One of my favourite things about my line of work is when a client invites me into their home to see a painting or collection and I get to enter a whole new world.
I love to see how, where and why they decided to hang a painting, or place a sculpture, so that it fits perfectly into their living space.
This very personal level of interaction was not generally something that I was able to offer while working in the fast-paced world of auctions – but it is a service that I relish being able to offer my clients now that I work for myself.
Visiting these private spaces is also a great reminder that each time an artwork is sold from a gallery, dealer or auction house, it is merely the beginning or a continuation of its story – never the end.
If you are ever curious to see how art collectors live with the pieces they bring home, this post is for you.
I first met collectors Bruce Wilson and Gaël McCalman whilst working at Sotheby’s and at Mossgreen. What really made this couple stand out during this time was that they were so well-versed and clearly focussed on what they wanted to bid on at auction.
Bruce and Gaël have built up an impressive collection of Australian Indigenous art over the last 12 years and have recently moved into a brand new apartment in Richmond, Melbourne. During the design phase, they were very clear about wanting to treat their new living space as a home for their art as well as themselves. Gaël has an incredible curatorial eye and has taken a very measured approach with regards to the placement of each piece.
They recently welcomed me and a photographer into their home to share their experience in building and living with their art collection…
Bruce and Gaël, What was the first Australian Indigenous artwork that you ever bought and what drew you to start collecting in this movement?
In 2005 we were in Darwin with a friend who was interested in Indigenous art. He took us to see Dallas Gold at Raft Artspace, who spent a long time showing us paintings from Raft’s stockroom and talking about the works. He suggested that we should all visit Northern Editions at Charles Darwin University to see their prints. We went along because our friend was interested, expecting to be politely interested.
When we arrived at Northern Editions they had a room set up to show the Warlayirti Suite from Balgo. The room had no windows and was filled with light. On the walls were 10 of the most extraordinary works: brilliant, brightly coloured images of tremendous power and intensity. We were astonished by the works: they gave the impression that they produced light, that they were lenses for viewing light.
We were both bowled over by the works, and bought the set immediately, without giving any thought to how we could display the prints. Our reaction to them was so sudden and visceral that it changed our lives. From the moment we saw that room at Northern Editions, we became collectors.
We were so lucky to start with Dallas Gold. He has had a great influence on our collecting, in part because he is very generous about other industry participants. It is typical of him that rather than pressure us to buy, he sent us to another outlet. It was Dallas who set out the rules about collecting Indigenous art, about the need to be ethical, to ensure that we dealt with people who were principled and who respected the artists and art centres. Because of Dallas we have met other wonderful people: artists, gallery owners, art centre staff and other collectors. We felt very early in the process that we were part of a common effort to collect, show and protect the products of this amazing movement.
Has moving into this contemporary home made you look at your collection differently and how has it altered your interaction with the collection?
When we designed the new apartment with the developer’s architects, we thought about showing our collection but we also thought about a thousand other things. But during the three years it took for the building to be completed, we realized that we had only a limited idea of how the apartment would look, and very little certainty about where we could hang particular works, and which spaces would accommodate paintings or sculptures.
So when we walked in for the first time we realised that we had been gifted the most amazing opportunity to show our works in an ideal environment. The rooms are full of natural light and there are large walls as well as many smaller spaces that perfectly suit some of our pieces.
After our first experience in Darwin, we had become avid collectors, and had assembled a large collection of quite mixed pieces of different media, different origins and varying quality. In our previous house we had dozens of works crammed together in stairwells, with paintings side by side with limited space and no pattern or effective organisation. We loved showing works jumbled together because we love the works, but it was not the most effective way to see them.
So the apartment has enabled us to try a quite different approach, a much more curated and thoughtful way of managing the collection. Because we have spaces that work beautifully for specific pieces or collections, we are trying to take advantage of that opportunity. The works in the study, for example, while they are quite different from each other, share a palette and work as an integrated display. The large Keith Stevens painting in the living room changes during the day as the light changes. The beautiful Lydia Balbal in the second bedroom loves the southern light, and Gaël has used the David Bell birds and some other small artifacts to complement the painting.
So the apartment has encouraged us to think carefully about the impact of the works, and how the spaces can modify and strengthen that impact.
On that note, do you believe the art is made for the home or is the home made for the art?
We think homes are made for living in, and our primary intention when we were working with the architect was to design a home that we would enjoy living in and that would sustain us as we age. So while we thought about the artworks during the design process, they did not drive our plans.
But these pieces of art are now an important part of our lives. While it is largely accidental, it is such a delight that the walls and rooms and spaces work so beautifully with the artworks. That part of our lives is now completely integrated into all the ways we live here.
I can see that the collection is widely varied in scale, origin and even age, but which artists/artworks resonate with you the most? What are your personal favourites?
It is too hard to choose one or two works. Each of us has favourites at times, but they change. As soon as you choose a work you can see others that are also striking and wonderful. And now that we have hung the works more in the way they deserve to be hung, their quality is clearer.
