Preserving heritage with Ann Sherry AO FAICD

Friday, 01 December 2023


    Distinguished director and QUT chancellor Ann Sherry AO FAICD reflects on finding fulfilment through projects designed to preserve heritage. 

    When Ann Sherry AO FAICD started as Queensland University of Technology (QUT) chancellor in August 2022, an unexpected perk of the job was being able to select the artworks that would hang in her office from among the university’s 3000- strong collection. Australian First Nations art, one of Sherry’s passions, forms a central part of the substantial QUT art collection.

    “Digging through somebody else’s collection and finding pieces I like has been fun,” she says.

    The NAB non-executive director is herself a keen collector. She started gathering pieces as a way of holding onto fond travel memories after she and her husband, Michael Hogan, first went to Europe and Africa after meeting at university.

    “Art for us became a way of documenting travel initially, and so wherever we went, we’d try to find something that helped us tell the story of where we’d been,” she says. “When I started travelling into Indigenous communities, I learned more about how Indigenous art documents place differently. Our walls started to tell the story of Australia through the eyes of Indigenous artists in different parts of Australia.”

    Restoring the ruins

    In November 2022, Sherry and Hogan sold their 1882 neo-gothic Sydney mansion, The Abbey. They had faithfully restored the building, transforming it from dilapidated ruin to beloved family home by working with heritage architects including Alan Croker and Letizia Loppo-Jones. When they purchased the building in 2009, its floors were disintegrating and vines were creeping through gaps in the walls and windows.

    Built by Sydney Lord Mayor and architect John Young, The Abbey dates back to 1882. With its distinctive copper-clad tower, intricate stonework and gargoyles, it is considered the most outstanding of Annandale’s so-called “witches’ houses”.

    The couple had lived at the home with their adult son, Nick. The sale of the property represented a very public signal of the family’s move to Brisbane where, in addition to her role at QUT, Sherry is also chair of Queensland Airports Corporation, media company the Enero Group and UNICEF Australia.

    It also meant that in early 2023, Sherry put some of the contents of The Abbey up for online auction. This included a fine collection by Australian First Nations artists — such as bark paintings by respected Yolngu elder Nonggirrnga Marawili, acrylics on canvas by the Lockhart River’s Rosella Namok and colourful works by the late Ginger Riley Munduwalawala. Prominent Australian artists featured in the collection included Margaret Olley, Tim Storrier, Garry Shead and Frances Vida Lahey. A rare original screen- print of Andy Warhol’s Mao was even placed in the auction mix.

    Although she acknowledges it was difficult to relinquish works by Nora Heysen AM, Sherry says her decisions were made pragmatically. “We were moving out of a really big house into a smaller house and we just couldn’t take everything,” she says. “I’m not running a gallery, I wasn’t buying art to hoard it and there’s a point at which, if you’re not able to hang work, it doesn’t make any sense.” That said, Sherry has always focused on purchasing art that she loves. “I’m not a collector who buys because somebody says this is an artist who’s on the rise or this is a piece of art that will accrue in value — I don’t buy art like that at all. I buy art... that speaks to me in some way, whether that be reminiscent of place, or it could be the people you meet. Art helps us understand our national story.”

    Moving home

    Born in Gympie and educated in Brisbane, Sherry says the move back to her home state of Queensland, after many years spent living and working in Sydney and Melbourne, was motivated by the desire to be closer to family. Sherry had to say goodbye to her dying mother over Zoom during the pandemic lockdowns. “Being locked out for a couple of years made us rethink where we wanted to be based.”

    She says Queensland has changed a lot during the decades she has been away. “It’s got energy and purpose with the lead into the [2032] Olympics. You can feel that sort of energy about the place — there’s ambition, there’s opportunity. But of course, there’s also contestability, particularly about infrastructure spend.” Sherry completed post- graduate studies at QUT in 1980, so returning as chancellor offers a different sort of homecoming.

    Another heritage project

    Sherry and Hogan have bought another heritage- listed home in the inner-city suburb of Red Hill. Originally built in 1868 by stonemason and building contractor William McCallum Park, it’s considered an unusually late example of Georgian colonial architectural style and stone construction, according to the Queensland Heritage Register. While it’s not quite as big a fixer- upper as The Abbey, renovating it is a formidable project. The couple will use Brisbane architects JDA Co, along with local builders and designers.

    “We’re doing work to restore and ensure the heritage piece of the house stands for another 100 years,” says Sherry. “It also has a more modern wing to it and we’re making that layout work for us.” 

    Sherry’s personal projects have roots in her governance pursuits. “One of the things I’ve learned from all of my years of working with Indigenous communities is that a house is a structure that sits in landscape, even in the city. I’m spending as much time thinking about the garden as I am about the house.” The intention is to create a bird- and bee- friendly garden that feeds those who care for it.

    Her passion for a sense of place and community, and a connection with history, neatly intertwines with how she has curated her directorship work, particularly in the area of First Nations engagement (see breakout, left).

    Having planted her vegetable beds, she has already confronted some of the challenges that come with gardening in a subtropical climate. By the end of last winter, “summer” vegetables like tomatoes and basil were growing, while the lime, mulberry and macadamia trees were starting to fruit — and apparently the possums are “voracious”.

    She hopes the renovation project will be completed by year’s end. In the meantime, Sherry is rediscovering the Queensland regions. There are changes happening in Townsville, for instance, with the shift into renewables, rare earth mining, Great Barrier Reef research and tourism development. “Governments are increasingly seeing the power of thinking about place, not just issues in silos.”

    Recently, the CopperString 2032 energy project and solar projects have been announced so there will be more high-tech activity and advanced manufacturing located in a place that didn’t used to consider itself a high-tech hub.

    “Attracting resources and skills — and not all competing for the same bucket of skill — is quite challenging in a big regional centre like Townsville,” says Sherry. “The shift in the skill mix [is something to consider]. How do we offer retraining and reskilling to people whose skills aren’t going to be as strongly part of the future as they currently are?”

    Sherry notes the conversations in places like Townsville are more collaborative and direct than those in the city. “Local government is a key player in the discussion, while economic development, tourism and infrastructure bodies work together to develop plans.” 

    Local solutions

    Sherry has worked with First Nations communities for many decades.

    As a senior executive of Westpac in 2000, Sherry was involved in the establishment of Cape York-based not-for-profit Jawun, which creates partnerships between corporates and First Nations leaders and communities. Jawun places skilled people from Australia’s leading companies and government agencies into First Nations organisations to share expertise and support First Nations leaders to achieve their own development goals.

    “A group of us came together to find new ways we could support Indigenous community leaders to create real jobs, real services and real opportunities for their communities,” she says. “That organisation became a way corporate Australia could offer skills to support Indigenous communities to work on local projects and find solutions to the issues they’re facing.” 

    This article first appeared under the headline 'Chancellor Curator’ in the December 2023 / January 2024 issue of Company Director magazine.  

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