Markets & mindsets

Published September 11, 2012

In China last week for Shanghai Contemporary, it began to dawn on me why Australia’s commercial gallery scene seems to be struggling to keep afloat: while the contemporary art market has become completely globalised we remain a stubborn provincial outstation. This is no reflection on the quality of Australian art but it is a growing problem for the dealers, who lack the funds, the contacts, the will, and perhaps the imagination to think about establishing branches outside of Australia.
At every art fair nowadays, galleries big and small, old and new, seem to have outlets in two or more cities, often on different continents. The Paris Opera Gallery has no fewer than eleven branches, including two in Dubai.
To the best of my knowledge no Australian dealer has an offshore gallery – not even the most experienced cutting-edge dealers, or those addicted to art fairs. Such a strategy involves risk, and Australians are not natural risk-takers or entrepreneurs. In fact we are cultural welfare cases, waiting for the Australia Council to help out if Australian work is to be shown overseas, as is with the Korean International Art Fair in Seoul.
The only dealer who seems to be taking a more proactive approach to the international market is Paul Greenaway, from Adelaide, who tells me he has exhibited in no fewer than 67 international fairs. In Shanghai, he was sharing a booth with Aura Gallery, from Beijing. This is the second time Greenaway and Aura have exhibited together at a fair, and the collaboration extends to a sharing of artists. If it hasn’t been a raging financial success so far, that is partly due to Greenaway’s rather uncompromising attitude. More than most dealers, he is unwilling to show art that he doesn’t much like but knows will sell.
In Ariel Hassan, for instance, he has a young artist of exceptional promise but low productivity, which means he is dependent on sales of one or two major works instead of the ‘little gems’ that so many dealers are happy to send out on a conveyor belt.
Nevertheless, the collaboration between Adelaide and Beijing is a more adventurous tactic than anything offered by any other Australian dealer. It would be good if Greenaway’s example inspired others to seek out connections with like-minded foreign galleries. For if local dealers remain camped in Australia, resting on a steadily diminishing nest of laurels, they may find themselves isolated from the rest of the world at a time when the idea of national schools of art is losing traction.
I know it’s easy to say this but hard to achieve. Some local galleries have had success bringing in works by big name international artists, but have found it hard to get Australian artists into overseas venues. If artists don’t make these connections themselves, no-one is going to do it for them.
It may be that art fairs offer the best opportunities of forging fruitful business alliances, although this doesn’t apply to the Melbourne Art Fair, which is more a symptom of the problem. It is not worthwhile for foreign galleries to come to Melbourne due to the costs of participation, the unfavourable exchange rate, and the lack of an Australian market for big-ticket items. Matthias Arndt of Berlin has recently made a few attempts to infiltrate and shake up the Australian scene, and it would be a boon for everyone if he succeeded.
Like it or not, the international art scene is becoming a place without boundaries, where that old anxiety about whether artists should have a local or global perspective is no longer relevant. Today both artists and collectors are starting to look elsewhere – to China, India, Japan and Korea, perhaps more so than to Europe or the United States. It is time for the leading Australian dealers to recognise the strength of this current and try to join the rest of the world. As in all forms of business, to stand still is a recipe for slow death.