Bruce: We have three old Papunya boards hung in an alcove in the study. I love the story of the Papunya movement, and the fact that these remarkable pieces were painted on discarded pieces of board. Yet they are sublime: in particular, I can look for hours at the Anatjari Tjakamarra work in the centre of the row of three. It is such a rich and assured work. In the same room there is a set of three carved painted birds by Nawurapu Wunungmurra that are just about perfect. We have a large painting by Doreen Reid Nakamarra, which we bought not long before she died, and which is hung in our entrance area. That is a profound, calm work. And the Wakartu Cory Surprise that hangs over our bed is such a strong, vivid, assertive piece.
Gaël: Like Bruce, I find it too hard to choose a favourite painting so instead I want to talk about one that has special significance for me. Soon after we had become interested in Indigenous Art I went on my own to the NGV. One painting stood out for me as absolutely beautiful in its simplicity. It was Lena Nyadbi’s, Starry night in Jimbirla country. From that moment I wanted one of her paintings. I took Bruce to see it and he too fell for its beauty. It took us a long time to find one of her paintings but looking round Framed Gallery in Darwin I noticed one hanging on the office wall. We were able to buy it and now it hangs across from our bed. It too is a black and white piece, a typical example of Lena Nyadbi’s Jimbirlam Ngarranggarni (Spearhead Dreaming) series, telling the story of her father’s country to the East and North of Warnum. There is no other painting that I look at quite so much and it is probably one I would rush to save if we had a fire.
Knowing that your collection has evolved over the years, what advice do you have for the budding collector to help them in starting their collecting journey?
Collecting is not a role for the faint-hearted. One of the early lessons is that you make mistakes. We have bought works that we would not now buy. We regret relatively few of our purchases, but there is no doubt that you can be swept up in the moment when you see a show in a conducive environment. If you intend to start a collection, it is very likely that you will also buy some works that you later see as mistakes.
The factor that kept us on a relatively even keel, and enabled us to feel more confident, especially as beginners, was the help we were given by wonderful gallery owners and staff. We have talked about Dallas, who ensured that we took our responsibility as collectors seriously, and that we understood that Indigenous art is modern art, but also has cultural and social significance. Matt Ward at Outstation was also endlessly generous with his time, and like Grant and Rod at Gabrielle Pizzi in Melbourne spent hours giving us a free education, dragging works out and encouraging us to look closely at them. People working with the large auction houses have also been important influences and have given us their time.
We would advise a new collector to spend as much time as possible with principled, ethical industry participants, and to listen to what they have to say. There are plenty of people who will enthusiastically sell you a work, but not all of them have that kind of concern for the health of the industry and the proper treatment of artists and art centres.
We would also advise people to look at as many works as you can. Every work you look at adds to the framework you use to think about each subsequent work you see. The best way to learn about Indigenous art is to look at it, and as you do you start to see things you did not see before. It is like playing a sport: the more you do it, the better you become. Go to shows, attend auction viewings, pester collectors and gallery staff to show you works, use the brilliant collections in the NGA, NGV and other public galleries.
Reading is also important. We have benefited greatly from reading about the origins of the Papunya movement, various surveys of Indigenous art, exhibition catalogues, auction catalogues and collector works such as the books that describe the amazing collection that Colin and Elizabeth Laverty put together.
Finally, we would advise people to buy things they love, that they want to see on their walls. If our experience is typical, buying Indigenous art is at best an uneven means of investing. But if you love a piece, it quickly stops being a matter of economic value and becomes something far more important.
Besides the aesthetic appeal, how does art enrich your life?
It is such a privilege to own outstanding works by remarkable Aboriginal people. If you stand in front of a bark painting by John Mawurndjul, or a riotous work by Tiger Palpatja, or a glass eel trap by Jeannie Kemarre Martiniello, it is impossible not to be uplifted and to feel that you are part of an extraordinary renaissance in Indigenous culture. We have been so lucky to have met artists and talked to them about their work, but it is enough for us to feel that we are participants in a great process of recognition of the cultural value these works offer. The public acknowledgment of wonderful Indigenous art from the townships and cities is one of the success stories of Aboriginal life in Australia and it is a joy to play a small part.
Finally, I know I personally have some very interesting collecting stories, but what’s the most interesting story that you’ve had finding an artwork and then in acquiring it (either through auction, gallery or privately)?
One of the best experiences we have had was meeting Lena Nyadbi at the 2009 Telstra awards and talking to her. Gaël spent some time with Lena, telling her how much she admired her work. Lena has been Gaël’s favourite artist for years and this was a perfect chance to tell her so. Lena also had a wonderful work in the awards show, which we both loved. We talked to the Warmun art centre coordinator about the work, and were told there was a queue of people wanting it. So we put our names on the list but felt we had no real hope.
A few days later, once the Warmun entourage had returned home, we had a call to say that we could buy the work. The coordinator had discussed the sale with Lena, who said she wanted those people who had loved her work so much to have the painting.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Bruce and Gaël for being so generous in sharing their home, collection and stories with us. I hope you’ve found this exploration into the private space of two true collectors insightful and rewarding – I know I have.
If you’d like to know more about buying and selling art, both privately and in the auction market, contact me for complimentary advice.
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