August 17, 2008
Australia's Art Market Draws New Collectors After Minerals Boom
Review by Lucy Birmingham
Aug. 18 (Bloomberg) — The painted beauties adorning Melbourne's Victorian-era Royal Exhibition Building smiled down upon an upturned black military Hummer and a circus tent decorated with crucifixions and blood-lettings.
The 11th Melbourne Art Fair, which ended this month, showed how vibrant Australia's art market has become, fueled by ranks of new collectors after a six-year commodities boom in the country.
About 30,000 people viewed more than 3,000 contemporary artworks, many of them by the country's indigenous painters. The biennial event in the World Heritage building had a record $11 million sales, a 16 percent increase on 2006. The total compares with $10 million at this year's annual art fair in Tokyo, a city 10 times the size.
“The contemporary art scene is very strong in Australia at the moment,'' said John Cruthers, an art consultant and curator who oversees his family's collection of works by Australian women artists. “Besides the wealthy collectors, there are a lot of younger collectors who want something that's about `Now.'''
Cruthers pointed to works by Viv Miller and Moya McKenna at the display of Neon Parc gallery, founded two years ago by Tristian Koenig and Geoff Newton. Two Asian-influenced landscapes by Miller titled “1992'' and “2048'' sold on the first day for A$12,000 (US$10,500) each. McKenna's still-life “391 High Street,'' fetched A$7,000 the same day.
“Moya is so popular that we've been selling her work with the paint still wet,'' said Koenig.
At the other end of the price spectrum, a A$200,000 installation by Callum Morton was sold to a private Australian collector by Anna Schwartz Gallery. Schwartz, who founded the Melbourne gallery in 1982, added a 55-meter-long (180-foot) space in June in a former rail-carriage workshop in Sydney.
Video artist Shaun Gladwell, Schwartz's top performer, will represent Australia at next year's Venice Biennale.
“Now, there's much less distance between Australia and the world,'' said Schwartz. “Collectors here are more sophisticated'' than before.
Melbourne-based Ken and Lisa Fehily are among the new breed of Australian buyers. Their 250 contemporary Australian works have been amassed since 2002. Their recommendations at the fair included works by Callum Morton, Jess MacNeil, Nick Mangan, Hayden Fowler, Gareth Sansom and Jon Cattapan. Also on their preferred list are Juan Davila, Richard Bell, Del Kathryn Barton and John Brack.
“Our John Brack `Progression' is now worth A$350,000,'' said Ken Fehily. “It's more than doubled since we acquired it in 2002.''
At the fair, the Fehilys bought a MacNeil video titled “Syzygy-The Gulls'' for A$6,600 from Gallery Barry Keldoulis as part of their recent focus on emerging media.
Aboriginal artworks were well represented, with a mix of dreamtime-legend-inspired traditional paintings on canvas and bark from outback communities, as well as political and avant-garde works by urban indigenous artists.
Aboriginal works account for 70 percent of the Australian art market, art critic Benjamin Genocchio wrote in “Dollar Dreaming,'' published this year.
Collectors Colin and Elizabeth Laverty, who attended the fair from Sydney, said they receive constant loan requests worldwide for works from their 1,000-piece Aboriginal collection. The couple began buying indigenous art in the 1970s, when painting on canvas was introduced to now deceased artists Clifford Possum, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Rover Thomas and Paddy Bedford.
Last year, a Clifford Possum painting set an auction record of A$2.4 million.
“The indigenous works have evolved and are no longer simply of ethnographic interest,'' said Colin Laverty. “They are great contemporary paintings coming from the world's longest continually evolving art tradition.''
Laverty recommended works by Patrick Tjungurrayi, Naata Nungarrayi, Walangkura Napanangka and Daniel Walbidi.
Authenticity, provenance and ethical treatment for the artists remain concerns in the genre, with stories of Aboriginal painters being exploited by unscrupulous dealers.
William Mora Gallery and other dealers at the fair guarantee ethical representation of their Aboriginal artists. Mora's exclusive Paddy Bedford works, priced at A$100,000-A$200,000 and kept in the gallery's back room at the fair, were in high demand, the gallery said.
Works by urban indigenous artists also sold well. Nellie Castan Gallery featured Gordon Hookey's cartoon-like satirical paintings for A$2,500-A$14,000. Jonathan Jones's fluorescent light works “Domestic Lean-To'' sold at Gallery Barry Keldoulis in pairs for A$35,000.
At Uplands gallery, Daniel Boyd's painting “Drink and the Devil,'' showing an old pirate ship on a dark sea, sold on the opening night for A$30,000. Director Jarrod Rawlins said Boyd was listed as the most-collected Australian artist last year, with works increasing sevenfold in price in the past three years.
“Artists like Daniel have something important to say about the Aboriginal struggle,'' said Rawlins. “Their works are more relevant to Australian culture than ever before because the government still hasn't dealt with all the problems.''
(Lucy Birmingham writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
To contact the writer on this story: Lucy Birmingham in Tokyo at email@example.com.
Last Updated: August 17, 2008 10:00 EDT