‘This house still needs a family’: Wendy Whiteley’s extraordinary $100m donation to NSW

The Wendy and Arkie Whiteley bequest honors in name and spirit the couple’s daughter, Arkie, who died of cancer in 2001, aged just 37, nine years after her father. With Arkie’s death in 2001, Wendy became the sole guardian of her ex-husband’s collection and legacy.

“It’s definitely Brett’s legacy, but it’s also mine and my daughter’s because we did it,” Wendy said.

Wendy and Brett Whiteley were married for 32 years after meeting as teenagers, a couple who personified the bohemian spirit and became darlings of the global art scene.

One Walker Street became the Whiteleys’ home on their return to Sydney from New York, via Fiji. The couple’s perspectives on Lavender Bay feature in major works by Brett Whiteley, including the Archibald Prize winner Self-portrait in the studio 1976, its winner of the Sir John Sulman Prize Interior with time after 1976, and The Jacaranda (on Sydney Harbour) 1977.

The significance of the view and setting of the house was recognized by state heritage listing in 2018, along with the house and former studioand parts of a waterfront oasis that Wendy Whiteley transformed from abandoned railroad land.

Proceeds from the future sale of the Lavender Bay house will help manage and curate the collection, many of which are currently on loan to the Art Gallery of NSW. It will also support the management of the Surry Hills studio, exhibitions, regional tours, and public and educational programs.

Wendy Whiteley on the balcony of the heritage listed house in Lavender Bay. Credit:Jessica Hromas

Brett Whiteley bought the Raper St warehouse in 1985 and converted it into a studio. After his death in 1992 it was purchased by the NSW Government and ownership transferred to the art gallery.

As one of the few artist studios open to the Australian public, Wendy sees the Brett Whiteley Studio as an important source of inspiration for young artists and a corrective to her ex-husband’s rock star reputation. “That’s where his real life was,” she said.

The art gallery will be the repository for the Whiteley Archive, containing papers and letters important to the couple’s life and artistic practice, which Whiteley has been steadily collecting for at least two years.


Whiteley said she wanted the bequest to inspire a creative life and provide more opportunities for young artists to experience Whiteley’s art.

“When we were really young, and this is the 1950s we’re talking about, support for young artists was minimal,” she said.

“You would go to the Art Gallery of NSW in order to get what was the most important support of all and that was the inspiration and the feeling that anything was possible.”

Brett Whiteley studio president Samantha Meers said Wendy made an extraordinarily generous donation to support a remarkable space.

“This is not only an opportunity to exhibit Brett’s work where much of it has been done, it also allows visitors access to the broader act of artistic creation, educating emerging artists and the public on what can sometimes be a mysterious and lonely process.”

Donations by major artists to the nation

  • by John Kaldor donation of 260 works of Contemporary Art in 2008, then valued at $35 million, included pieces by Christo, Jeff Koons, Robert Rauschenberg, Sol LeWitt, Gilbert & George, Richard Long, Carl Andre and Andreas Gursky.
  • The Tweed River Regional Gallery in Murwillumbah received a million dollar bequest in 2011 from Margaret Olley to build a replica of the beloved painter’s studio decorated with her own works.
  • In 1993, Paul Keating accepted Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s Gift to the people of Australia from their property on the south coast of Bundanon, and a collection of works by the artist as well as those of Sidney Nolan, John Perceval, Charles Blackman and others.

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