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How the Po-Shing Woo Foundation has subsidised the British art world

The Becket casket and Guercino are just two works of art saved for Britain with money from a Hong Kong lawyer

London

A Hong Kong family has emerged as one of the major saviours of the Becket Casket and Guercino’s “Erminia finding the wounded Tancred”. The Po-Shing Woo Foundation has given around £250,000 to help keep these masterpieces in Britain.

Although virtually unknown in the British art world until very recently, Po-Shing Woo is a distinguished corporate lawyer who has long supported charitable projects in Hong Kong. Born there, he studied law in London and returned to Hong Kong to practice. His firm, Woo Kwan Lee & Lo, became very successful, developing close business links with the People’s Republic and accumulating considerable wealth from property investment. Now aged sixty-seven, Woo is a keen collector of modern British art, particularly the work of Bacon, Kossoff, and Gilbert and George.

Last year Mr Woo set up a London foundation, registered with the Charity Commissioners. The two most recent donations were both made with the encouragement of Lord Gowrie, chairman of the Arts Council, director of Sotheby’s and a former Arts Minister. In July the Po-Shing Woo Foundation gave a sum of around £150,000 to the V & A to help acquire the Becket Casket. A further £100,000 was given to the National Galleries of Scotland in August, on the eve of the export licence deadline on the Guercino.

The Art Newspaper has also identified other donations. In September 1995, £165,000 was given to the Arts Foundation, set up six years ago on the initiative of the then Arts Council chairman Lord Palumbo to foster innovation. The Po-Shing Woo Foundation contribution came after the Arts Foundation lost a major source of income following the crash in the value of its large shareholding in the Canadian insurance company Confederation Life. Income from the £165,000 donation is being used to fund a £10,000 annual fellowship, which this year went to silversmith Michael Lloyd. Next year’s fellowship, for a furniture maker, will be announced shortly. Po-Shing Woo’s son Nelson has recently been appointed a trustee of the Arts Foundation.

The North West Arts Board is receiving £35,000 per annum for a two-year scheme to offer training in arts administration to ethnic groups which are under-represented, those of African, South Asian, Caribbean and Chinese descent. Four Woo Traineeships are being funded at the Bluecoat Arts Centre (Liverpool), the Foundation of Arts and Creative Technology (Liverpool), the Harris Museum and Art Gallery (Preston) and the Cornerhouse (Manchester). The trainees will start later this month.

Visual Arts UK 1996 has been given £50,000 for educational work in schools in the North of England. Central St Martins College of Art and Design in London is receiving £10,000 for scholarships. The Serpentine Gallery has received £5,000 for educational work. Shortly before the English charity was formally registered, the Woo Family gave an anonymous donation of £10,000 towards saving Canova’s “Three Graces” for the V & A and the National Galleries of Scotland.

Altogether the Po-Shing Woo Foundation has disbursed about £1 million during its first year, half of it for the visual arts and the remainder for other arts, particularly music. The charity’s director is John Dowling, its chairman is Nelson Woo, and trustees are his brother Jackson Woo, financial expert Nigel Kingsley, solicitor Michael Trask and retired antiques dealer Countess Helen Benckendorff. During the coming year, the Po-Shing Woo Foundation is expected to continue to fund educational projects, with possible occasional contributions to help save major heritage works of art.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Unveiling Po-Shing Woo'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper, 63 October 1996