AT face value, it is just a sheet of paper with some writing scrawled on it.
Yet it is the first two words that hold the true value of this piece of paper: “My Pledge”.
Those words were written by renowned sports and entertainment manager and art lover James Erskine.
When he scribbled on the paper, Erskine was in the Newcastle Art Gallery, with a crowd sitting before him. He was the guest speaker at a gallery foundation function. The Sydney-based businessman was talking about the joys of being a benefactor.
Yet more than speaking about it, Erskine gave a demonstration of benefaction that night in August 2017.
He gifted a John Olsen painting, Excitable Tree, to the gallery. Having already electrified the room with his gift, he wanted to raise the mood even more. Erskine came up with the idea of a pledge from him – and a challenge for the gallery.
“It was a spur-of-the-moment thing,” recalls Erskine. “It was unplanned.”
While sitting with the gallery director Lauretta Morton, James Erskine took a piece of paper and began writing. He quickly noted the three terms of the pledge: He and his wife Jacqui would give contemporary Australian artworks from their collection, up to the value of $250,000; that gift had to be matched by the gallery and its supporters, and; a time limit was set. The gallery had six months, until the end of February, to reach the target.
Then he signed the paper and handed it to Lauretta Morton.
“Because he’d just unveiled such a remarkable gift with the John Olsen work, I couldn’t quite believe it, to be honest,” she recalls.
“I actually did pick up the [paper] and say to him, ‘Are you serious?’. I remember saying that to him.
“And he said, ‘Yes, yes, let’s give them another push, something for the gallery, let’s get them excited’. And it certainly did.
“I did have a giggle and say, ‘You realise this is a contract. You’ve put that in writing!’.”
Those words on a page have led to the gallery’s latest exhibition, The Erskine Pledge: a gift to Newcastle.
The exhibition, which opens Saturday, unveils 12 major works donated by James and Jacqui Erskine, and, in response to the pledge, a stainless steel sculpture gifted by the gallery’s foundation, with help from the gallery’s society and private donors, and 36 pieces of art that have been given by local art collectors.
And all of this from a piece of paper.
“That’s the thing that kicked everything off,” says Lauretta Morton says.
WHAT makes the Erskine pledge so remarkable is that this is not some generous act of giving back to the hometown. He is not a Novocastrian.
But James Erskine knows what it’s like to grow up in an industrial area and having a passion for art.
“I come from the north-west of England,” he explains.
Erskine grew up in Southport, just up the road from Liverpool. In his home region were two signposts to his future life.
One was the Royal Birkdale golf course, where young James loved to play a round (he would later manage famous golfers, such as Tiger Woods and Greg Norman, and he worked with, and became good friends with, Newcastle’s Jack Newton).
The other was a local art gallery owned by a mate’s father. The gallery represented L.S. Lowry, a 20th century artist acclaimed for depicting English industrial life in spare but evocative paintings.
For his 21st birthday, Erskine was offered a Mini Minor as a present from his grandfather. Erskine asked that instead of the car, could he be given a Lowry painting. After he moved to Australia in 1979, Erskine converted that painting into real estate: “It bought me a house in Vaucluse.”
In Australia, Erskine was at the forefront of sports marketing, with IMG (International Management Group), before he co-founded SEL (Sports & Entertainment Limited) in 1997. Erskine has managed and guided sports and artistic icons, from Muhammad Ali and Shane Warne to TV host Sir Michael Parkinson.
Erskine has maintained a love of art, collecting works created by not just the biggest names in Australia, but international figures, such as Frank Auerbach.
Sometimes, business and art pleasure have combined. Through Michael Parkinson, he met Lloyd Rees, one of Australia’s great landscape artists and whose work is in the Erskines’ collection.
And pleasure has morphed into business for Erskine. He established Liverpool Street Gallery in Sydney, and he has a ceramics gallery in London.
Yet for his own collection, James Erskine says he never looks at art with an eye for investment.
“I’ve never bought a painting to make money, I’ve bought it because I like it,” he explains.
It was business, not art, that usually brought James Erskine to Newcastle. For large-scale productions he was involved in, such as Jesus Christ Superstar, he would often bring them first to Newcastle.
“Newcastle was our trial; if it worked in Newcastle, it worked everywhere else,” Erskine says. “It’s a no-nonsense group of people, and they like value for money.”
But Newcastle was about more than business. He would visit his friends, Jack and Jackie Newton, and there was that working class atmosphere by the sea that reminded him of his childhood home. As he has written in the catalogue for The Erskine Pledge exhibition, “I just like Newcastle.”
