James and Diana Ramsay’s game-changing legacy of art gifted to South Australia

On announcing what is one of the single biggest donations to an Art Gallery in Australia, we spoke to Rhana Devenport ONZM, Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia about how the Ramsay’s philanthropy will help shape both private giving and the South Australian arts sector.

The Premier, the Hon Steven Marshall MP, announced this week that South Australia will be the beneficiary of a $38 million bequest towards the development of the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA), bestowed by James Stewart Ramsay AO (1923–1996) and Diana Ramsay AO (1926–2017).

This gift stipulates that the use of the bequest to the James and Diana Ramsay Fund be for the acquisition of major works of art by the Art Gallery of South Australia. This decision will ensure that the AGSA collection not only remains of national and international importance but also will expand in prominence and attract even greater visitation. As the collection is already one of the state’s most valuable assets, the Ramsay’s bequest will allow for the Gallery to significantly grow the collection and directly enhance the reputation of the Gallery for the benefit of all South Australians and its visitors.

This bequest builds on the Ramsay’s long and fruitful relationship with the Gallery, as two of the Art Gallery of South Australia’s most passionate and generous supporters.

James Ramsay AO’s love for the arts and medicine started early. He was the son of distinguished surgeon Sir John Ramsay and the nephew of the celebrated artist Hugh Ramsay. The Ramsay name is also closely associated with the famous boot polish company KIWI, which was founded by James’s uncle William Ramsay.

It was at the tender age of ten, when escorted through the Gallery by her father, that Diana Ramsay’s love of art was ignited, and it was a Nora Heysen painting titled Scabious, 1930, that she admired the most. In James, she found a fellow art lover and passionate advocate for culture and together they have supported South Australia with great dedication and purpose.

As Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Rhana Devenport ONZM is well attuned to the Ramsay’s approach to art as a powerful mechanism for storytelling.  “We are well aware that key works of art define collections, this is something James and Diana Ramsay were very conscious of, works of art are portals to stories and experiences and can become major attractors for both the people of South Australia and for audiences from Australia and the rest of the world. Art has the power to open our minds, to alter perception, to evoke empathy and to offer insights into how other people think and consider the world. James and Diana Ramsay committed themselves individually and as a couple to expanding these avenues of human experience for all.”

“The extent of James and Diana Ramsay’s support of AGSA is breathtaking. Such legacies make an exceptional impact on collections and communities. The Gallery’s collection has been developed through the great generosity of individual South Australians over its 138 years. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and represents the most generous donation in the Gallery’s history. Previous major bequests have been the catalysts for major Gallery expansions such as the Melrose and Elder Wings. We look forward to future growth of the Gallery so that we can fully honour this outstanding gift for the enjoyment and benefit of all South Australians, our visitors, and future generations,” says Ms Devenport.

To celebrate this extraordinary act of philanthropy to the Australian arts sector, Ms Devenport shares what can only be described as a bright future for the Gallery.


What does this monumental bequest mean for the development of the Art Gallery of South Australia and culture in your state?

This breathtakingly generous bequest is both visionary and sustaining. Visionary in its focus on major acquisitions for AGSA’s Collection and sustaining in the thoughtful parameters of the bequest that require the Gallery to carefully manage the funds for generations to come. Only a percentage of the annual interest may be allocated for the acquisition of works of art with funds further put aside to facilitate a significant work every decade. This thoughtful approach and concentration on strategic collection development is reflective of James Ramsay’s wise investment acumen, and his and Diana’s passion for the real and transformative long-term power of philanthropy.

 As the bequest is purely for the collection of major works of art, what is the Gallery planning on purchasing with the bequest?

An excellent question and one we are considering very carefully! Like most cultural organisations, our budgets are constrained. In fact, our foremost public programs and exhibitions are made possible almost entirely through philanthropic and corporate support. The Collection is truly marvellous and has evolved over 138 years through careful and informed connoisseurship and close relationships with artists, generous collectors and philanthropists.

We are thinking intensely about legacy and impact for the Collection through expanding on the rigorous excellence and adventurous provocations that already exist as artworks in the Collection, while also being very conscious of relevance and meaning for our audiences. We have acquired just two works thus far – a poetic and robust painting by celebrated British painter of Ghanaian descent Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and a sensational sculptural work by Danish-Icelandic artist and environmentalist Olafur Eliasson whose works are currently featuring in a solo exhibition at Tate Modern. Both works speak to the Gallery’s Collection yet expand the strength of human experience and the possibility of ideas that great works of art can generate.

As one of, if not the largest gift in Australian history, did the Art Gallery of South Australia conduct any special stewardship with James or Diana Ramsay while they were alive?

The relationship with Diana began many decades ago when she visited the Gallery as a ten-year-old with her father on her way to the Botanic Gardens and became enchanted with the Gallery. She joined the Gallery as a Member in 1969 and they gifted their first work, an exquisite negoro red lacquerware plate to the Gallery in 1972. The relationship continues today with the James and Diana Ramsay Foundation who support our public programs in various ways and work with the Gallery on the excellent Ramsay Art Prize, an acquisitive biennial $100,000 art prize for Australian artists under 40 years. Poignantly, Diana launched the Ramsay Art Prize on her 90th birthday, testimony to the great personal joy she and James found in the act of giving, and wanting most genuinely to make a difference to artists’ lives and the place of art in society.

The Ramsay’s have a long and generous relationship with the Gallery through their Foundation and now bequest. How is their philanthropy changing private giving in South Australia?

James and Diana’s passion for art, culture and positive social change, especially for young people, is greatly admired in South Australia. They very much hoped to inspire others in their giving the way that they had been inspired by the Felton Bequest at the National Gallery of Victoria (from 1904) that continues to grow that collection to the present day. Their vision was to be transformational and in tandem with the vital and essential support the Gallery receives from Members, the corporate community, Contemporary Collectors, the Foundation, and from so many philanthropic individuals, this bequest can now expand the future of the Art Gallery of South Australia in unexpected and exciting ways.

Read more about the James and Diana Ramsay bequest.