Dr Jim Cousins has not followed a conventional career path. Earlier in his career he ran a successful textile company, then over decades he has been a property developer, and dealt in art and antiques. But, it is his work as a voluntary arts administrator and philanthropist that has been the most fulfilling. Over the past 30 years, Jim has quietly supported and redeveloped some of our most valued cultural institutions. His work will have a lasting impact on the Victorian community and Deakin University. Here he talks about his eclectic career, the importance of volunteering, and his involvement in the development of Deakin's Geelong Waterfront Campus.
Interview with Jim Cousins
You have had such a diverse career. Could you tell us what motivated you to make the career choices you made?
My unusual background has given me a different slant on life. I was a casualty of WWII, who was adopted by a family in Melbourne. I always felt lucky to have been placed in excellent hands and to have survived those early years and then to receive a private school education. I was part-way through a law degree at Melbourne University when I lost my adoptive parents. I needed to support myself so I started working at a textile company. Over a period of 12 years I worked my way up to running the business. At the age of 32 I felt I had achieved everything I could in that role so I became self-employed. At the time my wife and I were buying and selling a property or two, and after a trip to Europe we became involved in antique dealing.
After you moved to Geelong you became involved in public life. How did this come about?
The antique business took us to Geelong and it was there that I first became involved in public life. I was asked to join the board of the Geelong Art Gallery. We started to raise money and began the first renovations of the Gallery building. My success with the Gallery led me to become involved in other community organisations, and then to establish the Committee for Geelong.
What has been a highlight of your career/life?
My involvement in public life has been a highlight of my life. Through the Committee for Geelong, I helped secure funding for the Geelong Ring Road and the redevelopment of the football stadium. I am also proud of my role in the re-development of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), the NGV on Federation Square and The Australian Ballet. A particular high point was my work to establish the Melbourne Recital Centre. That was a big project and a major achievement.
What do you love about Geelong?
Geelong is a great place with amazing potential. Unfortunately, its history of boom and bust has resulted in an underdog mentality that is difficult to overcome. Deakin has done a lot to change this concept, and I feel that I have also played a role through my work with the Committee for Geelong.
You have been involved in a great deal of philanthropic/volunteer work over the years. What has inspired your public service?
I’ve been inspired by others who went before me and achieved in the field and very grateful for the hand I have been dealt in life. Dame Elisabeth Murdoch was a particular role model. We worked together on the development of the Melbourne Recital Centre. She was a great inspiration. Philanthropy is more than just giving money. It’s about giving your time. People tend to focus on the large donations and forget about those giving their valuable time, which is often a more precious and scarce commodity.
Why is it important to support the arts?
Arts organisations bring people together and make the community stronger. Melbourne would be a poorer place without the NGV, the Melbourne Museum, the Melbourne Recital Centre, all its theatres and The Australian Ballet.
What or who inspired you to get involved with Deakin University?
I first became involved with Deakin when Professor John Hay was the Vice Chancellor. He approached me to help lobby the government for funding for the Waterfront campus. Through this process we became great friends. I have maintained a connection with subsequent Vice-Chancellors and Chancellors of Deakin. When Sally Walker was Vice Chancellor and I was chairman of the Committee for Geelong we led a delegation to Canberra to secure funding for the University in many areas of its visionary future development.
What are the most rewarding aspects of being connected to Deakin?
The development of the Waterfront campus is a highlight of my association with Deakin. A lot of these types of projects never get off the ground but John Hay had the vision and courage to make it happen.
Why do you feel it is important for people to support universities?
The slowing of the resource boom has forced Australians to understand the importance of universities and how they can add value to the community, particularly in areas of new industry and research. Deakin’s work in carbon fibre is a great example of how universities can support industry.
What insights or encouragement would you like to pass on to others about giving their time, expertise or financial support to help others?
There is a lot of satisfaction in supporting community organisations. So many areas of our community are reliant on voluntary bodies — the health sector, schools, local sports clubs. It’s important to reflect on the value you are adding to the community, the reason for “being in your skin”, and what you will leave behind.
Jim Cousins outside Geelong Waterfront Campus