Judith Neilson is in the news for all the wrong reasons – a falling out, it seems at her eponymous Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. It seems that the very rich lady – who’s never found a reason to support this little piece of journalism (and ideas) – finds the Institute a little too independent for her liking.

However, she should be in the news for her interest in First Nations art. Earlier this month, I was able to take “a rare look inside the Phoenix Central Park Gallery”, and found a “private exhibition featuring renowned collector Judith Neilson’s unique selection of contemporary Indigenous art – over 100 works from Pukatja ceramics, ceremonial burial poles from the Tiwi Islands and transcendent paintings from The Kimberley and Northern Territory”, according to the gallery’s website.

Who knew that Neilson was a serious collector? And who knew that she had the whimsy to put on this exhibition, filling her new four-storey gallery, for just one weekend? It appears that the show was exclusively for central Sydney’s local Chippendale festival, ‘Gather on Kensington Street‘ (though she’s on O’Connor Street).

Could it be that the balloted-for gallery opening was primarily designed to show off the architecture rather than the art? For its creators, John Wardle Architects are pretty proud of their efforts. They say that thanks to “the vision of remarkable arts philanthropist Judith Neilson, the building is a partnership of architecture and artistic fields. The intention is to have the spaces – art gallery and performance space – working together, to have visual arts interwoven with the performing arts. Two architects bring the design together: John Wardle Architects designed the gallery in the east wing and Durbach Block Jaggers designed the performance space. The components are linked centrally by a courtyard and garden”.

Certainly, the architecture takes the eye – which may not always be a Good Thing in a space designed to show off art; which was, I have to say, not that remarkable.

Earlier I asked who knew Judith Neilson had moved from her renowned contemporary Chinese art collection at the White Rabbit Gallery round the corner to the Indigenous. Well, the answer is a handful of well-patronised dealers. Of the 92 works listed in the show, 20 came from the APY Collective, 16 from Karen Brown Fine Art in Darwin and 14 from the Buku Larrnggay art centre in Arnhemland. That’s more than half of the collection.

Mind you, much of the APY work is pottery from Ernabella, some Tjanpi weaving and Maruku pokerwork, and a superb Mitakiki Men’s Collective painting, ‘Ngyaku Ngura‘ from Tjala Arts in 2017. There might also be an Emily Cullinan from Iwantja Arts in the APY Lands, but the sometimes haphazard works list credits it to Karen Brown, which is right out of her country. In country for Brown is a trio of Ngukurr works that greet you on the ground floor gallery – two being strong ‘Ruined City’ landscapes by Angelina George from her ‘Imagined Country‘ series in 2009. Elsewhere, could one argue that the balance of Aboriginal art’s variety is somewhat tipped by a handful of artworks from each of Karen Brown artists Nancy McDinny, Stewart Hoosan (both from Borroloola) and Joan Nancy Stokes from the Barkly Tableland – all of whom paint in a naïve realistic style.

Up top, Yolungu work – as the worksheet mysteriously calls the Yolngu – predominates with a delightful Nonggirrnga Marawili ‘Lightning‘ bark, and a wonderfully nobbly larrakitj pole from Paul Wutjin Maymuru in Gapuwiyak. As that name, unfamiliar to me, might suggest, Neilson hasn’t restricted her collecting to Big Names – Johnny Warrakatja Armstrong is also from Gapuwiyak, Rona Parangka Rubuntja is amongst Hermannsberg potters collected, and Jean Walmberg gets a niche to herself for a Wik ghostnet-wrapped child’s bike.

Meanwhile, the Griffiths name is legendary at Waringarri art centre in Kununurra, and it would be nice to think that Neilson has commissioned the work by Jan Griffiths which is a delicately shaded installation of three artworks suggesting water-lillies in both paint and ceramic forms (see picture). Definitely adventurous.

One might argue that Ningura Napurrula is also a legendary name that shouldn’t be misspelled Napurrulu, or credited to the Pupunya Yula Arts organisation! Surely the claimed ‘renown’ in collecting also requires some seriousness in the cataloguing. And while I’m in critical mode, a 100-work collection such as this surely needs a balance to it reflective of the varied geography of First Nations art production. I could only read an unplanned randomness into this brief flowering.