Retail tycoon gives opera houses £20m

Covent Garden and Cardiff are to receive one of the largest donations ever made to the arts in Britain. By James Morrison
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The Independent Online

A multi-millionaire South African retail magnate has given £20m jointly to the Royal Opera House and Cardiff's Wales Millennium Centre in one of the largest ever cash donations to the arts in Britain.

Donald Gordon, chairman of Liberty International, which owns the Lakeside shopping centre in Essex and Gateshead's MetroCentre, is to hand £10m to each of the two performing arts venues over the next five years.

Mr Gordon, 73, who is worth an estimated £560m and came 51st in this year's Sunday Times Rich List, says he is making his extraordinary gift to celebrate his impending retirement and recently being granted dual British-South African citizenship.

His donation - one of the largest ever no-strings-attached arts endowments - will be used to foster links between Covent Garden and the Millennium Centre, a £104m concert hall under construction in Cardiff Bay.

The Royal Opera House will use its half of the money to finance new productions, while the £10m given to the Welsh venue surpasses, at one stroke, the final £8m it has been struggling to raise from private backers.

Only twice before is a single cash gift to a UK arts institution thought to have exceeded Mr Gordon's donation. On both occasions, the benefactor was the late Sir John Paul Getty II, who in 1985 gave the National Gallery an unprecedented £50m endowment - a sum he matched in a donation to the British Film Institute.

Mr Gordon, a traditional, no-nonsense businessman known for his informal style and hatred of corporate red tape, explained the reasons for his gift in a lengthy, often eccentric statement issued through the opera house.

Expressing his desire to forge closer ties between his native and adopted countries, he said: "I hope to recapture the great historic relationship between England, Wales and South Africa ... in the late 19th century going back to the days of Rorke's Drift and Isandhlwana."

Speaking to The Independent on Sunday, Mr Gordon, who steps down from his chairmanship of Liberty next year, said he was coming to the end of his business career: "I'm hoping that I can now switch the focus I've put on business into opera. I want it to be the focus of my life."

He also conceded: "Giving money like this is a pretty tax-efficient way of doing things. They don't leave you with very much when you are demised. Doing this gives me a certain sort of good feeling."

Asked if he hoped to serve on the boards of either of the opera houses, he said with a chuckle: "No. I've had enough of boards to last me a lifetime after 47 years in business."

While Covent Garden and the Millennium Centre have embraced Mr Gordon's joint donation with open arms, at least one person will be less than happy about his sudden elevation to the philanthropic major league. The flamboyant property tycoon John Ritblat, Mr Gordon's arch-rival in the shopping-centre market, has spent years nurturing a reputation as a patron of the arts. He is a supporter of the Tate galleries and the Royal Ballet School, and has a room named after him at the British Library, to which he has donated at least £1m.

Three years ago, the business rivals became embroiled in a high-profile row after Mr Ritblat attempted to buy shares in Liberty from under his competitor's nose. Mr Gordon emerged victorious from the ensuing brawl, but few believe their rivalry has been buried for good.

Mr Gordon laughed off the suggestion that his knowledge of Mr Ritblat's past donations may have played a part in his own decision to give so much money to the arts - instead challenging his old rival to follow his example.

"I think my motives were somewhat different to that," he said. "But if he now gives £20m to the arts too, that would be brilliant."

Benefactors unbounded: patrons of the arts in Britain

Donald Gordon is not the only wealthy philanthropist who has supported the UK arts scene over the past 20 years. Others include:

Dame Vivien Duffield

Who she is: Daughter of the businessman/philanthropist Sir Charles Clore.

What she's donated: £430,000 to help the Tate Gallery purchase Constable's Waterloo Bridge; more than £11m to arts education; has funded Clore Education Centres within various British museums and galleries.

Sir John Paul Getty II

Who he was: Philanthropist/ art collector and heir to the legendary oil billionaire John Paul Getty. Died at 70 in April.

What he donated: £50m to the National Gallery in the mid-1980s; £40m-£50m to the British Film Institute; £3m towards securing the Mappa Mundi; £1m to keep Canova's statue The Three Graces in Britain; a £50m book collection to the British public; £400,000 to The Oldie magazine. Also temporarily covered the running costs of the Vintage Wireless Museum. Linked to anonymous £12.5m donation to the Tate to prevent Sir Joshua Reynolds's Portrait of Omai being sent overseas.

Sir Christopher Ondaatje

Who he is: Philanthropist and founder of Canadian stock brokerage company Loewen, Ondaatje, McCutcheon and of publishers and bankers the Pagurian Corporation.

What he's donated: £2.75m for the Ondaatje Wing at the National Portrait Gallery; £100,000 towards Van Dyck's Portrait of Sir William Killigrew; several thousand pounds to the Gulbenkian Foundation's £100,000 British arts prize.

Lord Sainsbury

Who is he: Art collector and son of the founder of the supermarket chain.

What he's donated: A £3m fund to the University of East Anglia; established Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts and donated £5m to fund its extension; £4m to the British Museum's orchid collection; sold work by Modigliani to establish the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures.

Torquil Norman

Who he is: Founder of toy manufacturer Bluebird.

What he's donated: Rescued London's Roundhouse theatre with £3m. Now spending £25m to turn it into a performance space and creative centre for young people.

Lynn Doan