian National Academy of Music and the Arts Investment Advisory Board.
He shudders at the suggestion that he strategises his philanthropy to give him influence in those spheres. “Lord no,” he says. “You could say you give money so you don’t have to get involved. As Dame Elizabeth Murdoch (also a renowned philanthropist) said, the easiest thing to do is write the cheque.” The payback Bacon cites is an insight from working closely with the creative and dedicated people keeping large “battleships” such as the National Gallery and Opera Australia afloat.
“I am in awe of the depth of talent, hard work and commitment so many put in there behind the scenes – and for so little money,” he says.
Bacon finds it most satisfying when he can make something happen that might not without his dollar input. Like when the Brisbane Powerhouse had the opportunity to host performances in 2008 of legendary French dancer Sylvie Guillem and English contemporary dance star Akram Khan, but did not have the funds at hand. Bacon’s quick donation of “about $50,000” made it all possible.
One of his most rewarding jobs is serving on the Council of the Order of Australia. There, he says, he has met extraordinary people going about their lives quietly giving service to communities. “It is very humbling,” he says. His professional accolades are impressive, as is the plethora of Australian artists Bacon has represented. But it is the personal attributes of loyalty, honesty and trustworthiness he shows artists and clients, and a dedicated, disciplined approach to business, that most people mention.
At his stylish gallery, which he opened in 1974 on the site of an old tile warehouse in Fortitude Valley, he has launched and fostered the cream of Australian painters – Sam Fullbrook, Jeffrey Smart, Lawrence Daws, Charles Blackman, Fred Williams, Davida Allen, Margaret Olley, Gwyn Hanssen-Piggott, Ray Crooke, Robert Dickerson, Stewart McFarlane – and helped build the knowledge and fortunes of thousands of art collectors.
Dickerson and Daws, two of the artists in its first exhibition, are still with him. Ditto his staff. Waiter Charlie has been serving drinks there since the gallery’s opening and now his children have taken up the ice bucket, too. “It’s a trait of mine,’’ Bacon says. “I stick to things.” Philip Bacon, you see, is a keeper – of friends, artists, clients, faith and habits that have sustained him in life and in business.
At 18, he wanted to be High Commissioner to London and started a law degree to that end. But working in the Grand Central Gallery in the CBD, he gave away his studies. His late father wasn’t pleased but you can’t help feeling he would be proud of what his son made of himself. Neat, crisp and organised, Bacon has never lost his passion for working with artists and people. Barry Humphries is a client, as is British author Jeffrey (formerly Lord) Archer.
His career high point was the close bond he formed with the late Margaret Olley. “It was an enriching relationship and an unusual one for a dealer, to become so emotionally close to an artist,” he says. For all the millions of art dollars he trades in every month, his elegant gallery and beautiful house and art collection, Philip Bacon’s most valued possession? Good health.