Acclaimed Sydney artist Garry Shead and his wife, Judith, were apprehensive the first time they met Melbourne accountant Tom Lowenstein.
That was in 1991, when Shead was getting famous, but far from rich. Would Lowenstein – the best in the business when it came to looking after the financial interests of artists – take him on as a client?
“Delighted,” said Lowenstein, who had recently seen Shead’s D H Lawrence series and been captivated. Indeed, he’d been interested in acquiring a work.
Judith Shead couldn’t contain herself. Recalls Lowenstein: “She jumped up, threw her arms around me and said, ‘You are such a lifesaver!’”
On March 7, Shead’s Thirroul Morning, a splendidly enigmatic oil on board painting from the D H Lawrence series, should prove a strong performer when the Lowenstein Collection of Australian Modern and Contemporary Art goes under the hammer at Melbourne auction house, Mossgreen. The work is listed to sell for $90,000-$120,000.
The 255 offerings – paintings, sculpture and works on paper – represent about a quarter of the collection. It began in the 1970s and has grown into a virtual who’s who of Australian art, from icons John Olsen, Charles Blackman, Arthur Boyd and Margaret Olley, to a richly diverse contemporary line-up including Tim Storrier, Ben Quilty, Akio Makigawa and Freddie Timms.
At the South Melbourne headquarters of Lowensteins Arts Management – there is also an office in Sydney – you can barely see the walls for the art. It’s an eye-popping mix of business and creativity, albeit much smaller than its predecessor in St Kilda Rd.
That’s one reason for downsizing: not enough space for the Lowenstein Collection since the move in June last year. But the main object of the sale is to realise the funds to foster the next generation of artists through purchasing works and sponsoring awards for emerging talents at the Victorian College of the Arts, Monash University and Sydney University.
The auction will also mark a fresh phase for the founder of the firm whose large clientele is drawn from the visual and performing arts, as well as other creative areas, including the film industry and literary world.
Now 80 and sharp as ever, Tom Lowenstein OAM is handing over day-to-day management responsibilities to his son, Evan, and Adam Micmacher – both are directors of Lowensteins – so he can play a larger role as an arts lobbyist, while continuing his work at the firm as a director and consultant.
Heading his activist list are the federal government’s changes to the regulations affecting self-managed superannuation funds – essentially, those who have invested in art are no longer permitted to display it, but must store it.
Those changes have had a devastating financial effect on both buyers and artists, though there are deeper problems, says Lowenstein.
“We haven’t had a leader who has taken a genuine interest in the arts since Paul Keating. Turnbull claimed to be a supporter, but the reality is that the arts have become a sideline for the current government,” he says.
“We’ve tried to arrange meetings with [Minister for Communications and the Arts] Mitch Fifield, but have been referred to an adviser.
“It’s tough, but if I didn’t think there was a chance of success, I wouldn’t be lobbying. A recognition that the arts add enormously to our culture as a nation, and that not everything has to be taken at its dollar value, is vital.”
How Lowenstein evolved from a footy-mad philistine who, early in his marriage, opted for a Richmond-Carlton final instead of attending a performance by ballet greats, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, is no mystery.
As he readily admits, his wife, Sylvia, has been the prime mover and shaker. She was born in Paris, raised by cultured parents and attended art school. He was born into a Czech family that hailed from a village near Bratislava. Both Jewish families survived the Holocaust – miraculously, in the case of the Lowensteins – and found sanctuary in Australia.
The couple, who married in 1960, may have seemed like chalk and cheese, but encouraged and guided by his wife, the young accountant soon developed a passion for the arts. There was another powerful catalyst.
“If I had to name the one artist who was most influential in changing my way of looking at both life and art, it would be John Olsen,” reveals Lowenstein in the Mossgreen auction catalogue’s preface.
He has had many other enduring friendships with his artist clients, including Rick Amor, Lewis Miller and Brian Dunlop who have immortalised him in fine portraits.
But it’s a wicked 1999 gouache and pencil on paper work by Olsen, titled Lowenstein in Search of the Artist’s Missing Statements, that perfectly captures the relationship between the brilliant numbers man and all those creative types who put their tax returns on the backburner, often for years.
There’s the artist, brush in hand. And there’s Lowenstein, totally oblivious to the lushly naked female life model reclining on a couch as he fossicks around in a box crammed with papers. The work is not for sale.
The Lowenstein Collection will be auctioned on March 7 at Mossgreen, 926 High St, Armadale, Melbourne. Enquiries:www.mossgreen.com.au