Helen Thorpe embodies one of the finest aspects of philanthropy: that it is personal. In 1994, she inherited a sum of money from her grandfather Koto Matsudaira, a Japanese diplomat and art-collector. Then just 24 years old, she chose to use this inheritance to establish the Helen Randag Charitable Foundation, under her maiden name. Controlling the foundation was a privilege she took seriously, yet by 2005 she still had not decided what the money’s major role should be. “I think I had my antennae out," Helen admits now, “but I had been sitting on this charity, and had done very little with it."
Then she bought a piece of art that was showing at the South London Gallery. As a gesture of gratitude to this respected space in far-from-fashionable Peckham, she and the artist’s representative, Maureen Paley, agreed to add a small donation to the deal. Shortly afterwards, when Helen met the gallery’s director, Margot Heller, she was told about the derelict building next door. The gallery owned it, Heller explained, but was on the brink of ceding it back to the council if they could not find the money to develop the building properly.
As they discussed the problem in successive meetings, Helen, who had been an art student at nearby Goldsmiths College, began to feel that she had found her cause. “It seemed like a little would go a long way there, because I didn’t have that much in my charity,” she says. “It was a big thing for me to be able to support something that really, nobody else seemed likely to.”
Within a few weeks, she had made up her mind. She gave the gallery enough money to keep the building, joined its board of trustees, and set about finding other donors who might help to fund the redevelopment. This marked the beginning of a huge and unwavering commitment of Helen’s time, energy, money and patience that continues to this day. What began as a £300,000 one-year project evolved, with Helen’s help, into a £2million redevelopment that has only just been finished.
And the results have thrilled the art world. “A delight,” said The Telegraph. “A knockout,” said The Guardian. And, added the Evening Standard, the new gallery represents “seriously good value for money.” “Helen didn’t ever complain about the various delays,” says Heller. “She was frequently courted by various other organisations to become involved in a host of exciting projects. It must have been tempting to jump ship and do something new. However, she remained totally true to the cause and to her word, in spite of having no legal or contractual obligation to the gallery.”
Without Helen’s quick decision, and the stamina that followed it, Peckham simply would not have the first-rate gallery that stands there today. “My grandfather very much believed in art,” she says. “He always thought that artists were doing something very noble: the pursuit of beauty.” Nobody who has visited the South London Gallery recently could doubt that philanthropists are doing something very noble too.