Vale philanthropist Brian Sherman

Philanthropist, animal activist, art collector … and an incredible entrepreneurial mind, Brian Sherman has died aged 79.

Philanthropist, animal activist, art collector, husband, father … and an incredible entrepreneurial mind, Brian Sherman AM (1943-2022) passed away last week after a protracted battle with Parkinson’s Disease. He was 79.

On his website on 11 September, his wife, cultural philanthropist Gene Sherman wrote: ‘We say farewell to our beloved Brian with fragmented hearts and souls awash with grief.

‘As a husband he was without peer. Constant in his support of my endeavours, fiercely protective, wise in his counsel, gracious, dignified and elegant even through the long decade when Parkinson’s Disease relentlessly tore through his body.’ 

Sherman was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2010. It was a private journey in those early years but, like everything he and Gene did, the experience would be turned around to benefit others.

In March this year, Walking Through Honey: My Journey with Parkinson’s Disease was published via Booktopia and the Sherman Centre for Culture & Ideas (SCCI). Co-authored with AM Jonson, it is yet another legacy that Sherman leaves, offering readers a patient-centric insight into ‘more experimental approaches to treating Parkinson’s Disease’. Candid and creative, it advocates a turning to the arts, including music, art and movement, for therapy.

Remembering Brian

As the Sherman family sat Shiva this past week, tributes flowed online, repeatedly remembering Sherman for his ‘gentle and generous soul.’

In a formal statement from the Australian Museum, Director and CEO Kim McKay AO, said: ‘From the first time I met Brian, I knew I was with a man of integrity and substance.

‘His belief in the vision for the Australian Museum shined brightly, from the twinkle in his eyes when he spoke of the Museum to the care and passion in his heart for this extraordinary institution … He was driven by a belief that it is our ethical responsibility to do better, to seek solutions and to make positive change in the world. Brian left an incredible mark on me, everyone he worked with and on the Australian Museum itself.’

In a formal statement, Professor Tim Flannery added: ‘Brian Sherman’s leadership and ethics brought a new perspective to the Australian Museum’s operations.’

Brian was a hero, a star and an inspiration.

Dr Gene Sherman AM

Those thoughts were echoed by another institution that has benefited from Sherman’s generosity. Steven Alderton, Director and CEO of the National Art School wrote: ‘Brian was a beacon. Shining a light on grand causes to support animals, medical research, the Jewish community, sport, science and the arts.

‘With Gene, their work across Sherman Gallery, Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation and Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas provided true leadership in the arts with a significant impact for artists, industry and the community.

‘Brian had a very rare quality to care for others, invest in outcomes and make a difference,’ continued Alderton. ‘His legacy will live long, particularly through the family. He is no longer Walking Through Honey, but he will continue to walk alongside all that knew him as a truly inspirational person.’

On the occasion of the publishing of Walking Through Honey a few months ago, Jeffrey Masson noted: ‘There is a kindness in his eyes – true, it has always been there, but now it is even more visible.’

Director Western Sydney Creative Dolla S. Merrillees worked alongside Brian and Gene for many years as Associate Director, Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, and later as the London Correspondent for the Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas. She told ArtsHub: ‘Brian’s generosity and friendship extended to all who came into his orbit.

‘I always looked forward to seeing that twinkle in his eye and deeply appreciated his wry laconic sense of humour. From his animal activism to his and Gene’s generous philanthropic support of the arts and medical science as well as other causes, he impacted not only on my life but many others. But it was his gentleness, his wisdom and his determination to make a difference in the lives of others that I remember and will miss the most,’ said Merrillees.

‘Even when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges, Brian continued to be an advocate for hope,’ Australian Museum Director and Chief Executive Kim McKay said.

Family was everything to Brian Sherman, here for 2022 Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI) Lifetime Achievement Award, Australian Museum. Photo Tim Levy. Image supplied.

Who was Brian Sherman?

Brian and Gene Sherman arrived in Australia in 1976, having left South Africa with little. But it wasn’t long before Brian’s entrepreneurial spirit saw the establishment of Equitilink in 1981, founded with Gene’s cousin, Laurence Freedman.

It would become one of the largest independent funds management groups in Australia, what the Australian Financial Review described as ‘the first funds management company specifically aimed at offering retail investors the kind of sophisticated products sold to institutions.’

When Equitilink was sold to Aberdeen Asset Management in 2000 for $153 million, it had $5.5 billion under management, with 55% of that in the United States.

