SYDNEY MORNING HERALD 2010

Sydney Morning Herald - Spectrum - March 20, 2010
Sydney Morning Herald - Spectrum - March 20, 2010

Collective vision; cover story Louise Schwartzkoff. Sydney Morning Herald. Sydney, N.S.W.: Mar 20, 2010. pg. 6 Abstract (Summary) Can’t afford a Whiteley to call your own? What if you pitched in with a few mates? Louise Schwartzkoff looks at the rise in popularity of art-buying groups.

Can’t afford a Whiteley to call your own? What if you pitched in with a few mates? Louise Schwartzkoff looks at the rise in popularity of art-buying groups.

AT 82, Joan Croll has a contemporary art collection that raises eyebrows among her bridge-playing friends. On entering her inner-west home for their regular game of cards, the women see a larger-than-life indigenous child, painted in fluorescent dots by Song Ling.

Moving into another room, they sit down to play under the sultry gaze of a blonde in leopard-print lingerie, pouting at them from an oil painting two metres wide. In the loungeroom is a black-and-white painting of steam by the young artist Arryn Snowball. All of it is a far cry from doilies and china figurines.

“My goodness, Joan!” is a common response.

When the bridge players have gone, Croll entertains another group of friends. They sit around the same table but, instead of cards, they shuffle art books and gallery catalogues. They discuss sculpture and video art and drop names of emerging artists. After 10 years of collecting contemporary art as a syndicate, the group – a mixed bag of bankers, lawyers, retirees, pharmacists and media professionals – knows its stuff.

Known as Hawkesbury One, the syndicate is part of a growing trend that has individuals pooling resources to buy art. Its 11 members pay $2000 a year and meet regularly to vote on purchases. Every six months they rotate their $220,000 collection of paintings, photographs, drawings, sculptures and video art around their homes.

Such groups have existed in Australia for almost 25 years. They have been particularly popular in Tasmania, where the gallery director Dick Bett has pioneered the concept with his wife, Carol. For Tasmanian collectors, often looking at work from interstate, it can be more efficient to share the research load.

In Sydney, where individual collectors can browse through conveniently clustered galleries, the trend has been slower to take hold. It is finally gaining momentum among collectors who want to share knowledge as well as funds.

With $22,000 to spend each year, Hawkesbury One has an acquisition budget to rival many regional galleries. The members’ homes are filled with works by Shaun Gladwell, Adam Cullen and Callum Morton – artists whose work features in prestigious public galleries.

The works feel different in private homes. At Nick Fletcher and Lisa Marie Murphy’s place, Morton’s abstract foam sculpture became an object of fascination for their children Emmeline, Lily and Charlotte.

Could the members afford such works as individuals? “Absolutely not,” says Janne Ryan, a television producer who now has custody of works by Patricia Piccinini and Tracey Moffatt. “The group gives you access to the major pieces. Unless you want to spend all your income on art, you don’t get access to the kind of stuff we have floating around in our living rooms or in the back of our cars.”

The group is nearing the end of its 10-year lifespan and must decide what happens next. One option is a private auction, where members bid for the works they want. There is also talk of continuing for another decade.

With savvy buying, it is possible to make money. Nevertheless, Bett says the investment aspect is a secondary consideration. “It is hard to work together as a group unless people are doing it for love and enjoyment.”

Without a passionate and committed group, choosing works can be a chore. The art dealer Nicky Ginsberg says that even the simplest decision becomes complex when there is a syndicate involved. It took weeks of meetings and emails to confirm the sale of a Peter O’Doherty painting to a group on the Far North Coast.

“Of course, I was very happy to sell but it took a while to make it happen,” she says. “Usually, people view an artwork, like it and buy it. A group’s approach is more intellectual than emotional. They go backwards and forwards between members, thinking about the background of the artist and their exhibiting history.”

cARTel, an all-female group of four from Sydney and Melbourne, has in the past taken so long to decide on a purchase that the work has sold to someone else.

“Individual purchases can be impulsive but when it’s everyone’s money, you have to make a considered choice,” says Catherine Sullivan, the lawyer of the group.

You have to watch where you hang them, too. Another cARTel member, Virginia Lovett, had a moment of panic when she smashed a mixed-media piece while doing the vacuuming. “There was this unbelievable sound and I felt like I was going to be sick because I knew it belonged to everyone,” she says.

The artist was able to fix it and the group can now smile about the incident. They have known each other for years and were friends before they started collecting. Their syndicate has survived relationship break-ups and interstate job postings. As they sip champagne and gossip in advertising executive Katie Richardson’s Elizabeth Bay apartment, it is clear they relish each other’s company as much as the art.

