In life, it is often chance encounters that change one’s destiny. For Judith Neilson, one of those significant moments took place when she walked into a Sydney gallery and saw Chinese artist Wang Zhiyuan’s wall sculptures. Up until that moment, Neilson had never been interested in contemporary Chinese art or been to China. Yet the works by the artist struck a profound chord. This led Neilson to meet Wang Zhiyuan, who became a family friend and introduced her to Chinese contemporary art. Neilson started to make trips to China to meet artists and collect their works.
In 2009, Neilson opened Australia’s first private museum dedicated to Chinese contemporary art, the White Rabbit gallery in Chippendale, Sydney, near Central Park. Today, Neilson makes four trips a year to China and says she is enchanted by the cutting-edge artistic expressions of the evolving Chinese art scene. Funded solely by Neilson, the White Rabbit gallery curates two exhibitions per year and is open free of charge to the general public, offering a glimpse of her vision of China’s post-millennial art scene.
“One of the things that give me the most satisfaction is when people come in and know nothing about contemporary art. They may come in because they are just passing by. They may never have been to an art gallery before and might even be a bit nervous about galleries and museums. They come in and realise that they actually have an opinion: they can like or dislike the works.”
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the White Rabbit gallery often receives 1,000 visitors per day. From the start, Neilson’s sole criterion when buying artworks is to choose what moves her. She has never bought from auction houses. Neilson says she is more excited than ever about the quality of the exhibitions curated at White Rabbit. She would like to continue to collect and turn her private museum into “a place of learning”. Her White Rabbit Collection is now the world’s largest collection of post-2000 Chinese contemporary art.
“What I love is that people have taken ownership of the gallery,” she says. “They think it’s their gallery, not Judith Neilson’s. The art here is for anyone who wants to come in and look. It took a while to take off, but now it is wonderful.”
For Neilson, who has taken on several ambitious projects, it appears that the sky is the limit. On the site of a huge former warehouse in the nearby suburb of Rosebery, she is building Dangrove, a state-of-the-art storage and education facility due for completion in 2018. Dangrove will house the bulk of the White Rabbit Collection and, using a combination of local outreach and Internet technology, provide research tools for students of Chinese contemporary art all over the world.
Neilson says she is at the point in her life where she is free to think big and engage people on a broad scale, and she wants to use her wealth to help others.
“I was always taught as a child that you do have a responsibility, even if it was just sharing a sandwich in a school yard with a kid who didn’t have any lunch. You just step in. The more you have, the more you are able to do.”