The Queensland Community Foundation has announced Dr Patrick Corrigan AM is the 2021 Community Philanthropist of the Year. Dr Corrigan is Patron of the Bond University Indigenous Gala which has raised $2.8 million for scholarships, grants and bursaries since 2010 and has contributed more than 650 artworks to the university.
The Arch magazine interviewed Dr Corrigan earlier this year.
Somewhere on the bottom of Hong Kong harbour, in a boy’s trunk inside a sunken ship, are the lumps of lead that helped spawn one of Australia’s greatest art collections.
The carefully packed rows of Coldstream, Grenadier and Irish Guards -- “I was a Pom back then” -- belong to the art collector, philanthropist and businessman Patrick Corrigan AM.
Today, as many as 900 of his artworks are on loan to galleries and public spaces across the country, with key pieces forming the Corrigan Walk at Bond University -- the largest private collection of Indigenous Australian art on public display.
But back then it was toy soldiers he adored.
Growing up in Tianjin, the port city for Beijing, Dr Corrigan and his family had attempted to make a dash from China to Australia as World War II heated up in the Pacific.
Sailing for Hong Kong, they arrived just hours before Japan launched simultaneous attacks on the British colony and Pearl Harbour.
There was no time to unload the SS Fausing’s cargo, including Dr Corrigan’s treasured first collection. The lead soldiers went down with the ship.
The next four years passed under Japanese rule in the Stanley Internment Camp, bookended by another incident involving a deadlier form of lead.
It was August 14, 1945 -- the day of Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allies -- and Dr Corrigan woke to find his Japanese jailers had disappeared. He decided to celebrate with a swim.
“There was a little bay nearby and the guards used to let you go once every two weeks to have a swim,” he says.
“Suddenly an American P-38 coming back from strafing somewhere in China flew over. Apparently he hadn't been told the war was over.
“There was a Japanese boom defence vessel in the water and the pilot decided to make a few runs on it.
“When bullets from a machinegun hit water, they travel dramatically. It felt like the bullets were only a metre away but in fact they were probably 30-40 metres away.
“I tell people I beat Cathy Freeman's record that day getting back to the POW camp.”
The Corrigan family eventually made it to Sydney, with a teenage Patrick boarding at Blue Mountains Grammar School before joining Unilever as a messenger boy at 16.
He studied accountancy and eventually started his own freight-forwarding company. His stellar business success seemed to summon the collecting “disease” from the watery depths of Hong Kong.
“I thought the walls were a bit bare and there happened to be an art gallery beneath where I worked in Sydney,” he says.
“I went in and bought a small picture and I was away. It was a Paddington terrace house by an artist called Ric Elliot.”
Works by Lloyd Rees, John Coburn, Brett Whiteley, Ian Fairweather and Tim Storrier would follow.
There were expensive mistakes along the way but even those spawned magnificent collections in their own right.
“I went to see the doyen of Melbourne art dealers Joe Brown because by then my second child had arrived and I wanted to sell a few things,” Dr Corrigan says. (Brown donated his $30 million Australian art collection to the National Gallery of Victoria in 2004).
“I said, ‘I'd like this much for this Arthur Boyd’. And he said, ‘Well, that's a bit much because you do realise it's his Wimmera series two?’
“I didn't know he'd done more than one series but there were six.
“I decided I wasn’t going to fall for that again and I built the biggest collection of literature on Australian art which I read and then donated.”
The collection sits with the State Library of Queensland, while another Dr Corrigan put together has been donated to the Art Gallery of NSW.
He had dabbled in traditional Aboriginal art but the vibrant pieces that have become a hallmark of his collection have their genesis in a 2004 exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria called Colour Power: Aboriginal Art Post 1984.
“I went down to see it and I was knocked out,” he says. “It was still Aboriginal but with lots of colour and it took me only about a month to sell all my dark brown and yellow pieces and then I started collecting pieces all from the year 2000.”
The problem with amassing such a vast collection -- works by artists including Sally Gabori, Walangkura Napanangka, Naata Nungurrayi, Yannima Pikarli Tommy Watson and Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri -- is you need somewhere to display it. “My walls are maxed out”, Dr Corrigan says.
Bond University entered the picture when Dr Corrigan’s son Ryan attended the University. (Another son, Joel, had also hoped to become a Bondy but was tragically killed in an electrical accident).
“I was invited to the opening of the (Faculty of Health Sciences & Medicine) in 2006 and it was a nice new building but there were all these bare walls.
“I thought, ‘I've got a lot of paintings with no walls and here's a lot of walls’, and it started from there.
“Then I convinced lots of southern artists to start donating their works. It's a pretty big collection and it looks great.
“It’s a joy to be there because the campus is clean, the atmosphere is good with the lake there and they look after the art well.”
The University conferred an honorary doctorate upon Corrigan in 2007 and successfully nominated him for a Queensland Greats award in 2014.
With a home on the Gold Coast, Dr Corrigan has been a frequent visitor over the years, starting the Gold Coast Jetski Breakfast Club, which still exists. “I'll be 90 next year and I'd still like to get back on a ski,” he says.
In 2015 he was presented with the key to the city in recognition of philanthropic contributions to the arts and cultural sector of the Gold Coast and is looking forward to the opening of the HOTA gallery later this year where many of his donated works will go on display.
It was on one of Dr Corrigan’s frequent flights to the Coast that he had a flashback to his pre-war childhood in Tianjin. He got chatting to another passenger who spoke of his Russian background.
“I said I grew up eating a lot of Russian food because in Tianjin it's very cold.
“I asked him if he knew of a Russian restaurant on the Gold Coast and at that time there was one in Southport and he used to go there -- and that's how we started talking.
“He said, ‘Where did you come from?’ Tianjin. He said, ‘I was in Tianjin. What school did you go to?’ Tianjin Grammar. And he said, ‘I went to Tianjin Grammar’.”
The passenger was Harry Triguboff, the billionaire developer responsible for many of the Gold Coast’s soaring towers. Both had immigrated from China to Australia and thrived. “It's amazing,” Dr Corrigan says.
As his links to Bond have strengthened over the years, so has his appreciation of the educational disadvantages faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Dr Corrigan is Patron of the Bond University Indigenous Gala which has raised $2.8 million for scholarships, grants and bursaries since 2010. “It feels terrific” seeing Indigenous scholars graduate, he says.
He gets a similar thrill donating artworks.
“It makes me happy. When I've given it away and they like it and they hang it well, I think it's a perfect solution.”