My collection: Dr Dick Quan

Terry Harding visits the private collection of National Gallery donors Dr Dick Quan and John McGrath, who have recently gifted three works to the national collection, including AES+F’s ‘The Feast of Trimalchio’ and Haegue Yang’s ‘Triple Chalkies’.

Terry Harding: What influenced you to begin collecting?

Dick Quan: I come from a family of out-of-control collectors. I had to collect because it was part of my heritage. When you are young you want to collect what you know, but soon I became bored with that, hence my curiosity for things on the periphery. I was very lucky that when I was at university I met lots of artists and collected their works from the beginning. Lindy Lee was one of these people. So, my influence came from many factors: my heritage of collecting and the artists and people who are now in my circle.

Dr Dick Quan and his husband John McGrath in front of Hiromi Tango’s ‘NatureNurture’ at the Holdsworth House Medical Practice in Sydney

Can you remember the first work of art that made you think or feel differently?

One of the most pivotal works for me is Lindy Lee’s In Preference for Specific Virtues. It has been included in nearly all her retrospectives, including the upcoming exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. She made the work in response to me coming out. The work itself is a detail from Delacroix’s The Raft of the Medusa. The original involves an image of a figure about to drown, but in Lindy’s version the person is rising. It made me think about relooking at things we know, and that has informed my collecting. One of the reasons I am so proud to gift AES+F’s The Feast of Trimalchio to the National Gallery is because as a kid I had to learn Latin and did so by studying The Feast of Trimalchio. When I saw AES+F recontextualise this in the modern world, it very much resonated. I recall these equally as pivotal works, and both are based on the classics.

What do you love most about living with art?

To me, art is about changing the way we think. I’m faced with problems all day at work, so when I come home there’s nothing better than to contemplate in front of a work that is often complex; when I can consider other things. It helps me to develop my thoughts. I’ve always said that in art the action is always on the periphery. It’s about breaking the rules, which is always changing. That is what I love about art: it is always morphing into another shape, and that excites me most — looking for those edges, those boundaries.

Do you have any advice about curating a personal collection?

Follow what you like, not what other people tell you to like. It is not about a quest for academic perfection, but finding beauty in something, finding something intellectually challenging. I talk often about this when I buy art from young artists. I tell them to go into my house and hang the work where they think it should be. I love the interplay of the most junior artist being portrayed right next to the most senior artists. People come in and say: ‘well who is that?’ They start guessing the big names. And I say: ‘no, I bought this from an art school’. In reality, some of the best collections I’ve ever seen are of things I really dislike. Especially work that I don’t like and don’t understand, but in a certain person’s collection, it’s fantastic. What I’m less interested in are the ones where you can see they collected the big names.

Is there one work in your collection at the moment that resonates with you?

No, because to me they are like children — you love them all. If I look at a work for long enough that I think I understand it, it’s time to bring in the young artists and say: ‘which one would you move?’. Art is about learning and understanding new perspectives. As a doctor, it is important to understand beliefs and ideas that you don’t necessarily hold yourself. Getting someone else to show you something that you never would have thought of or put something in a place that you never thought of is always good.

You are a generous supporter of the National Gallery. What motivates you to give?

Sharing gives me the greatest joy. If I keep a work in my home or even my practice, only a limited number of people can see it. If a work is truly great, I always want to share it. If I can share my passion, it gives me greater joy than having it stuck in a back room or in storage. I also find that in Australia, often galleries do not have the budget to buy challenging works. I’m passionate about talking of Australian art in the context of global art. I’m interested in having a Korean artist based in Berlin shown alongside a Russian artist who works on every continent; the diversity of these cultures and artistic medium and the frisson that creates. I’m interested in those ideas and artists that show Australia is truly multicultural, reflecting a country of diverse experience and thought.

Is there a particular work in the national collection that has inspired you or inspires you?

No, you have so many amazing works! Of course, Blue poles is your hallmark painting and, on many levels, it is a painting that discusses all the things I collect for. At the time, it was very unpopular with the public but now people have warmed to it. To me, a great work is one that anyone can respond to. You don’t have to be an academic. You don’t have to be told this is good. You don’t have to read Derrida. Whichever way you interpret it is valid. I love asking children about works that I collect, to hear what it is, unencumbered by what others have written about the work. To me, it’s very important to come to your own decision.

Terry Harding is Development Manager at the National Gallery of Australia.

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