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Wednesday, 17 August 2011
Page: 8508


Mr CREAN (HothamMinister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government and Minister for the Arts) (18:49): I also pay tribute to a great Australian who is sadly lost to us but will always be remembered. I last saw Margaret Olley at the opening of the National Gallery of Australia's new wing—the wing that houses our Indigenous art collection. She was there as an honoured leader in Australian cultural life but also as a great philanthropist and because of her own work as an artist. She had been a great friend to that national collection, quite apart from what the member for Wentworth talked about in terms of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. She was an artist, a philanthropist, a passionate advocate for the arts and a fantastic mentor to young people coming through. She was all of that because she believed in the importance of the arts and its expressive content and believed in conveying the importance of it to younger people. She encouraged them to also be their best.

Last week we had the meeting of cultural ministers in Sydney. We were at the Art Gallery of New South Wales with Edmund Capon—the director for so many years and soon to retire. He was as effusive as ever, still talking about projects that are going to be undertaken well beyond his retirement. He was also a very close friend of Margaret. We spoke about her, but he was interested in showing us around. We had an opportunity to view the gallery with the other ministers. He took great pride in identifying the gifts to the gallery that Margaret had made. Reminiscing about her, he told the story that the member for Wentworth told about her criticism of what Edmund thought was one of his greatest acquisitions.

She was dedicated to her creativity and her craft. It led to a body of work which has engaged and enriched Australians in private and public collections. Her friends were with her as she worked to her last days to capture her vision of Sydney Harbour—a landscape on canvas. It was the legacy that she was so determined to complete. Those who were at the gallery told stories about a woman who was also generous in her donations to Australian galleries; a woman who delighted in helping local audiences access great international work. Her generosity to the National Gallery of Australia, the great collection that we house there—and I am going to a function tonight, along with other members of parliament, to see the Fred Williams collection—tells the story of her diversity and spread of interests. There are 15th and 17th century architectural pieces, including Indian marble carvings from the Moghul era, a beautiful Degas drawing and a number of works by prominent Australian artists.

In her youth she was one of a new generation of Australian artists growing in confidence about their role in developing a strong Australian presence in the visual arts. It was an important and exciting time in Australian cultural life. She was great friends with the likes of William Dobell, Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend and Jeffrey Smart. Margaret has left another legacy to Australia because of her unstinting record in helping younger artists. In recent years she supported and encouraged a new generation of creative Australians with a frank and wise approach as a mentor.

Just this year, her portrait by Ben Quilty won the Archibald Prize, six decades after William Dobell won in 1948 with an earlier portrait of her. It says a lot about her longevity, her inspiration and the quality of the artists who sought to depict her. As Ben Quilty said: 'She's such an inspiration.' He also said that she was a feminist ahead of her time. He described her as vigorously passionate about social and political issues as well as art, and enormously compassionate. He said Margaret had an infectious attitude to both life and death. Quilty noted how many new works she had on the go. He said Margaret came up with a powerful metaphor to explain her work:

I'm like an old tree dying and setting forth flowers as fast as it can, while it still can.

These are the words of a tenacious, passionate woman dedicated to making use of her talent right till the very end. Quilty met Margaret Olley when she was a guest judge for the 2002 Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship, which he won. She was a friend and a great supporter of his work from then on.

Born in Lismore in 1923, Margaret Olley was awarded the Order of Australia in 1991 for service as an artist and to the promotion of art. In 1996 she was awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia. I am told that she was also a good businesswoman, which allowed her to become a philanthropist on a significant scale. I might also note, in relation to her birthplace of Lismore, that she was an active benefactor and supporter of the extensions to the gallery in Lismore. So many of our artists come from the regional parts of Australia, and they do not forget their roots. Whilst the whole of the country can view on a regular basis great collections that Margaret Olley has contributed to in Canberra and in Sydney, it was also important for her to continue to inspire in the place that she was born.

Margaret deserves every accolade that can be directed towards her. She got every award and deserved every one that she received. I have said before that a creative nation develops a more tolerant, more expressive and better citizenry, but it also underpins ultimately a more productive nation because it inspires, it develops innovation and it creates those linkages which are such an important reason that Australia performs so well on so many fronts.

Margaret Olley embodied this. She understood the importance of her talent, and she chose to keep working and expressing that right to her dying days, but she also understood the importance of putting back to the community that had given her opportunity and putting back to the future generations of artists that will continue to promote the legacy of which she has been such a proud standard bearer. She will be sadly missed, but her works and her inspiration will live on forever.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Murphy ): I would like to associate myself with the tributes that have been paid to this great Australian by honourable members, including the member for Hotham, the member for Wentworth and, particularly, the member for Kingsford Smith, who talked about visiting Margaret Olley's home and referred to Edmund Capon's comments on her passing. If memory does not fail me, he described her home as an 'archaeological tip' with many treasures still to be unearthed, as those responsible for her estate will doubtless reveal in the coming weeks and months. Vale Margaret Olley. May she rest in peace.