Funding creativity fulfils a deep desire to give back
UNSW philanthropists Shane and Danielle Simpson support transformative educational opportunities through their generous donation to UNSW Art & Design.
Running barefoot and free until the age of seven, immersed in a magical world of music, dance, and storytelling, philanthropist and prominent arts law expert Dr Shane Simpson AM credits his early life for setting him on a path of constant creativity.
“I was brought up in the Far North of New Zealand in the ancestral lands of the Ngati Kuri and Te Aupouri people. I was the only white child in the area and like everyone else, we had no electricity, no hot water and a drop toilet,” Shane explains.
“My schoolteacher parents were involved in a revolutionary teaching program that had, as its core, the belief that you could teach traditional curriculums using the creative arts, so it’s no surprise it’s still important to me.”
The dance of Shane’s life since then is astonishing in its breadth of interest and scope of influence. After graduating with degrees in law from the University of Auckland, Shane established Simpsons Solicitors in Sydney in 1986. As a long-time legal practitioner, his work has developed new expertise around intellectual and cultural property law.
He founded the Arts Law Centre of Australia, Australia's only national community legal centre for artists and arts organisations, providing critical legal advice and information on a wide range of arts related legal and business matters.
A strong sense of social responsibility
Shane says his drive for success has always been underwritten by a strong sense of responsibility to others and a desire to give back. This led to Shane and his wife Danielle notifying UNSW in 2014 of their intention to leave a generous seven-figure gift to the University in their will.
“Our priorities are essentially around supporting the cultural sector and supporting those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds,” says Shane. “Whether supporting female students, Indigenous students, or other students in need, we want to enact positive change. There are many areas of economic, social and educational disadvantage that scholarships might help ameliorate.”
The decision to leave a gift in support of UNSW Art & Design follows a life and career in supporting arts and culture.
These efforts have seen him make leading contributions to numerous foundations and icons of Australian arts and culture, including serving on the Boards of the UNSW Foundation; the Australian National Maritime Museum; the National Library of Australia; Studio A; the Bundanon Trust, and the Australian National Academy of Music.
Protecting and enhancing Australian culture
Shane has also imparted wisdom through academic roles, including as a lecturer and tutor for both UNSW Law and UNSW Art & Design, as well as visiting lectureships with the Australian Graduate School of Management.
His passion for creativity and arts law has also seen him contribute as a visiting lecturer, consultant and examiner for a number of additional leading institutions including the Australian Institute of Music, California’s Southwestern University, and London’s Centre for Advanced Legal Studies, among others.
“It is my firm belief that whether you are an artist and designer, a scientist or a lawyer - in this world of rapid social, climatic, technological and indeed moral change, those who are to perform at the highest levels will require the ability to think creatively and to develop an imagination and an openness to new ideas and approaches,” says Shane.
“Applied creativity requires a wide peripheral vision and a disciplined confidence but it can take you beyond the linear, the rote and the banal."
His efforts to protect and enhance Australia’s cultural landscape were recognised nationally in 2011 when he was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia for “service to the law and to the arts through leading roles in intellectual property and entertainment law, and as a contributor to a range of cultural organisations.”
Looking beyond self-interest
As the special guest speaker at a 2019 UNSW Graduations Ceremony, Shane spoke on the importance of cultivating a philanthropic attitude early on in life, regardless of how wealthy and successful a person becomes.
“As humans, we have a natural aptitude for self-interest, but we also have a wonderful capacity for kindness, compassion, curiosity and generosity. Of course, we need to make a living and we need to look after our family but, it is my experience that we enrich our lives by looking further than self-interest. I would urge you to think about what you can contribute to others,” he says.
“Giving isn’t just about money. Volunteering your time, resources, skills, advice, networks and energy is perhaps more demanding, but is definitely just as valuable,” he says.
In 2018, UNSW also formally recognised Shane’s contribution to the community when he was presented with an honorary doctorate. The University Council acknowledged Shane for his work in giving young people the opportunity to complete an education and fostering a society that values the creative contribution of the arts guided by values of excellence, integrity, empowerment and accessibility.
An important message
Shane says a big part of his and Danielle’s motivation to give to UNSW is due to their strong relationship with the University, where he has lectured and volunteered himself. He says this has created a deep certainty that UNSW will deliver the impact he wants to create.
“When you’re considering a major gift, you think about where you can direct your money to affect positive change in areas which support your goals and principles. I look at things like Nura Gili, UNSW’s Indigenous Programs Unit, and the social justice focus of the 2025 strategic plan and feel strongly aligned with the vision it presents,” he says.
“Our little contribution's not going to change the world, but we keep hammering away. We believe that if we all do a little bit, not matter how small or imperfect, we will effect real change. That's the important part.”
Shane and Danielle have a simple message for the student beneficiaries of their generosity. “It is our hope that your life is filled with personal success. And remember - don't forget to give back, when the time comes.”