His 200-plus-strong art collection contains Bartons, Boyds and Booths, but more important to Terry Wu is sharing in collective success and storytelling with the arts community.
By Isla Sutherland
Terry Wu is a plastic surgeon, arts patron and avid collector of locally produced works. Today, his art collection comprises well over 200pieces—though of the precise number, even he isn’t entirely sure. Inside his Melbourne home, the walls are laden with the pale, bone-fingered portrait works of Del Kathryn Barton and the imposing black-and-white dot paintings of Daniel Boyd.
“I came from Taipei, Taiwan. My father was the editor of a local newspaper, but he also practised painting traditional rice paper ink paintings. Although I didn’t realise at the time, there was something instilled in me, I think, in my blood,” Wu says.
His self-confessed obsession is palpable from the repository-lik equality of his family home, from the surrealist visions of David Griggs to the frantic brushstrokes of a Peter Booth, and the fractured compositions of Julie Fragar. The Booth was in fact the first in his collection that catapulted this compulsion to cumulate and conserve. “It was in ways very dark, but also much about redemption and hope. That’s when I started trying to understand what art can really do,” Wu says.
“It doesn’t have to be beautiful to look at. That does help but it has to have a raison d’être. Art expresses to me sometimes what words cannot.”
Despite an innate and deep-rooted affiliation with the arts, Wu is a plastic surgeon by trade. His profession has allowed him to be an active philanthropist and member of the arts community.
Wu emigrated as a 14-year-old without any English language proficiency and was forced to assimilate. “While the acquisition of language academically was not that difficult, I had to understand the language of culture, which took a long time. I don’t think I really understood what that meant until I was probably in my 30s,” he says.
The trauma of migration in his teenage years had a profound influence on Wu’s experience of art. “It is the process of finding one’s own voice and identity that is the driving force for me,” he says. “I like art that explores one’s sense of belonging, be that in our community, in our country or in the world.”
His own experience as a first-generation Australian has informed an understanding of the country that isn’t always reflected in popular culture. “We are very diverse, we’re very contemporary, and we’re future-oriented as well,” he says. As dedicated patron, Wu is on the boards of both the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA). “It’s about trying to advocate for content that is made in Australia, to have the stories and output that reflect our contemporary society.”
He is part of a movement to democratise the process of art making and to correct the homogenous voice that has historically been given precedence. With friend, architect and interior designer Pascale Gomes-McNabb, Wu established affordable studio spaces for 12 local artists in Brunswick East, to remove one of the significant barriers for emerging artists. The John Street Studios were instituted at a third of the rent of the contemporary market, and the pair has not increased it since the studios’ inception.
Kirsty Budge began her career in that studio, as did Tim Buckovic, and today Darren Sylvester works from there too. As well as art, Wu collects the success stories of prospering local artists that emerge through his studio spaces.
“Nowadays, while I still collect a lot of artworks, I’m more interested in the making of art: in the welfare of artists and the ecology of art making,” Wu says. “I sometimes struggle with the idea of collection, because it’s about ownership. If I love something, I want to share it with other people.”
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