Words: Jane O’Sullivan
Photography: Nikki Short
There is a new energy about philanthropist Simon Mordant. In the past year he has retired from his day job as vice-chairman of the investment banking firm Greenhill, lost 44 kilograms and thrown himself at his passion – supporting the visual arts.
The Sydneysider has also been appointed to the board of the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 in New York. The PS1 museum has a ridiculously fashionable board, including artists Cindy Sherman and Tom Slaughter, the fashion designer Adam Kimmel, collector Richard Chang and high profile businesspeople like Peter Norton and Lex Fenwick. Mordant says he feels honoured to have been asked to join them.
“I have been on the international council of MoMA for a little while and have hugely admired the passion and drive of the director of MoMA PS1, Klaus Biesenbach, and the chair, the remarkable Aggie Gund,” Mordant says. “Aggie indicated to me that she was keen to expand the board and would like some more international support and perspectives.
“The more I talked to Klaus the more excited I became about his ambition.”
He is also a philanthropic supporter of the museum. “We [Mordant and wife Catriona] support all the organisations we are actively involved with,” he says.
The appointment rounds out an already full dance card. Mordant also serves on the executive committee of the Tate’s international council in the United Kingdom and the leadership council of New York’s New Museum.
At home he continues to chair the board of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, where Catriona is also involved with the museum’s foundation. He is also the Australian commissioner for the Venice Biennale, a role he clearly relishes. He has been particularly active in the campaign for the redevelopment of the Australian Pavilion, which will open next year with an exhibition of Fiona Hall’s work.
He sees the Australian Pavilion as a successful example of private and public sector partnerships, something he believes we will see more and more of. “I think philanthropy is critical across the community here and globally. Governments can’t be expected to be the sole funder of everything,” he says.
He argues that the challenge for art organisations in this environment is one of communication. “Institutions – and that is more broad than just museums – need to be able to clearly enunciate their position in the community,” he says. This not only means talking about “their reason to exist and their vision”. Just as important is the ability to explain “governance and funding models and engage with potential private sector supporters in the broadest sense possible”. It is no wonder that museums are looking for philanthropists with business skills like Mordant’s to help them negotiate these sorts of new challenges.