AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW 2011

The article "Citizens Collect - buying by syndicate comes of age" by Brook Turner appeared in the Australian Financial Review, June 9, 2011.
The article "Citizens Collect - buying by syndicate comes of age" by Brook Turner appeared in the Australian Financial Review, June 9, 2011.

Citizens, collect! Buying by syndicate comes of age

Are 28 eyes better than two? Hawkesbury One suggests that acquiring by groups is not only educative but enjoyable – and a great deal easier on the pocket, writes Brook Turner.

Joan Croll still misses the pink lady. For six months Guo Jian’s sashaying, leopard-print bombshell shared the walls of the former GP’s Sydney home with the likes of Fred Williams, Arthur Boyd and John Brack, whose portrait of Croll hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

They were part of the very good collection Croll – an early advocate for causes ranging from breast cancer clinics to the environment–and her husband Frank collected over 48 years before his death in 2003.

In that company, Jian’s Untitled #5 added a certain clothing-optional frisson. “She was in my room,” Croll says fondly. “It was great fun having her hanging there in her underwear.”

But while the modernist males remain in situ, the contemporary lady has long since moved on, as she had to, because Jian’s luridly coloured, high-kicking communists are, appropriately enough, communally owned.

Untitled #5 is the most valuable piece in a 36-work collection ranging from video art and photography to painting and sculpture amassed by the art-buying syndicate Hawkesbury One, on show at the Newcastle Region Art Gallery from Saturday.

Citizen Collectors is the latest and largest public gallery show to emerge from a little-known byway of Australian art connoisseurs–collecting collectives.

In a nice counterpoint, it will share the gallery with a new show from the holding of two of Australia’s most prominent collectors, Colin and Elizabeth Laverty, representing the other, individual pole of collecting.

Over the past quarter of a century about 18 collecting syndicates–each comprising up to 25 individuals pooling their resources to collect mainly contemporary art – have sprung up around the country, many of them named for the geographic spread of their members (the Hawkesbury runs between the members’ home cities, Sydney and Newcastle).

Ten of those syndicates are still collecting, according to Dick Bett of Hobart’s Bett Gallery, who introduced the idea here in 1985 after seeing it pioneered by some Auckland collectors, modelled on a New Zealand university’s staff clubcollecting program.

“My wife Carol and I began the first Australian group in Hobart, called the Derwent Collection, to give a sense of place, which was very successful. Pretty soon other groups followed–Tamar, Yarra, Hawkesbury, Flinders, Acacia, Kurilpa and others.

Down the years, “collectors have voted with their feet”, Bett third group in 26 years, some are in more than one, each with a different collecting focus, and we’re now getting secondgeneration members joining.”

Allens Arthur Robinson senior associate Nicholas Fletcher and his wife were introduced to Hawkesbury One by the Crolls, who they met one weekend at Arthur Boyd’s Bundanon estate almost a decade ago.

The couple share one of the 11 shares in the 14-person group, each of which represents a $2000 annual investment.

Fletcher and his lawyer wife drew up the Hawkesbury One constitution, which specifies that its aim is to collect the work of emerging artists of the first decade of the 21st century.

That annual $22,000 purse has bought works by 25 artists including Shaun Gladwell, Tracey Moffatt, Patricia Piccinini, CallumMorton, Destiny Deacon, David Rosetzky and the startling young performance-photo artist Liam Benson. “The value of our collection, if sold on the secondary market, would be in excess of $200,000,” Fletcher says.

“It’s worth noting that we did not put in any money for the last year and didn’t spend all our money every year, so we will end up a bit ahead.”

But the works’ investment value was only one objective. “The key was to learn more about Australian art and collect work representative of art in the first decade of the 21st century,” says Fletcher, who joined as “an arts novice”.

“That meant coming to terms with video and other art forms. And being a collective, there’s certainly a greater willingness to take risks because you have more buying power and there’s not the same financial pressure to get it right.”

Croll, who credits the group with introducing her to whole new generations of art, agrees. “They did all the work,” she says. “All we did was supply a few dinners and a few bottles of wine. They chose and sent an email. A lot of it was done by remote control.”

And once Citizen Collectors closes in September, Hawkesbury One will die a natural death. The works will be valued, each member given a one-11th share of the total as their bidding kitty (which can be topped up with cash) and the auction will begin.

After a decade, most groups start to get leggy, Dick Bett says. “By then they can have somewhere between 60 and 75 works of art. The sheer logistics of tracking these works around members’ homes and insuring them requires a solution, which is to distribute the art works and start another group.”

These days Nicholas Fletcher has various works in various media at his sites, including Richard Wastell’s paintings Blood River, Luke Temby’s felt work Adam&Eve and Liam Benson’s Ophelia video.

For her part, Joan Croll has her eye on the pink lady. And she’s started collecting again on her own account. “I’m going into debt to buy art,” Croll says happily of the three pieces she has just bought from Beijing’s Red Gate Gallery: a photo, a print and “a fibreglass sculpture of a naked little boy”