by Mark Calderwood
Owning art is no longer seen as something out of reach or a hobby for the impenetrably elitist, but today is recognised as a savvy investment with unmistakable cachet. The staggering attendances at the recent Melbourne Art Fair- more than 30, 000 over four days- reveals an unquenchable public enthusiasm for contemporary art; and with record prices at auction following hot on the heels of the MAF’s cool $12.1 million in sales, there’s little sign of a financial crisis in the remarkably strong Australian art market.
Any art dealer will agree that investing in art isn’t about the money. Art offers rewards every day in countless ways that go beyond simple financial return; indeed, the best and most valuable collections are built by people who are so in love with their art they would never dream of selling. And once they start exploring contemporary art, potential investors frequently surprise themselves at how quickly they become captivated by it.
Before leaping into the fray, art dealers advise seeing as much art as possible- in art museums, commercial galleries and online- to help identify and educate your personal tastes. As well as learning more about what you’re buying, the better you’ll be able to judge what is good art, and what isn’t..
It’s essential to source work from the top galleries in their field, especially if collecting with an eye to investment as well as pleasure. A reputable gallery will represent only quality work, and provide guidance to help their clients collect engaging works with confidence. Many also offer valuation services for their investors’ art portfolios.
Moreover, experienced professional advice is invaluable in navigating the at-times confusing art market: ‘anti-art’, digital media, painting being declared dead yet again (though no-one’s told painting that, obviously). Regularly touching base with the gallery also helps buyers keep abreast of new work…because, just accept it, collecting is addictive.
With the opulent diversity of contemporary art, it’s unsurprising that galleries are as varied in style and philosophy as the treasured collections they help to create. Il Tridente presents five of the very best to ignite your imagination.
Established in 1978, Niagara Galleries is a hushed haven on Melbourne’s roaring Punt Road, boasting some of the most momentous names in Australian art. Rick Amor, Euan Macleod, Fiona Foley, Aida Tomescu and Ken Whisson are but a few of the 45 leading contemporary artists represented by director William Nuttall.
A respected art dealer, authority on wartime/post war modernism, and instrumental in establishing the Melbourne Art Fair, Nuttall likens buying fashionable (read, faddish) art to playing with fire. “As soon as something is declared to be hot, it’s already over,” he says, noting that this kind of short term collecting rarely returns on the investment.
Instead, Nuttall exhibits artists who are stayers. His enormous experience enables him to single out art will stand the test of time, not only building in significance while staying fresh and relevant, but representing quality and enduring value.
Niagara is the only gallery in Australia to stage annual blue chip exhibitions, mixing proven artists from the secondary market like Boyd and Klippel with contemporary leaders. As well as giving prospective buyers a handle on contemporary art that can hold its own against highly regarded modern works, these exhibitions underline the idea that the contemporary art offered by Niagara represents an equally prudent investment.
Premier artist: critically acclaimed painter and bronze sculptor Rick Amor is regarded as one of the most important artists working today, with 40 solo exhibitions to date.
Up and coming: Wukun Wanambi has won numerous accolades for his bark and pole paintings using the Marrakulu people’s saltwater designs.
Martin Browne Fine Art, Sydney
Only someone of Martin Browne’s experience could so successfully break so many rules.
His premier gallery in the high-end suburb of Pott’s Point doesn’t even promote a specialty or house style: instead, he shows art that he himself would like to live with. For Browne, that means work that is unique, that says something compelling, that offers what he describes as “a new way of seeing”.
Browne’s eclectic taste leads him across variety of media (though he will confess to a partiality for painting). His one constant is that the work be of consistently impeccable quality- a requirement to be expected from the former head of Sotheby’s painting department.
Given Martin Browne Fine Art’s reputation for representing artists that are avidly sought after as well as critically recognised, Browne’s judgement seems sound, and his collectors are reassured to know that the gallery supports its artists to sustain and further their careers.
Although the cool white gallery expanse and city location might seem haughty, in reality Browne keeps things accessible and informal. He wants people to feel able to stroll in and spend some time with an exhibition “without being descended upon by a black-clad gallery maven. Looking at art should be enjoyable and enriching, not something that makes people feel uncomfortable or talked-down to.”
Premier artist: Linde Ivimey has gained international prominence since 2003 with her gruesome, charming, totem-like sculptures in fibre, feathers and bones, unlike anything else in contemporary art.
