Joan and Peter Clemenger, Melbourne

Joan and Peter Clemenger’s passion for art and generous philanthropy to the arts over many decades is all the more remarkable given that neither came from families with an interest in visiting galleries and collecting. This is something they developed together as a couple, and it has been one of the hallmarks of their extraordinary lifelong partnership. However, rather than focus exclusively on developing their own collection, the Clemengers made the visionary – and at the time, ground-breaking – decision to share their love of art and the enrichment it gave them, through philanthropy, and particularly through their support of the National Gallery of Victoria, a relationship that now extends over 40 years.

Joan and Peter met when Joan was working in the Collins Street studio of acclaimed Melbourne fashion and advertising photographer Athol Shmith, and the pair married in 1956. Peter had started working in advertising at the age of 16 and joined his father in establishing Clemenger Advertising just two years later. Today, Clemenger BBDO is the largest agency group in Australia. Not long after their marriage, Joan attended a Christie’s art appreciation course, which she loved. Visits to Melbourne’s small clutch of commercial galleries ensued, with Joan coming to know gallerists such as Joseph Brown, Max Hutchinson, Georges Mora, Anne Purves and Sweeney Reed.1 As Peter’s advertising business grew and he was increasingly required to travel overseas for work, their knowledge of art correspondingly expanded to include international modern and contemporary artists and dealers. In a story that has since become family lore, Joan once arrived at the reception of New York’s Chase Manhattan Bank and requested to see the Bank’s art collection. Such was Joan’s courage, determination, and bravura, that no further questions were asked, and she was subsequently taken on a private tour by David Rockefeller (1915 – 2017), the Bank’s chairman and chief executive at the time. As Jason Smith has so aptly described Joan: ‘She had a twinkle in her eye, a ready smile, and a fabulous laugh. But when she spoke, she meant business.’2

The Clemengers’ art collection started modestly, with an eight by six-inch Ray Crooke painting that was bought from gallerist Barry Stern for £25. This was followed by a group of small paintings by Thomas Gleghorn; a Lawrence Daws for $5; a Fred Williams work on paper, bought from Rudy Komon Gallery for $190, and then a small John Olsen purchased when Peter had ‘had about three sherries… and was feeling fairly relaxed’. Driven by personal response rather than by fashion or art world ‘favourites’, the couple lived with their growing collection and rarely sold works: ‘We’ve not had a plan’, admits Peter, ‘we are just happy with what we’ve got.’3 Their first significant acquisition was an Arthur Boyd ‘Wimmera’ painting from Melbourne’s Australian Galleries, which was $1,600 – quite a jump from the price of earlier purchases, and quite a stretch for the young couple at the time. As this sale attests, several important works followed including Brett Whiteley’s magnificent Bathurst landscape, The Wren, 1978, executed at the height of his fame; John Brack’s enigmatic still life, No More, 1986, and the joyful The Splash, 1955 from John Perceval’s iconic Williamstown series.

A major donation by the Clemengers to the NGV in 1991 was the impetus for the establishment of what was to become known as the Clemenger Contemporary Art Prize, a series of six triennial exhibitions (running from 1993 to 2009) which celebrated the contribution of Indigenous and non-Indigenous mid-career and senior contemporary Australian artists. Having had the pleasure of working on two iterations of this Prize in 2006 and 2009 as Curator of Contemporary Art, I came to understand and appreciate the Clemengers’ deep commitment to Australian art and artists, their generosity of spirit, and their extensive knowledge. This unique and important series was a collaboration between the Gallery’s curators and Joan and Peter, with the development of each exhibition unfolding over several years. Peter’s keen eye was largely tuned to management of the budget and to the exhibition collateral, signage, and promotion; with Joan acting, in each iteration, as one of Prize’s three judges.

It did not stop there. In 1999, Joan made a commitment to build upon the important legacy of the Gallery’s G H Michell (1976 – 1987) and Margaret Stewart Endowments (1987 – 1997), which supported the acquisition of emerging Australian artists working in all media. Thus, the Joan Clemenger Endowment was born. Over the course of the Endowment’s four-year term, Joan was closely involved in the acquisition process, visiting galleries with the curators, and attending Acquisitions Meetings. The price for works was capped at $5,000 to ensure that the fund was truly benefiting artists at the beginning of their professional careers, and to enable the purchase of a greater number of works. It is telling that many of the artists whose work was acquired through this fund – including David Rosetzky, Ricky Swallow and Louise Weaver, to name but a few, are now some of our most celebrated contemporary artists.