Reflecting this week, Freedman told AFR: ‘We always had this need to compete with whoever we were up against whether it was each other or competitors.’

Sherman continued as chairman and joint managing director of the EquitiLink Group from 1981-2000, as well as director/chairman of ASX-listed Aberdeen Leaders Limited, a number of investment companies listed on the American and Canadian Stock Exchange.

Sherman was part of a consortium that bought Ten from Westpac in 1992 for $230 million, and ‘within five years it was worth $650 million.’ (AFR). Sherman was a Director from 1994 to 2007.  

But it wasn’t all about money. Sherman was the Joint Managing Director of Voiceless, with his daughter Ondine Sherman, founding the organisation in 2004 to advocate for animal protection.

Flannery said: ‘Brian’s involvement in animal rights was ahead of its time and he brought a contemporary view to the way the Australian Museum managed animal specimens.’

In a formal statement this week, Gene said of that advocacy:  ‘… his unswerving devotion to the planet’s non-human species – not just the companion animals loved by so many of us – but a devotion from deep inside him to the billions of neglected and forgotten living creatures who, caged and cultivated for our gastronomic pleasure, remain hidden from sight.’

Sherman was on the board of the Sydney Organising Committee for the 2000 Olympic Games and chairman of its finance committee. He served as president of the Australian Museum Trust from 2001 to 2009; was a director of the Australia-Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, and chairman of the Rambam Israel Fellowships program.

Brian Sherman was awarded the Order of Australia in 2004. He was also awarded Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award, an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Technology, Sydney (2010), and the B’nai B’rith Gold Medal for his outstanding humanitarianism.

In December 2020, on behalf of the NSW Government and Australian Museum, Brian was bestowed the title of Governor Emeritus, and in 2022 the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI) Lifetime Achievement Award for his service as a philanthropist.

Unsurprisingly, Sherman was co-author of Lives of Brian: Entrepreneur, Philanthropist, Animal Activist (2018), with A.M. Jonson (published in 2018).

Sherman’s legacy to the Arts

Many experienced the generosity of Gene and Brian, who always opened their home after an exhibition opening or event, allowing artists and collectors to share a meal together without hierarchy or airs.

Brian was a Director of Sherman Galleries (1986-2007), Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF, 2008-2017), and Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas (SCCI), an organisation established with Gene in 2018 to facilitate discussion and generate ideas in fashion and architecture.

In an interview in 2017, Gene told ArtsHub that the Foundation was always envisaged as a 10-year project. ‘I said to Brian that I wanted to do a family funded foundation and costed it out. It came to $1 million a year to do what I wanted to do. Brian said yes but that I needed to cap it – to give it a time-frame – so I promised him I would close it or transform it after 10 years. Today I have come to the end of my family contract with SCAF and am honouring it.’

Brian shared Gene’s passion for art; together avid collectors for more than three decades. They first started to downsize that collection in 2015, which had amassed over 900 artworks, with a major gift to the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) – works by 20 of Asia’s most important contemporary artists.

Read: Shermans show AGNSW how to Go East

Other works were gifted to collecting institutions, including the National Gallery of Australia, the University of Melbourne, and later Sydney University’s Chau Chak Wing Museum. They also gifted artworks to MoMA in New York and Tate Modern, London.

Every year they continued to send around a dozen works to auction, conscious and cautious not to flood the market. In May this year (2022), they divested a further 100 artworks via auction with Bonhams Australia.

Also last year, they donated their entire collection of moving image and virtual reality works ahead of the opening of Sydney Modern, building on their deep relationship with AGNSW. It comes after pledging $1.5 million to the capital campaign supporting the construction of Sydney Modern (one of the first to support the build) – with a project gallery in the new building named the Sherman Family Gallery.

At the time, Art Gallery of NSW director Dr Michael Brand said: ‘Gene and Brian Sherman have played a central role in the development of the arts in Sydney, and I salute their philanthropic spirit.’

In 2020 contribution they gave $1M to the Australian Museum for its redevelopment, Project Discover, with the naming of the Brian Sherman Crystal Hall.  

A decade earlier (2010), they had donated $1 million to the College of Fine Arts (CoFA) at UNSW for its refurbishment, a move that unfortunately ended in a controversy over naming rights.

ArtsHub extends its condolences to the Sherman family, Gene, his children Oscar-winning film producer Emile, fellow author and animal activist Ondine, their spouses and six grandchildren, and to staff of the Sherman Foundation.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina