Judith Neilson weaves through the lunchtime crowd at the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney and pauses before what appears to be a large pile of building rubble spread across the floor.
“Watch closely,” she instructs.
The mound of dirt, concrete and wood gently rises and falls -- as if breathing. Created in 2009 by Shanghai-born Xu Zhen, “Calm” aims to convey that people in the Middle East have been buried under stereotypes as well as debris from bombings, Bloomberg Markets will report in its Billionaires Issue in December.
“It’s really quite exquisite,” Neilson says of “Calm.” Visitors can view it and the other works in her collection, all produced after 2000, at the gallery free of charge. “It would be pointless for me to have incredible stuff and not let other people enjoy it. You’re so rewarded by the input and appreciation you get from the audience,” she says.
Billionaire Kerr Neilson, Judith’s husband and the co-founder of Sydney-based Platinum Asset Management Ltd., set up a $30 million foundation in 2007 to fund the gallery and the Chinese contemporary collection of more than 700 works -- one of the largest in the world.
The Neilsons haven’t followed the well-worn path among rich collectors who compete to own the world’s most-coveted art. SAC Capital Advisors LP founder Steven Cohen spent $155 million last year for Picasso’s Le Reve, adding to his works by Van Gogh, Manet and Warhol. Cosmetics magnate Leonard Lauder cemented his legacy as a leading patron of the arts this year with his pledge to the Metropolitan Museum of Art of 78 cubist pieces valued at about $1 billion.
In the White Rabbit Gallery, a former Rolls-Royce repair depot, the Neilsons aim to give wider exposure to a new breed of Chinese artists who address the rampant consumerism, pollution, censorship and the breakdown of social ties that have accompanied China’s rise to become the world’s No. 2 economy.
In the series “Red Star Motel,” photographer Chili, 32, who was born in Beijing, depicts the debauchery of young people snorting drugs, beating each other and having sex. Beijing artist and former seamstress Sun Furong, 52, expresses the bleakness of much of her existence by shredding 100 Mao suits in “Tomb Figures,” according to the gallery.
Gonkar Gyatso, who was born in Tibet and now lives in England, captures the dramatic shifts in his peripatetic life in “My Identity.” The four photographic self-portraits show him dressed as everything from a Chinese soldier to a Buddhist monk.
“Judith is producing a collection that highlights what’s happening in China since the turn of the century,” Kerr, 63, says. “It’s not about picking heroes of the moment, but much more about going for artists who still haven’t been discovered.”
Judith, 67, developed a passion for Chinese art after she visited a gallery in Sydney in 1999 and became enthralled with a sculpture by Beijing artist Wang Zhiyuan. He had twisted metal into figures that combine animal and human shapes.
Neilson, who was born in Zimbabwe and earned a degree in textiles and graphic design in South Africa, hired Wang -- then an art student at the University of Sydney -- to tutor her. Wang, 54, guided Neilson’s exploration of China’s burgeoning contemporary art scene, which took off after the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising.
Neilson made her first of more than 25 trips to China in 1999 and would ultimately buy works from about 300 artists, including Wang’s “Thrown to the Wind.” It’s an 11-meter-tall (36-foot-tall) sculpture of discarded plastic bottles he made in 2010.
Neilson also purchased “Oil Spills,” a series of black porcelain discs that rest on the floor, by Ai Weiwei, whose installations and sculptures have been the subject of major shows in New York and Europe. Ai, an outspoken critic of China’s human rights record, spent 81 days in jail in 2011.
“Neilson has achieved one of the most interesting collections of Chinese art,” says Karen Smith, director of the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province. “She has work from a younger generation of artists, much of it experimental, and by artists who are as interested in the feelings of materials as they are in the conceptual qualities of the art.”
Kerr Neilson, a native of South Africa, and Judith left the country in 1983 amid the racial conflict over apartheid, and the couple settled in Sydney. Kerr, who had been a stockbroker in Johannesburg, landed a job as an analyst and then a portfolio manager at Bankers Trust in Sydney, focusing on Southeast Asian and Latin American equities.
Billionaire George Soros assigned $40 million to Neilson’s global equities fund in 1993. Within a year, Neilson says, he tripled the investment, thanks to surging Latin American stocks.
Neilson departed the bank and co-founded Platinum in 1994. By 2007, the firm had amassed A$9.6 billion ($9.1 billion) in assets and went public in Australia. As of early November, Neilson owned about 56 percent of the firm -- which manages more than $19 billion -- giving him a net worth of more than $2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
White Rabbit, which opened in 2009, has become a landmark in a country that has undergone an ethnic and cultural transformation. For much of the 20th century, the former British colony operated a so-called White Australia Policy barring non-European immigration. As China has emerged as its most important trading partner, Australia now welcomes as many Chinese immigrants annually as it does British. Mandarin is the second-most-spoken language after English in Australia. Chinese occupy sprawling homes in Sydney’s most expensive harbor-side suburbs and account for the highest number of foreign students in the nation’s universities.
In the first half of 2013, 35,000 people visited the White Rabbit Gallery, which is located near Sydney’s Chinatown. That’s an increase of more than 30 percent over the same period last year.
Visitors this year saw “A History of China’s Modernisation” by multimedia artist Jin Feng, 51, whose installation conveys the cruel story of his country’s economic upheaval, according to the gallery. The work is partly composed of about 1,000 small marble blocks, cut from a statue of Mao Zedong, which lay in a pile on the floor. Jin carved faces of prominent Chinese, such as the founder of the persecuted Falungong religious group, into the blocks.
“In 30 years, our collection will be vital,” Judith says, “because it tells the story of the times.”