Nelson Meers AO
Nelson Meers AO


Nelson Meers was a devotee of the arts and a self-confessed 'apostle of philanthropy'. He was Lord Mayor of Sydney from 1978 to 1980, practised for many years as a commercial and defamation lawyer, and in 2005 was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for service to the community. Mr Meers was a passionate collector of art with a long history of benefaction to the arts. This interview was given in 2005.

Home is where the art is

I am a fifth-generation Australian, born into a pioneer grazing family from the mid west of New South Wales. The walls of the Meers' homesteads were adorned with numerous European bucolic landscapes, as well as a forbidding array of sepia-tinted portraits of bewhiskered ancestors. These images of my childhood explain why I grew up firmly believing that 'home is where the art is'.

At eight years old I was taken by my father to the Art Gallery of New South Wales to be introduced specifically to George Lambert's iconic painting Across the Black Soil Plains. My father's mission on this occasion was, I think, to instil in me an enduring connection with my native land and respect for the fortitude of my ancestors. His simple message to me as we stood before the painting was: 'That's Meers country. Know that your forefathers loved it.' This was the seeding of my patriotism as well as my first real experience of the power of art.

An encounter with philanthropy

In the late 1960s I spent some time in the US city of Minneapolis, where I had gone as a young lawyer to negotiate a matter for a client. There I visited the city's Institute of Arts and was totally unprepared for the visual feast I was served up – Rubens, Rembrandt, El Greco, Pissaro, and all the major impressionists were represented. I was told that all the paintings were donated by private citizens and I was astounded. There was not enough hanging space in the galleries to accommodate the treasures in the museum's archives! I thought of the relative impoverishment of the art gallery in Sydney at the time and it was then that the dream was born of one day creating a foundation that would support the arts community and its institutions.

Prosperity shared

I accept as a basic truth that if you have prospered it should be shared with the community. It also follows that I do not want my children's ambitions to be shackled by inherited wealth. In 2001 my aspirations were realised when the Nelson Meers Foundation became the first of the new 'prescribed private funds' to be gazetted. Today all members of our family are involved in decision-making on various levels, headed by my eldest daughter, Sam, as Executive Director.

Conspicuous philanthropy

I wholeheartedly believe in conspicuous philanthropy. Anonymous giving does little to encourage others and implies a passive role in the giving process. We believe it's important to have a positive, interactive relationship with the organisations we support, and our approach has always been to speak publicly about our giving and about the benefits of philanthropy more generally. I think often of Churchill's famous words: 'We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.'

The power of the arts

In my life I have been fortunate to experience the magnificence of visual art, literature, music, architecture and all the performing disciplines. Throughout history, and indeed in my lifetime, I have seen the potency of art and the capacity various artistic forms have to influence and focus the human spirit for the better. The credo for our foundation has therefore become 'where the arts and learning flourish so do tolerance and enlightenment'. As such we are extremely proud to support organisations and projects that advance the arts, or that seek to utilise the arts to create positive social change, by promoting individual wellbeing, community sustainability or cultural tolerance.

City of Sydney 30 October 2022
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