Over a decade ago the well-known Sydney art dealer, Ray Hughes, held a show of sculptured, painted coffins from Ghana made in the shape of a car, a crayfish, a spring onion, and so on. The exhibition attracted unprecedented publicity for a commercial gallery, with reports on TV and radio, and articles in the newspapers and magazines. Over a thousand people traipsed through the exhibition in a week, many ringing in advance to ask if there was an admission fee. It was a brand new audience made up of viewers who had never previously set foot in a commercial gallery. At the end of the show Hughes had enjoyed record attendances but did not sell a single piece.
This story has at least two morals. Firstly, people can be attracted by works of art but feel no desire to own them. A Ghanaian coffin may be a great talking point, but it’s hard to know where one would actually put it.
Secondly, there is a huge potential art audience that is largely untapped by the commercial galleries. This proposition is borne out by media surveys in which respondents often express a surprising interest in art. Dealers have long been aware of this interest but have struggled to find ways to get new customers through their doors. This is the motivation behind Art Month, the brainchild of two energetic dealers, Vasili Kaliman and Michael Reid. Tapping into Sydney’s love of events and festivals, Art Month is an attempt to make the art scene more user-friendly for the general public.
Kaliman and Reid have brought together a large, diverse group of commercial galleries, alternative spaces, auction houses and public venues. The make-shift festival divides the city into four zones: Paddington/Woollahra; Surry Hills/Darlinghurst/Potts Point; Danks St./Waterloo; Redfern/Chippendale/CBD. Until the end of the month talks and forums are being held every Saturday in designated galleries, while free buses carry audiences from one venue to the next. Full details are available in the brochures found in all participating galleries.
It is to be hoped that Art Month is successful in breaking down those invisible walls of prejudice that keep people away from the smaller art galleries. The image that has to be overcome is perhaps best summed up by that old beer commercial in which Ken Done turns up at a gallery with a picture under his arm, only to be rejected by a couple of stuffshirts in grey suits. “Mister Done that’s too outrageous!” goes the jingle, “We can’t hang that canvas hee-ee-eere!”
Needless to say, this is a ludicrous caricature of the typical art dealer. I can’t recall ever walking into a gallery and finding a dealer in a grey business suit, although Rex Irwin may occasionally appear in a kilt.
The art dealers are one of the most heterogeneous groups imaginable. It is almost impossible to imagine Ray Hughes, Ros Oxley, Stuart Purves or Frank Watters, for instance, as members of the same species, let alone professional colleagues. A pointless course taught at art schools, called “professional development”, purports to teach students how to approach a dealer, but to be even vaguely useful each dealer would require a course to themselves. What may work with dealer A will get you swiftly ejected by dealer B.
Professional development is part of the great confidence trick by which art schools, and increasingly high schools as well, attempt to convince government funding bodies that art is a viable ‘profession’. The statistics give the lie to this claim, as every year hundreds of newly qualified artists pour out of the art schools, trying to inveigle themselves into galleries that already have too many artists on their books. Most of these baby artists may persevere for a year or two before giving up and getting a job in the bank, or the post office, or the public service. A few will continue to dabble in their spare time, while some will become art teachers, dealers, curators, or work in fields such as animation or advertising that have an art connection.
To be brutally honest it has to be admitted that studying art is a very poor preparation for a lucrative profession. For every artist who becomes rich and famous there are thousands who never make it to first base. Indeed, the more “professional” an artist becomes, the more likely it is that he or she is making a soulless commodity destined to be forgotten and devalued, even if it enjoys a short-term vogue. The best artists are inspired amateurs, more devoted to a particular vision of art than to all the appurtenances of worldly success – which is why they need dealers.
At base, an art education makes one more well-rounded, creative and questioning. I realised this when I was once obliged to attend a seminar in which experts on business and management attempted to inflict their wisdom on a group of museum curators and directors. As we heard a mechanical explanation of the principles of supply-and-demand, the response turned from titters to outright laughter. “This never happened with my MBAs,” complained the lecturer.
It never happened because running an art gallery makes one skeptical of all the business truisms. Art is a special kind of activity that does not follow the same logic as any other profession. It is wildly dependent on the rising and falling tides of fashion and publicity. There are artists and dealers who set out to make money, and those who seem utterly indifferent to the lure of the dollar. Art dealers are often the first to suffer when a recession bites, and the last to get back on board when it ends.
Unless you have a private income, being a dealer is scarcely less precarious than being an artist, and just as bound up with the tremulous needs of the ego. Neither is there a predictable clientele for your wares. There is a hard core of dedicated collectors that tend to frequent a few favourite galleries, and a lot of fly-by-night buyers. Many people only acquire works until they have filled the gaps on their walls, transforming houses into artistic time capsules.
It is an attested fact that people who make shrewd decisions regarding shares and property can act like total idiots when buying art. They are prepared to believe everything they hear or read, allow art consultants to do everything for them, and go hunting “investments” by buying names rather than works. Ronald Coles – who did wear a business suit – owes his successful career to the gullibility and greed of clients who never took the time to do a little homework.
When the GFC gave the art scene a glancing blow about a year ago, it was common for dealers to express mixed feelings. The fast money and investment boffins had disappeared, but the dedicated collectors kept coming, and now had more opportunities to acquire the best works. Even the most avaricious dealers would much rather see a work go into a good collection than into the lounge room of a nouveau riche business brat.
Despite all of this, some collectors enjoy the feeling that visiting galleries is a elite experience, and there are dealers who are happy to satisfy this fantasy. Nothing is quite so severe as those cities where one must ring a bell and identify oneself by name and station, before gaining admittance. “Mein Name ist blah, blah. Ich bin ein Kunstkritiker von Australien…” Buzz. Click!
Sometimes I’m reminded of Jean Cocteau’s description of the Parisian crowd at the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring: “a thousand nuances of snobbery, super-snobbery, counter-snobbery.” But this remains the exception rather than the rule.
It is precisely the perception of high snobbery that Art Month seeks to overcome, although the event is not entirely free from its own peculiar pattern of omissions and inclusions. Ray Hughes is conspicuous by his absence, as is Campbell Robertson-Swann’s enterprising Defiance Gallery, with venues in Enmore and Paddington. Ken Done is obviously still too outrageous, as he is another notable absentee. Whether these dealers chose not to participate or were not invited, there is still some distance to go before Art Month is the all-encompassing event it aspires to be.
In the hope of increased visitation many of the commercial galleries are holding some of their major shows of the year. From what I’ve seen so far, the highlights are new and old paintings by John Olsen at the Tim Olsen Gallery, and sculpture by Jan King at King Street Gallery on William, which underlines this artist’s claims for serious institutional attention. I’ve yet to see Imants Tillers’s new show at Roslyn Oxley9, but it’s bound to be one of this month’s best-attended exhibitions. Old and new, mainstream and alternative, there has never been a better time to look at art and discover the connoisseur within.
Art Month, Sydney, March 1-March 31, 2010
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald March 20, 2010