Mar 21 2016

Judith Neilson

Meet Judith Neilson and her extraordinary four-floor temple to 21st century Chinese art in Sydney.

Zeynep Erekli

White Rabbit is a cutting-edge, four-floor temple to 21st century Chinese art hidden on a backstreet in Chippendale, Sydney. Opened in 2009, the gallery aims to showcase what has become one of the world’s most significant collections of Chinese contemporary art. Dedicated to works made in the 21st century, the White Rabbit Collection is owned by Judith Neilson, who was inspired to establish it on a 2001 trip to Beijing. She was thrilled by the creative energy and technical quality of the works she saw and wanted to share them with people outside China. She makes regular trips to China and Taiwan to augment the collection, which by early 2015 included 1400 works by more than 500 artists.

The Gallery building, a Rolls-Royce service depot in the 1940s, was completely refitted as an exhibition space. Since the gallery can house only a fraction of the Collection at any one time, there are two new exhibitions a year, each involving a full rehang. Heavy Artillery is the latest offering from White Rabbit Gallery. The show features more than 30 videos, paintings, drawings, sculptures and multimedia installations by Chinese artists. Can be seen until 7 August.

We talked to Judith Neilson, founder of White Rabbit Gallery and the owner of Australia's biggest private art gallery.


What got you started in collecting art, especially Chinese contemporary art?

I started collecting when I was a toddler in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) in the 1950s—little bells from horses' bridles. When I got older, I collected African art. By the time I moved to Australia I had a long history of collecting, but I had never been exposed to Chinese art. Then in 1999 I was browsing in a Sydney gallery and stumbled on two metal wall sculptures by Wang Zhiyuan, a Chinese-Australian artist. I bought the works and Wang later became a family friend. When he returned to China, I visited him with my daughter. We met his artist friends and saw a lot of contemporary art. I was galvanised by the energy and technical excellence of many of the works. That's what started me off.


How have you decided on the art you collect and the direction your collection has taken? Was it planned from the start or has it grown organically?

I buy what I like. That basically means, works that grab and hold my attention and stay with me. But I do have a fairly experienced eye. I studied art in Africa, and also worked as a graphic designer. I've seen a great deal of art, and I believe I can tell good from bad. As for my collection, it has pretty much grown organically. I don't feel obliged to have works by specific artists, or to collect around any particular theme. I did have to limit the scope of the collection, though, so I only buy 21st century Chinese contemporary art.


How have your tastes changed since you started collecting?

I don't think my tastes have changed. But because I have seen vastly more art, I think my eye has become more discriminating and that I make judgements faster. I can walk through a show and see at once if there is anything there that I regard as good. Often, I will leave without buying anything.


How big is your collection right now?

The collection contains about 1500 individual works by almost 500 artists. I visit China two or three times a year and have also been visiting Taiwan for some years. And yes, the collecting continues!


What are your favorite pieces you currently own?

In the White Rabbit Gallery's new show, Heavy Artillery, I love Tank Project, by He Xiangyu—a two-tonne tank made from high-grade leather. It is hard to imagine until you see it and smell it what an impact it makes. My favourite from the last show, Paradi$e Bitch, was a set of photo portraits of handicapped children by Shao Yinong and Muchen called Fairy Tales in Red Times. The images have been hand-dyed, and they are very large, which makes them all the more poignant.


You've decided to take a more active role in the arts, and you've opened the White Rabbit Gallery in 2009. What was the main purpose?

I opened the Gallery to share the White Rabbit Collection with all Australians—and all visitors to Australia—who love art or are curious about contemporary art.


What were the challenges you face while opening the gallery?

We had to renovate a four-floor building that was quite old, so that was a challenge. It took about two years because we essentially replaced the whole interior. Another challenge was keeping the exhibitions interesting. And we wanted the gallery to be a welcoming place for everyone, not just people in the art crowd.


From a very personal perspective, how would you define "good art"?

Good art is indeed hard to define. For me it is art that is beautiful and that also “speaks” to me. I don't think an artist can do that without being technically proficient and having a good sense of form, colour, line, and the balance between them all—and how to disrupt that balance in interesting ways.


What are some trends you see happening in art collecting now?

I'm sorry, but I don't follow trends. I only buy what appeals to me, and because I am not selling artworks or planning to sell them, I can stay outside of trends.


**You will find more detailed information about Sydney on Bone Magazine's April issue.