It’s not often the public gets a glimpse of a serious art collector’s private inventory. Michael Buxton has amassed his collection over 23 years, and it’s a broad and deep selection of contemporary Australian art from the 1980s onwards.

His stockpile contains 354 works by 59 artists, mostly Australian, with a few New Zealanders as well. And he recently donated all of it to the University of Melbourne, as well as the funds for the school to build a permanent gallery to show the work, free to the public.

At the new Buxton Contemporary in South Bank, it’s hard to know what to focus on first. Tony Garifalakis’s Mob Rule series: Royal Family portraits with faces obscured with black paint? Mikala Dwyer’s gallows-like sculptures: Tall structures akin to surrealist lampposts? Emily Floyd’s socialist play-set: wood blocks stacked up like dominos on the gallery’s top floor? They’re just a handful of the influential Australian artists whose work is held in the collection alongside pieces by Howard Arkley, Mike Parr, Tracey Moffatt and Bill Henson.

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Buxton Contemporary’s first show The Shape of Things to Come, is a celebration of everything the Melbourne property developer has acquired. Video works by Shaun Gladwell and Jess Johnson stand alongside sculpture by Patricia Piccinini and photographs by Pat Brassington. The only thing that ties it all together is that they were purchased by Buxton.

The gallery, designed by Fender Katsalidis and housed in a number of heritage buildings, is at Melbourne University’s Southbank Campus near the Victorian College of the Arts. The entrance features one of the largest digital art screens in Australia, and the only one of its kind in Victoria.

When I visit the gallery I spend a few minutes with Buxton. He’s affable and unassuming, chatting to visitors as he mills around and looks at the work. He’s also ecstatic to see the results of a project formally started more than two decades ago, with just six artists. He passes by a series of sculptures by Hany Armanious (Turns in Arabba, 2005). “It’s nice to see these out,” he says.

There must be a lot here he hasn’t seen in a while: the collection has been exhibited only twice in 20 years. “A lot has been in storage,” he says. “Some of it was on the wall at home, some in our office. But you put it all together in one show, it’s a whole different experience.”

He bought his first artwork in 1975. It was Jeffrey Smart’s Sunday morning 2, and it’s still on the wall of his Melbourne home. In 1995 he founded The Michael Buxton Collection, aimed at building a collection of the best contemporary art in Australia and one-day opening a custom-built museum to show it in.

“I can’t believe what we collected,” says Buxton. “I also can’t believe we gave it away.”

Buxton will continue in an advisory role, with a seat on the management committee for the next 20 years.

“God willing, if I live another 20 years, I’ll be here to tell Ryan what to do,” he says.

That’s Ryan Johnston, the gallery’s director. Johnston says the plan is to have three shows a year, including group shows like this, and solo shows, bringing in work from outside the country to create a dialogue between local and international art.

This is the culmination of Buxton’s dream, but it’s only the start of Buxton Contemporary.

The Shape of Things to Come is at Buxton Contemporary until June 24.