Philanthropists come in all shapes and sizes, but for Martyn Myer there’s only one approach: roll up your sleeves and don’t take no for an answer.
By Paul Dalgarno
“It feels a bit wacky,” says Martyn Myer AO.
I’m sitting with the philanthropist, businessman and Deputy Chancellor of the Council of the University of Melbourne at The Stables, a new multimillion-dollar space on the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music’s Southbank campus. The heritage-listed former home of the Victoria Police Mounted Branch was re-opened in 2018 as a stunning visual arts wing and multipurpose performance space that – wackily, from Myer’s perspective – has been christened the Martyn Myer Arena.
“It feels strange seeing your name on something, but it’s a great honour,” he says, adjusting his lapel. “I’m very pleased it recognises the contribution I’ve made.”
That contribution came via Myer’s significant personal philanthropic support, in addition to that of the Myer Foundation, but also, crucially, in the business nous, grit and staying power he brought to the project. As he tells it, the University had been keen on securing the police stables as a teaching space for many years before getting the project off the ground – although getting inside for a proper look was less than straightforward.
“The stables and riding hall were opened to the public as part of Open House Melbourne in 2013,” he says. “I rounded up Glyn [Davis, Vice Chancellor of the University], [Chair of The Potter Foundation and close friend] Charles Goode, and my wife, Louise … We went there on the pretext of being part of Open House, but in fact were snooping around, counting horses and taking photographs.”
He describes the resulting building, launched some five years later, as “just beautiful. Kerstin [Thompson, lead architect] has done the most amazing job, combining the best of the heritage aspects with these terrific modern facilities. And now, of course, there’s the bigger piece of the puzzle, the new Conservatorium, and bringing all the music students and staff down from Parkville …”
Moving on to the next pieces of puzzles seems standard fare for Myer, a trained engineer with degrees from Swinburne, Monash and MIT. He has a knack for bringing projects and people together, finding the bits that go best together and snapping them into place.
The Ian Potter Southbank Centre opened for classes at Southbank in early 2019 – a nine-storey, state-of-the-art home for the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, realised through a combination of University, government and philanthropic funding, including from the Myer family, Myer Foundation and the Potter Foundation.
Myer’s involvement with the University dates back to 1989. In 1992 he became a board member – and later President – of the Florey Institute, housed on the University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus in the Kenneth Myer building – named in recognition of the philanthropic support of Martyn’s father.
He left the board of the Florey in 2009 and joined the University Council, but not before spearheading the revamped, multimillion-dollar Florey Neuroscience Institutes on Royal Parade and Heidelberg through a cocktail of philanthropic, state and federal government and University funding.
The official opening of the new Parkville building in 2011 also marked the start of his involvement with the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music – thanks to the fortuitous attendance of Faculty Dean Professor Barry Conyngham.
Myer laughs, recollecting their first meeting. “Barry was there and, being clever, made a bee line for me,” he says. “He’d seen and heard what we’d done with the Florey and started to explain what he wanted to do on the Southbank campus. And so that was our introduction. Of course, my family also has a long association with that part of Melbourne.”
He’s not joking. Between 1965 and 1989, his father Kenneth Myer chaired the committee responsible for creating what would eventually become the Arts Centre Melbourne, a Southbank project he’d been heavily involved in since its inception in 1958; together with his siblings, his father brought another cherished landmark of the Arts Precinct into existence – the Sidney Myer Music Bowl – donating it to the people of Victoria and Australia in 1959, the same year in which the Myer Foundation was established.
Sidney Myer – Martyn’s grandfather, himself a major philanthropist and founder of what was to become the Myer retail dynasty – was clearly not afraid to think big, and that trait continues to echo through the generations.
“If you don’t have a big idea it doesn’t sell,” says Myer. “I learned that at the Florey when we tried to raise $5 million to put a new floor on the existing building and it didn’t get any traction with anybody. We then completely rethought things and said, ‘We want to create Australia’s biggest neuroscience centre and be one of the top 20 in the world’ – and suddenly the government was interested.”
He’s says he’s learned over the years not to take no for an answer, and to get philanthropists engaged from the get-go. “If you do that first it allows you to go to government with some money and a solution for something they want to achieve,” he says. “Everyone likes to be part of a successful ride, to be part of that momentum. ”
The Victorian Government’s investment in the revitalisation of Melbourne’s Arts Precinct is a case in point. The major public work now underway on landscaping, new arts facilities and upgrades to exisiting infrastructure has been described as a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity by state premier Daniel Andrews, a “game changer” that will “cement Melbourne as the cultural capital of Australia”.
