Australia’s fine art of philanthropy

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From childhood immigrants to the heights of Australian business life, the legacy of Victor and Loti Smorgon continues, as does an hereditary passion for the arts.

The Ukrainian-born industrialist who called Melbourne home and made a fortune from paper, plastic, packaging, real estate and steel, was, along with his wife, a passionate advocate of the arts.

When the couple donated 154 of their own works to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, it was also because as many people as possible shared the joy of looking at them.

The rationale goes on.

“We are great supporters of the arts and believe that they will benefit the community on a broader basis,” said Peter Edwards, CEO of the Victor Smorgon Group and one of the late Victor and Loti’s 15 grandchildren.

“But the possibility of informing people about activities in the room is becoming less and less. In its simplest form, we can spend all the money we’d like to spend buying works of art, but if no one knows they’re out there, it’s a waste of time. “

In their latest move to nurture Australia’s diverse arts sector, the Loti and Victor Smorgon Family Foundation partnered with the Australian Associated Press to create an article source.

As part of the philanthropic project, the country’s only independent news channel will produce articles in the fields of visual and performing arts, literature, film and television, design and fashion.

The Smorgon family has a long track record in philanthropy.

Over their long lives – Victor died in 2009 at the age of 96 and Loti died four years later at the age of 94 – they donated $ 40 million in donations and artwork, including a 1981 portrait, to the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) by Loti by the American pop artist Andy Warhol.

In 1995 the couple made a donation to the Museum of Contemporary Art.

In addition to the arts, they have been generous benefactors in medical research, education, and community development.

Born in Ukraine in 1913, Victor emigrated to Australia with his family in 1927.

His father Norman founded a kosher butcher shop with his two brothers in the inner-city Melbourne suburb of Carlton, and Victor soon got involved.

From the beginning of the 1950s he managed the family business, which diversified into steel, plastics, paper, forestry and real estate.

Loti Kiffer, who was born in Poland in 1918, came to Australia with her parents in 1927 and met Victor at a Jewish community dance at the age of 17. They married in 1937 and had four daughters.

The Loti and Victor Smorgon Family Foundation is the philanthropic arm of the family and their asset management company, the Victor Smorgon Group. The foundation’s managing director, Belinda Bardas, another of Victor and Loti’s 15 grandchildren, describes the partnership with AAP as “very suitable”.

“After reading about the decline in public-interest journalism, we started looking through independent media options,” says Bardas of the creation of the partnership.

“We learned about public interest journalism and its critical role in ensuring an informed discussion in the community.”

When the foundation became aware of AAP’s intention to become an independent, not-for-profit intelligence agency last year, their interest was piqued.

“We realized that having an art desk support fits well with our family’s legacy,” she says.

“Art is an underserved sector, although it makes an important contribution to economy, employment and culture.

“The premise of everything we do at the Foundation is ‘affects many’,” continues Bardas.

“The newspapers are getting thinner and as much is missing as the arts. Australia is a creative country – we do a lot. It should be celebrated, discussed and debated. We have to be challenged.”

The new association between AAP and the Foundation reflects an emerging trend in philanthropic circles to support a high quality, achievement-based news gathering in Australia.

For Edwards, the Foundation’s alliance with AAP is not dissimilar to its association with NGV.

“We really see ourselves as venture capital,” explains Edwards.

“We donated a capital grant of US $ 13.5 million to the NGV in 2010/11. This fund has now distributed US $ 13.5 million (in acquisitions) and its capital base is US $ 21 million.

“From a philanthropic point of view, the family (the association with AAP) found a very good strategic initiative that we were able to support for a while in order to establish it and make it operational and ensure its sustainability,” he says.

And, Edwards adds, there’s no reason that can’t happen.

“I was a trustee of the NGV for nine years and I’m still on the (gallery) foundation (board of directors),” he says.

“What a lot of people don’t know is that (the NGV) has a higher membership than many football teams. There is a large part of the community that is activated in this area, they just aren’t necessarily loud.”

According to Bardas, if Loti and Victor were still alive today, they would see the connection between the foundation and AAP as “an enormous step forward” for art.

“This is about creating a space where people have a voice and the world can be seen from a different perspective,” she says. “You would be very happy.”

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