That fondness intensified after the gallery contacted him via “a most delightful letter” a couple of years ago, requesting he loan works for a landmark John Olsen exhibition. Erskine lent five paintings for the John Olsen: The City’s Son show in late 2016.
James Erskine firmly believes that art is made to be shared: “If you’ve got a collection, it’s an obligation on you to have it be seen on public display. I don’t think art is made to be closeted up at home, seen only by your family or people who visit you.”
Erskine regularly lends work to major galleries. But he was particularly touched by Newcastle’s reaction to his loan for the Olsen exhibition.
Not only did he receive an invitation and catalogues, but when it was over he received a “thank you” letter, which, he says, he doesn’t always receive: “You make a mental note of who says ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.”
As a result of the Olsen exhibition experience, Erskine writes in the new exhibition’s catalogue that, “I suddenly felt part of a new family.”
Like most members of a family, he wanted to do his bit, first with the Olsen painting donation then, out of the blue, the pledge.
Newcastle Art Gallery was built on generosity. In 1945, when surgeon Dr Roland Pope promised to bequeath his extensive collection, it came with a condition: a gallery had to be constructed to house it.
The purpose-built gallery may not have been realised until 1977 (before then, the art lived in the cultural centre next door for 20 years), but donations and bequests have continued to bolster the collection. Now the collection has grown with 49 more works, largely due to the Erskine pledge.
“He didn’t need to do it, but he felt empowered to do it,” Morton says.
In turn, the gallery’s supporters felt empowered. They grasped the challenge.
“Straight away, people were saying, ‘Well, I’ve got this work. Would this be of interest to the gallery’s collection?’,” Morton says.
“So straight away we got reactions from people, ‘I’m going to pledge this much money, I’m going to pledge that’. It was just wonderful.”
“There was that ‘Are we going to make it?’ moment each month.”
As donations rolled in, and works were given, Morton sent updates to Erskine. Then, at the six-month mark, she contacted Erskine to tell him they had met the challenge. The gallery and their supporters had raised $250,000 in artworks and donations of money.
Now the Erskines would fulfill their side of the bargain.
“I didn’t tell them this,” Erskine reveals, “but I would have have donated them [the works] anyway.”
Morton and a couple of gallery foundation board members were invited to Erskine’s Liverpool Street Gallery, where he had hung the works for their consideration.
“I knew he had some fantastic Newcastle artists in his collection, and he knew for me the priority was Newcastle, to have local artists represented,” Morton says.
On the walls were a couple of mystical, light-infused seascapes and landscapes by Chris Langlois, whose training and early career was in Newcastle, and an abstract work by another local, Brett McMahon.
There were also major paintings by Dick Watkins, Karl Wiebke, Steven Harvey, and Peter Sharp. As Erskine says, “I’ve always bought paintings that would work in a museum.”
Noticing the gallery director’s reaction, Erskine went to the stockroom and pulled out another McMahon painting and a third Langlois work. Then, as they walked upstairs to his office, Morton was stunned by the works on display – “my eyes were hurting” – and when she showed interest in two sculptures, he gave those as well.
Lauretta Morton left with 12 new works for the Newcastle Art Gallery collection.
“The combined 12 works of art from James and Jacqui Erskine far exceed the $250,000 pledge,” Morton says.
James Erskine hopes his pledge leads to more generosity.
“I think Australians don’t donate enough; we’re hoarders,” he says, explaining those who could give art, but don’t, are missing out on the pleasure of seeing others enjoy the work. “There’s a sense of pride, a sense of doing the right thing.”
So Newcastle Art Gallery’s collection has expanded. But the long-discussed expansion of the gallery itself remains somewhere over the horizon, lost in the fog of political debate and controversy.
There’s hope the Erskine pledge and the donations from local art lovers will provoke generosity from governments at all levels to finally fund the gallery redevelopment.
“It’s very timely, because when I’m talking to people, such as James, it’s, ‘Why haven’t you got an expanded gallery?’. These are the people asking that question, it’s not just Newcastle asking it,” Morton says.
“And I love that it’s not stopping people giving. It’s almost spurring them on to give, to leverage needing the bigger space, and needing to get our collection out on display more.”
Actually, the gallery’s collection has grown by an additional work. The piece of paper that James Erskine wrote on has been preserved in the archives.
As she sits in the gallery, amid the art that materialised from that one sheet of paper, Lauretta Morton smiles broadly and shakes her head.
“Even now, I have to pinch myself that this has actually happened,” she says. “Now that we’re sitting here among the works, it’s really hitting home, what he’s actually done.”