Up and coming: Alexander McKenzie’s haunting, beautiful and finely detailed works reach a new pinnacle in contemporary painting.
Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane
Jan Murphy Gallery is difficult to miss: its distinctive black Art Deco façade has become a landmark in itself in the heart of Brisbane’s gallery precinct. Now in its fourteenth year, the gallery showcases not only Queensland’s finest artists but also makes outstanding contemporary work by interstate artists accessible to a local audience.
Like most gallerists, Jan Murphy has built her stable around art she finds intriguing and affecting. She describes her aesthetic as broad without being off the edge, allowing her to represent artists with critical depth as well as having a wider appeal than might be found in a more narrowly specialised gallery.
For Murphy, striking that balance is what draws people back to an art gallery as much as any favourite retailer. “Their taste is sympathetic to yours, and you respond immediately to the style and quality of what they offer,” she says.
But it’s the attention the gallery pays to its professional relationships that sets it apart. Murphy makes a point of getting to know her clients’ interests and homes, often so well that she is able to anticipate their taste. As well as helping them select works that fit their circumstances and style, she is well placed to turn her clients on to exciting new works as promising artists emerge.
Premier artist: Ben Quilty is considered highly collectible, with public and corporate collectors vying for his bold oil paintings.
Up and coming: Alexander Seton has recently attracted intense interest for his incredibly skilled sculptures, winning numerous awards.
Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide
When Paul Greenaway chose an industrial site near the centre of Adelaide for his gallery, his peers were skeptical. But since 1992 Greenaway Art Gallery has been the benchmark for South Australian art galleries, hosting cutting-edge exhibitions and cultural events.
Greenaway is an impassioned champion of South Australian arts culture, promoting contemporary South Australian work at prominent art fairs in Melbourne, Madrid, Basel and Taiwan. Half of Greenaway’s monthly exhibitions are by South Australian-based artists, including some instantly recognisable doyens of the Australian art world.
Probity is Greenaway’s watchword. “There has to be a genuineness and integrity to the work,” he insists, “just as it must extend the concepts and visual language that surround it.” It’s likewise important that the manual skills marry appropriately with the concept. As well as representing established artists, Greenaway carefully guides emerging artists as they refine their quality and direction to meet this exacting standard.
The gallery’s high profile attracts large numbers who are typically as curious about the art as they are admiring of its calibre. Greenaway willingly shares his expert understanding of art theory with clients. With thousands of potential art collectors out there, he feels that gaining a deeper appreciation of contemporary art is the thing that “gives them the confidence to jump in and do it.”
Premier Artist: Gary Shead is lauded as a one of Australia’s most significant figurative painters, known for his iconic and lyrical works.
Up and coming: Mark Siebert’s work is a deadpan pun on technology, consumerism and advertising that defiantly critiques mass culture.
Galerie Düsseldorf, Perth
Named for Europe’s artistic Mecca, Galerie Düsseldorf is Perth’s oldest private art gallery. Begun in 1976, Düsseldorf now occupies an impressive architect-designed gallery and residence minutes from the centre of Fremantle.
Though it presents significant interstate work to stimulate dialogue, Düsseldorf’s emphasis is on promoting the work of living West Australian artists. The gallery goes to extraordinary lengths to foster local talent, since 1998 endowing an annual postgraduate scholarship in conjunction with Curtin University and inviting the winner into the gallery’s stable of artists. Directors Douglas and Magda Sheerer describe it as “a way of keeping our feet on the ground,” as well getting a new artist that all-important exposure and support.
The Sheerers insist that artistic merit has always been their sole criterion, feeling that investment value takes care of itself as the artist’s career matures. “Successful work communicates its ideas in a way that’s understood right away on numerous levels, no matter what preconceptions or experiences the viewer brings to it,” says Douglas Sheerer.
Düsseldorf’s aesthetic is subtle, at times almost minimalist. According to Sheerer, collectors tend to demand more and more from less as their appreciation of art sharpens; they find themselves drawn to more understated but emotionally resonant works. “Collectors don’t really buy art,” he confides. “They buy what art gives them.”
Premier artist: In his career spanning 60 years, Howard Taylor created a unique vision of the West Australian environment.
Up and coming: Tom Múller’s graphic and installation work has featured in interstate biennales, recently winning the inaugural Qantas contemporary art scholarship.
Published Il Tridente, 2009