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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Mari Ann Lewis (1934–2011)

by Mark McGinness

from Sydney Morning Herald

For five decades, Ann Lewis was an extraordinary, inexhaustible presence in Sydney's art world — a generous, game and gritty gallery owner; a passionate advocate, admirer and acquirer; and one of the country's most energetic ambassadors and donors.

She had all the appearances of a daughter of privilege. Her parents were John Hector Livingston, a grazier, and Mari Gildawie Long but the marriage was unhappy and foundered when Ann and her brother were young. Mari moved to Sydney and married the industrialist Richard Gibb. A niece of Hannah Lloyd Jones, one of Sydney's grande dames, Mari Long Livingston Gibb was an elegant, ambitious, vivacious mondaine.

Lewis was sent as a boarder to Abbotsleigh at seven; she left school at 15 to be ''finished'' in Switzerland. Despite having a headmistress who inspired her, Ann's school days were deprived of art. At home, all that adorned her father's walls in Moree were two van Gogh prints.

In New York, she met Charles Cowles, a gallery owner and son of one of the city's famed collectors, Jan Cowles, who sparked her interest in art. But once home, it was the artist Dora Sweetapple and her monthly excursions through Sydney's galleries to whom Lewis attributed her start.

The third person in this inspirational triptych was the influential and iconoclastic dealer Max Hutchinson (later responsible for Australia's purchase of Pollock's Blue Poles), whom Lewis joined as a partner in 1963, bringing Hutchinson's avant-garde Gallery A to Sydney from Melbourne.

Much of what Lewis did would not have been possible without the indulgence of her husband, the wealthy scion of a construction business, John Lewis, whom she married in 1955. John was no lover of art (she would joke that he thought if something was expensive, it must be good) but he loved his wife and gave her the freedom and means to follow her budding passion.

When, in 1970, Hutchinson left for a distinguished career as a gallery owner and dealer in New York, Lewis came into her own. The handsome cottage in Paddington that housed Gallery A became a focus of firsts.

Early in the gallery's life, the vice squad seized one of Mike Brown's paintings that flaunted four-letter words. In the early '70s, Gallery A showed one of the world's first installation pieces — Peter Kennedy's photographic Luminal Sequences. More significantly, Gallery A was the first Australian gallery to show Aboriginal art as serious and not just an ethnographic study.

Among Lewis's favourites were Milton Resnick, Ed Ruda, Philip Wofford and John Olsen, whom she commissioned to paint a triptych, which she attached to the ceiling of her dining room. For decades, guests at the Lewises' Rose Bay house would lie on their backs after dinner, gazing at Olsen's Sea Sun of Five Bells.

In 1972, Lewis joined James Fairfax, the first Australian member on the International Council of New York's Museum of Modern Art. In 1993, she became its vice-president. She told a story of visiting MoMA trustee Jan Cowles after her first council meeting and admiring a Warhol portrait on a wall of her Fifth Avenue apartment. Lewis asked Cowles whether Warhol's subject was a cosmonaut.

''No, it's me,'' the dowager said.

In 1983, after two decades, she closed Gallery A. ''I had a husband, four children and was mother to 36 artists as well,'' she said. ''You either do it properly or not at all.'' Yet her activity as a collector, activist, committee member and chairwoman intensified.

Lewis's national involvement was pervasive. She was a founding member, and eventually chairwoman, of the Visual Arts Board of Australia. When the National Gallery of Australia opened she chaired the Founding Donors campaign. She chaired the Australian Exhibitions Touring Agency and twice served as commissioner for Australia at the Venice Biennale in the 1990s.

Despite her many public activities, Lewis did not seek the limelight. She quietly supported many projects and individual artists. When one of her boards faced difficulties, she mounted a rescue on condition that her help was never revealed.

The realisation she was dying stirred an extraordinary act of philanthropy. In September 2009, Lewis gave 70 works and a donation of $500,000 towards its building fund to Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art. She also gave 60 works to the Newcastle Region Art Gallery, including Olsen's ceiling triptych. And finally, in recognition of her childhood home, she gave 65 works by indigenous artists to the Moree Plains Gallery.

Honours came late to her but they were significant. In 2001, the University of Sydney conferred on this unmatriculated student an honorary doctorate of fine arts. In June 2009, she was appointed an officer of the Order of Australia.

Ann Lewis is survived by her two sons and two daughters. Her only brother died three weeks before her. John Lewis died in 1996.

Original publication

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Citation details

Mark McGinness, 'Lewis, Mari Ann (1934–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/lewis-mari-ann-32724/text40676, accessed 29 May 2024.

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