Given the benefits they derived from travel, and from seeing the world’s best museums, Joan and Peter also established the Clemenger Travel Grant – an application-based program that enabled the professional development of the Gallery’s curators, conservators, and other professional staff. I was fortunate to be a recipient of this grant and can vouch for the life- and career-boosting benefits of the five-week trip I was able to undertake, visiting museums and colleagues across the UK and North America. The grant has now been running for close to 20 years.

After the end of the Clemenger Contemporary Art Award, Joan and Peter’s support of acquisitions at the NGV broadened to include international contemporary art, but equally, they have also been quietly involved in the purchase of works across other collecting areas for decades. After Joan’s death in early 2022, Peter has continued the couple’s commitment to the NGV, ensuring that Joan’s legacy as a benefactor, art lover, and friend to artists continues through his involvement.

Yet the Clemengers’ benefaction is by no means exclusive, and alongside their incredible support of the NGV they fostered long term relationships with a range of arts organisations. Peter was a patron of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, the pair are Lifetime Patrons of the Melbourne Theatre Company, and through the Joan and Peter Clemenger Trust (established in 2001) they support the Australian Ballet to bring international artists and companies to Australia to tour. Searching for a major tourism and reinvigoration project for Melbourne in the early 1990s, Peter established (and funded) the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival and ran the organisation for nine years. It has since become one of the world’s top food and wine events and celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Joan was a Fellow of Heide Museum of Modern Art and was central to the fundraising efforts that enabled the Museum to develop the 2012 exhibition Louise Bourgeois: Late Works and was also a supporter of a host of organisations ranging from Orchestra Victoria to Big Brother Big Sister and Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. The Clemenger Trust has also funded medical research through its support of, amongst other organisations, the Mental Health Research Institute of Victoria, the Centre for Eye Research Australia, the Peter McCallum Cancer Foundation and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, and has helped address the needs of vulnerable children, young people and families through its substantial support of Anglicare.4

In 2015 Joan and Peter Clemenger scored a rare ‘double’ in the Australia Day Honours, each becoming Officers of the Order (AO) for their support of the visual and performing arts and for their philanthropic work. Peter’s response to this very public recognition was characteristically low-key: ‘I got a letter telling me about the award and thought that's nice…Then I opened another letter and found Joan had the same. That was wonderful.’5

The author is grateful to Veronica Angelatos for the notes she took during her interview with Peter Clemenger at his Melbourne home on 26 May 2022, which have informed this piece.

1. Joseph Brown (1918 – 2009) opened Joseph Brown Gallery at 5 Collins Street, close to Athol Shmith’s studio, in 1967. Max Hutchinson (1925 – 1999) was the founding director of Gallery A; Georges Mora (1913 – 1992) was the director of Tolarno Galleries; Anne Purves was the director, with husband Tam, of Australian Galleries, and Sweeney Reed (1945 – 1979) was the Director of Strines Gallery, and later, Sweeney Reed Gallery.
2. Smith, J., speech notes for Joan Clemenger AO, Memorial Service, 5 April 2022. Jason Smith, also a Curator of Contemporary Art at the NGV from 1997 to 2007, worked on the 1999, 2003 and 2006 iterations of the Clemenger Contemporary Art Award.
3. Childs, K., ‘Portrait of a Patron’, Flight Deck, May 1993, p. 21 in ‘EXHIBITION: JOAN AND PETER CLEMENGER TRIENNIAL EXHIBITION OF CONTEMPORARY AUSTRALIAN ART 1996 PART 1: APR 1993 – DEC 1994’, NGV RMU File G1111, accessed 29 June 2022
4. ‘Advertising Legend Peter Clemenger and Wife Joan Both Awarded AO in Australia Day Honours’, 26 January 2015,, accessed 23 July 2022
5. Money L., ‘Australia Day Honours: Ad Legend Clemenger and Wife Score The "Double"’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 January 2015,, accessed 23 July 2022