When the 2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Free/State opens on Friday, March 4, at the Art Gallery of South Australia, it will reveal bold and expansive visions representing transformative personal and public moments expressed through the art of today.

It will be an apt tribute to its long-time supporter, Neil Balnaves (1944-2022). Neil’s bold and expansive philanthropic vision for the arts was inspired by his own personal transformative experiences. In turn, Neil has influenced countless Australians’ experiences with art and ideas.

Neil, who passed away suddenly last week, lived two lives of great achievement. First, he was the highly successful television and film production entrepreneur, who brought Australian audiences such popular home-grown TV shows as Blue Heelers, Bananas in Pyjamas, Big Brother, and The Secret Life of Us, among many others. Then, after a life-altering boating accident 20 years ago prompted a personal and professional recalibration, he became one of Australia’s most beloved benefactors – a champion of the arts who has used his wealth to enrich the lives of others.

In 2006, Neil founded The Balnaves Foundation as a catalyst for change, for creating a better Australia. Over the years he has directed its philanthropy towards diverse fields, including arts, medicine and education, with a focus on young people, First Nations people and the disadvantaged. The breadth of the foundation’s transformative and positive impact on Australian contemporary society is profound. Adelaide has felt the impact of this generosity, especially through his support of AGSA.

Art, he often said, reveals the soul of a country. And as such, he suggested, it should be available to all. “It should not be on a pedestal,” he said in an interview a decade ago. “It should be something for everybody.”

For the young Neil growing up in Adelaide in the 1950s, art seemed remote. He recalled visiting the gallery, but not appreciating “what I was looking at … and what I could get out of it”. That is partly why he was such an enthusiastic advocate for AGSA’s programs to engage young people in art from an early age. From its inception in 2009 until 2015, AGSA’s Start at the Gallery program of monthly art-based activity days for children and families had the generous backing of The Balnaves Foundation, helping to establish a lifelong love of arts among the thousands of children who take part in it each year. Since 2016, The Balnaves Foundation has focused its support towards teenagers, by funding AGSA’s Neo program of cool creativity for young adults.

Neil’s belief in art being accessible to all is evident also at the Adelaide Festival with thousands on low incomes able to enjoy festival events, thanks to The Balnaves Foundation’s support of the Tix for Next to Nix program. Arts and social equity were real and related issues for Neil. “The arts play an important role in achieving a balanced society,” he told another interviewer in 2013.

Over many years through the foundation, he donated almost $2.5 million to AGSA. Since 2012, the foundation has been the principal donor supporting the Adelaide Biennial at AGSA, a decade-long partnership that has fuelled our ability to deliver ambitious aims for the biennial and outstanding experiences for the nearly 500 artists and close to a million visitors to date.

Always an involved philanthropist, Neil spearheaded the Biennial Ambassadors program, hosting events with his wife Diane at their Sydney home to leverage broader nationwide support for the Adelaide Biennial and its artists. His six years on the Art Gallery Board (2013 – 2019) similarly engaged his energy as a change-maker and provocateur at an executive level. He stated in the AGSA magazine in 2010: “We’re not great believers in writing a cheque and walking away. We believe in building something, giving a long-term commitment to it and building it up.”

Neil’s impact on the arts has touched the entire country, with support for visual and performing arts projects, programs, practitioners, public discourse, and audiences including Australia’s presence at the Venice Biennale. He was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2010.

Neil’s legacy will remain as an inspiring champion of the arts and as an active visionary for a better society. His generosity will continue into the future through The Balnaves Foundation, currently led by his son, Hamish Balnaves.

We join with all in the Australian arts community in extending our heartfelt condolences to Diane and their family.

Rhana Devenport ONZM is director of the Art Gallery of South Australia.

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