The once-grand Fairfax name will live on, thanks to a major bequest by Tim Fairfax – the ‘private partner’ behind the former Rural Press – and his wife Gina to the National Museum of Australia.
The two are supporting development of a new children’s play and education space at the Canberra museum, which will be known as the Tim and Gina Fairfax Discovery Centre when it opens in October.
The centre will reflect the couple’s pastoral interests – with a sheep called Chris, a Bunyip, and Mathew Flinders’ cat Trim – with no suggestion of their links to what was once Australia’s richest family.
Great-great-grandson of John Fairfax, who founded the publishing dynasty by buying the Sydney Herald – now the Sydney Morning Herald – in 1841, Tim Fairfax joined his brother John B. Fairfax to buy the group’s rural and regional papers from their cousin Warwick in 1987.
JB Fairfax once told a reporter Warwick Fairfax “would have sold them anything bar the Herald and The Age”, but the two chose their assets carefully and managed the ensuing Rural Press business with success. Eventually they agreed to a merger with Fairfax Media in 2007, and while it was this that Nine Entertainment bought in 2018, Rural Press remains as the company name of the Australian Community Media business Antony Catalano and Alex Waislitz bought from Nine for $125 million in 2019.
The period since has been a defining one for ACM, which has now closed most of the printing facilities it bought with the business, most recently that at North Richmond, NSW, which had been the company’s headquarters.
With both brothers in their mid-70s, there is now little involvement with the industry in which their fortune was built, although JB Fairfax joined his former chief executive Brian McCarthy to hear Catalano address the Farm Writers' Association of NSW in April.
While their cousin, James Fairfax once said he had to remind people he had been in the newspaper business for 35 years and chairman of the then-family publishing company for 11, Timothy Vincent Fairfax has always preferred that his private business remained private.
When he emerged as the $15 million buyer of the Orana Park and Shenandoah grazing properties in central Queensland in 2009 – and with his and his brother’s wealth estimated then at $618 million in the BRW Rich List – his spokeswomen told Australian Financial Review US correspondent Matthew Cranston that Fairfax “did not wish to discuss his private business, nor does he desire publicity in any form”. His land holdings then were estimated at “well over 40,000 hectares across central Queensland” including the newly-acquired properties, as well as Rawbelle, Kioma and the 22,000 ha Minnie Downs.
The new Discovery Centre will include a curated ‘play and learn’ space – to foster young children’s learning through play and crafts themed around animal characters and landscapes “in Australia’s history and collective imagination” – and a digitally-networked multipurpose ‘maker and shaper’ area for children and adults, community and access groups.
National Museum director Mathew Trinca said the 2021 launch of the centre – reported to be costing $8.8 million – would not have been possible without Tim and Gina Fairfax’s support. “After the challenging times we have faced as a nation, it is fantastic and humbling to receive such a public endorsement of the value of the arts and cultural sector to all Australians,” he said.
The museum had not disclosed the amount of the Fairfaxes’ donation, but revealed that it had received $1.5 million from John and Pauline Gandel in October, and a $7-million donation of objects from the Trevor Kennedy collection in September, as well as purchasing an additional $8 million-worth of items from that collection.
Made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2014, Tim Fairfax is chairman of his family foundation, the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal, and director and past chairman of the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation.
A director of Australian Philanthropic Services, he is president of Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation and a member of the National Portrait Gallery Foundation, National Gallery of Australia Foundation and Australian Schools Plus. He was named Queensland Senior Australian of the Year in 2016.
Two high profile awards – the Creative Partnerships Australia Philanthropy Leadership Award 2018 and the Queensland Community Foundation Community Philanthropist of the Year 2018 – recognise his efforts in changing the landscape of philanthropy in Australia. Over the past five years, through their family foundation, the Fairfaxes are understood to gifted more than $25 million to arts, education and community initiatives. They have also supported organisations including the National Portrait Gallery, Museum of Tropical Queensland, Australian Ballet, National Gallery of Australia, Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, and Rockhampton Museum of Art.
Gina Fairfax (née Russell) was born in Toowoomba, Queensland, and educated in Armidale NSW, before working as a Tresillian Nurse and marrying in 1977. They are pictured (centre) with daughters Prue Pateras, Fiona Poschelk, Lucy Coulson and Sarah O’Brien at the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation’s tenth anniversary celebration at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art.