“When we buy something, we usually pick it up together and celebrate with a drink at whatever house it ends up in,” says Lovett. “We’re like proud new mums about the works. It’s a lot of fun.”

That is not to say they always agree. Several years ago, Richardson fell in love with a painting by Del Kathryn Barton, an artist who, at the time, was relatively obscure. “No one else really liked it,” says writer Sinead Roarty. “I thought it looked like panel van art.”

Richardson was outvoted and forgot about the work until Barton won the Archibald Prize in 2008. Her work soared in value.

“It was the worst investment decision we ever made,” says Sullivan. “But, still, I hated the work. I couldn’t have lived with it.”

That’s the trouble with art syndicates: you sometimes end up with a work you don’t like. There are tales of valuable paintings stuffed into garages or hung in spare rooms.

Hawkesbury One owns a work by Lucas Grogan, a non-Aboriginal artist controversial for his use of indigenous styles. At first glance, it seems to show a three-legged man, with one strangely elongated leg shoved down his own throat. On closer inspection, it turns out the third leg is not a limb at all.

Ryan says she keeps her mind open to anything, “but it is quite pornographic and confronting, and some people don’t want it on their walls”.

With a majority voting system, as many as five of the group’s 11 members could be unhappy with a purchase. Video art has proved particularly contentious.

“There are people who are totally into it, like me, and people who think it’s a load of shit,” says Ryan. “It’s been an ongoing sore.”

In the early days, the majority voted against a video work by Daniel von Sturmer, who went on to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale. More recently, they have bought video works by David Rosetzky, Shaun Gladwell and Liam Benson.

“We have become bolder and braver and smarter and sharper with our decisions,” Ryan says. “Over time, you learn to make a decision that you might feel uncertain about. There are pieces in the collection that we all agreed on that none of us would have bought individually.”

Collecting with others can be a mind-shifting experience. Group members inevitably influence each other, sharing ideas and information about different artists and styles. Bett has seen avid collectors of 19th-century art switch to contemporary, abstract works.

“Even if they dislike it, we encourage them to try living with it anyway,” he says. “A good-quality work of art will grow on you eventually.”

Sometimes, shifting a work from one house to another is enough to change long-held views. The works look different every time they are moved and a change of context can make a huge difference.

After 10 years, the members of Hawkesbury One feel confident enough to commission a new work. With $20,000 to spend, the discussions have been as passionate as ever. Some wanted to look for a new artist, while others preferred to revisit an old favourite. Some said the work should be a landscape painting; others a multimedia video piece.

They finally settled on Pamela Mei-Leng See, an Australian-Chinese artist who cuts delicate shapes and images from paper, rubbish, plastic and stainless steel. She will create a large-scale work for the group, to be shown with the rest of its collection in a public exhibition at the Newcastle Region Art Gallery in June.

Joan Croll’s daughter, Kate, is co-ordinating the project and says she doesn’t think they could have commissioned a work when they started. “We’ve learnt so much from each other and we’re all pretty adventurous now … We’re tickled pink with what we’ve managed to achieve,” she says.

“The commission will be something quite different for us. It’s a bit scary because we are asking someone to make something without knowing exactly what we are going to get. That’s part of the fun.”

However the piece turns out, it is sure to give the bridge crowd something to think about.

Art Month Sydney is on until March 31. John McDonald’s overview, page 14.

How to buy art as a group

Keep the group small. With more than 25 people, it becomes difficult to make decisions and move works from home to home.

Have a clear contract. It is important that everyone understands the rules: how much money members contribute, how long the group will last, what happens to the works when the group disbands. Some groups enter into a joint-venture agreement.

Know what you want. Draw up a collection policy, with clear guidelines about the kind of work you will buy. Larger groups often have a rotating purchasing committee to meet artists, visit galleries and consult other members. Smaller groups can use a voting system.

Be practical. The works need to be moved from home to home. Unless you plan to use an art courier service, it is best to avoid large, heavy pieces.

Check your home insurance policy. Most art should be covered but particularly valuable works might require specialist insurance.

Consider hiring a consultant, especially if you are inexperienced. The Bett Gallery in Hobart advises and manages groups throughout Australia. It charges a joining fee of $1000. See bettgallery.com.au.

Credit: Louise Schwartzkoff

[Illustration] Caption: THREE PHOTOS: Share values … (top) Joan Croll (left) and Janne Ryan with an acquisition, Luke Temby’s The Garden of Eden; cARTel (from left) Catherine Sullivan, Virginia Lovett, Katie Richardson and Sinead Roarty. Photo: Marco Del Grande Art house … James O’Brien (right) with Nick Fletcher and Lisa Marie Murphy and their children, Emmeline, 6 , Lily, 5, and Charlotte, 18 months. Photos: Fiona Morris, Marco Del Grande