Naomi Milgrom AO is recognised as one of Australia's foremost business leaders and entrepreneurs, as well as being a significant art collector. Milgrom sees her role in the arts as venturing well beyond the pleasures of her own personal collection, actively supporting public arts programmes and education on a considerable scale. Milgrom is owner and CEO of the Sportsgirl/Sussan Group (comprising three fashion brands: Sussan, Suzanne Grae, and Sportsgirl) and under her leadership, the Group has grown to become Australia's largest privately held specialty fashion retailer, with over 500 stores and more than 4,000 employees.
Milgrom is the current Chair of the Katherine Hannay Visual Arts commission for ANZ Trustees, and a board member of Kaldor Public Arts Projects. She is a former Trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria, Director of the Jewish Museum of Australia, and a long-term Chair of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA). Under Milgrom's leadership, ACCA became the premier contemporary visual arts centre in Australia, recognised as a significant launching pad for young artists onto the world stage.
Until now, Milgrom has not shown her considerable art collection publically as an exhibition, but shortly, 22 works will be on display at Auckland Art Gallery in an exhibition opening 31 August of this year, running until late January 2014. The exhibition title, A puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king refers to the Frank Sinatra song, 'That's Life'. The exhibition will include a diverse range of contemporary works by artists such as Kara Walker, Martin Boyce, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Demand, William Kentridge, and Wilhelm Sasnal. Many of these works will be on public display for the very first time, and the exhibition is a significant opportunity for Auckland Art Gallery to present works by some of the most intriguing contemporary artists working today.
Your parents are collectors of art, so you grew up in an environment of collecting. Was there a specific moment you can remember that passion being ignited for yourself?
I cannot remember a time when it wasn't part of my life. It didn't just start. It's been a continuum for me. I didn't just get up one day and say: 'I'm interested in art and design'.
Can you remember the first piece of art you ever bought?
My first acquisition was in the late 1970s: an early airbrush painting by Howard Arkley. A Rosalie Gascoigne work followed soon after.
What motivates you to collect now?
Sometimes with collecting art I suspect it is more about controlling the urge to collect rather than finding further motivation—ask any passionate art collector!
I never tire of wonderful ideas and extraordinary artworks. I guess what continues to motivate me are the challenges and pleasures that experiencing and living with art continues to provide.
You run a fashion empire, when do you have the time to look at art?
Art is part of my life. I can always make time—from a sneak peak at something on the internet, slipping off from work to see a local exhibition, to travelling to see a specific show or to meet someone extraordinary. Art for me is also so much about people, not just the works I collect. Experiencing art allows an immediate access to other perspectives, and that can only be invaluable to me both personally and professionally. Relationships are a huge part of that.
Auckland City Gallery is about to open an exhibition featuring 22 works from your collection. Why Auckland, and why did you feel the time was right to share the work?
My collection seemed a great fit to display there. The idea was hatched with Chris Saines before he moved to Brisbane, and it evolved to the point where I started to explore the idea with curator Natasha Conland. It's an opportunity to introduce a different public to a selection of contemporary artists they may not have come across before. I have always felt the Auckland Art Gallery has a fascinating collection and excellent museum spaces and obviously they play an important role as an institution in the Asia Pacific region. I cannot wait to see the works installed there.
Is an artwork only completed once the public gets involved?
Not necessarily, I prefer not to be too restrictive or get caught up in definitions about how artwork is supposed to be. An artwork can possess a certain autonomy that does not require public involvement, but in my role as philanthropist, I relish the opportunity to involve a broad public audience in the art and projects I am involved with, like the exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery.
Perhaps we can talk about a particular piece and how you came to own it and why—for example, Kara Walker's video installation ...calling me from the angry surface of some grey and threatening sea, I was transported (2007)?
Kara is just such a fabulous artist—you have this theatrical, haunting combination of history, race, violence, and identity politics depicted in her dark shadow puppets and silhouettes, her tableaux are so razor-sharp, skilful, elegant, and rhythmic. It is an utterly immersive video.
What responsibilities does a collector have?
Perhaps there are rules and responsibilities for an art collector, but collecting is a very personal thing—there are all types! You have your art lovers, insatiable hoarders, or trophy hunters... There are the slaves to fashion or market trends, there are collections that attempt to tick as many boxes as possible, and of course there are thought leaders and generous benefactors. Collecting art can be perfectly irresponsible at times. I love the contradiction between the impossible particularity of an artwork, and the joy of being able to share that wonderful experience with others.
Do you feel it is important that collectors not only support their local artists, but also collect internationally, too?
Each collector has different priorities. Once again, are there always set rules about such things? My collection has evolved instinctively over many years, and I have not been overly preoccupied with the local versus international question. Thinking of the selection of works for the upcoming exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery, these are some of the fruits of my international art adventures and it is great to be able to expose a new public to works that have come from elsewhere, sharing quite different perspectives.
Sydney Contemporary, Australia's most significant art fair to date, opens in September. What hopes do you have for the fair?
Carriageworks should be a wonderful setting. A good art fair can be both trade fair and cultural event. Sydney Contemporary should be a great way to see lots of art and get a feel for current trends. In the end, it's all about the quality of work. Let's hope they get a tight selection of established and young galleries, and a good satellite programme. It's all about getting the right formula.
If you could have any piece of art in the world, what would it be?
Hmm... a Matisse tapestry, perhaps a large wall drawing by Bridget Riley, a sculpture by Eva Hesse, a piece of furniture by Giacometti, or anything by Louise Bourgeois or Duchamp.