Being aware of those plans, and noting the obvious – that the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music campus was smack-bang in the middle of the proposed Arts Precinct redevelopment – was key.
“Our philanthropic raise for the whole Southbank campus redevelopment was something like $40 million,” he says, “That’s actually a relatively modest amount of money, given we’ve so far achieved more than $200 million of project work. Working closely with the government is essential, not least in our case where securing the police stables was key to opening up the whole campus.
“But we were also able to present them with a compelling argument – we can be the cultural capital of Australia, of the world even, but for that you also need to support a world-class arts and culture training faculty, right there in the heart of it.”
I wonder if Myer ever felt a choice with philanthropy, whether it was there as a must-do given his background, and whether his own children – two daughters and a son – feel any pressure to follow suit.
“We call philanthropy the glue that holds our family together,” he says. You know, business is business, and you’ve got to be hard-nosed, but philanthropy can be very inclusive, with lots of committees and activity involving many family members. In my generation, there are 13 of us, but there are already 45 in the next … and there might be more that a hundred in the generation after that.
“Having a high-performing business doesn’t keep a family together, but philanthropy does – there’s a family culture of doing it and doing it well, and enjoying it.”
As president of the not-for-profit Myer Foundation he has obvious insight into the value of a well-managed bequest, but sees his own philanthropy as a living, breathing entity that runs in tandem to the work of the Foundation. “In a project like the Southbank campus redevelopment, you’ve got to lead by example,” he says.
“I can’t ask the family’s foundation for money unless I’ve put some serious funds on the table. I also have the view that I should give while I’m alive because I want to get my hands dirty and help steer things in the direction I think they should go.
“That’s a much better legacy than just leaving money to your kids.”
He holds true, he says, to the maxim of self-made billionaire Warren Buffett – that the perfect inheritance for his children is “enough money so that they would feel they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing”.
In addition to the Southbank campus redevelopment, he’s working with the University on a major new development in the Parkville biomedical precinct focused on innovation and commercialisation and the new University of Melbourne campus in Fishermans Bend focused on heavy research and engagement with industry.
And then there’s Cogstate Ltd, the listed commercial company he has built over two decades and which is now a market leader in cognitive testing software for pharmaceutical drug development. How does that work?
“Well, if someone’s developing a new drug, they need to know if that drug’s safe, first and foremost, and secondly whether it does what it’s meant to,” he says. “And the software tools we provide are based on research done right here at the University of Melbourne.
“The drug companies come to us and say they need our tools, which we provide at a price, but we also provide them free to academics around the world. Again, for me, it’s about building something that has real tangible value because that gives me a great deal of satisfaction.”
I couldn’t help noticing, in doing research for this interview, that Myer and his wife Louise also own a “small exclusive boutique hotel on Lake Wanaka in the Southern Alps of New Zealand”. Featuring “just six suites and deluxe rooms” it seems a suspiciously low-key venture, in relative terms, for the couple to be involved in.
“Ah, well, that’s my other passion,” he says. “I love getting out into the mountains. We started going to New Zealand about 30 years ago, and the kids have been raised on rock climbing and skiing and kayaking and hiking and mountain biking … That’s the way I recharge my batteries after a busy city life – I go over there four or five times a year for a week or two.”
He’s also a longstanding member of a recreational road-cycling team, the Martinis – “Our motto is often stirred, never shaken” – although in recent times he says he’s fallen from the A-team.
I get the impression retirement isn’t imminent, or even desirable, for Myer.
He shrugs off the suggestion. “I’ve learned from my involvement with neuroscience that the key is to keep your brain active,” he says. “My uncle Bails is 93, still active intellectually. He’s very engaged with what’s going on in the world. There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s, but there are plenty of things you can do to improve your odds.
“And, of course, I get a lot out of all the projects I’m involved in. I’ll come off the University Council sooner or later, things won’t always stay the same, but there’ll be other things I’ll be doing.”
Seeing what goes on in the Martyn Myer Arena is one of those things, and also seeing what the name gets shortened to. “My daughter Edwina, who did law and commerce at the University of Melbourne, said the Sidney Myer Asia Centre was shortened to SMAC – so when you went to the lecture theatre it felt like you were going to get a smack …”
We stare at each other, try to think of a funny versions of the Martyn Myer Arena, fail.
Around the official opening of The Ian Potter Southbank Centre in 2019, he had planned a big party in the Arena – and had chosen his guests wisely.
“There are many friends, including some wealthy ones, who I don’t think do enough,” he says, laughing. “I’ll make a point of saying, ‘Well, look, you know, I put in a modest amount of money in the grand scheme of things, but look what’s happened. Look what you could actually do’.”