Saturday, November 21, 2009

Pointing the finger

Canberra's best-known art critic, Sasha Grishin, chose a most curious way of bidding farewell to the Helen Maxwell Gallery as he did in Times 2, The Canberra Times, on Thursday, November 19 under the title "Big Blow for ACT Art Scene."

While there is surely no serious art-minded Canberran who does not lament the fact that Helen Maxwell closed her doors on Friday after 20 years of running a commercial gallery business, to do so by pointing the finger at other commercial gallery owners seemed, at the very least, eccentric.

When Grishin writes "she has been the most principle of gallery directors," presumably he does not exclude other people from that category. But when he goes on to say "unlike many other commercial galleries, she refused to stage exhibitions which he knew would sell, but in the quality of which she did not believe," he implies a big negative for other reputable Canberra gallery owners, alive and dead.

What was even more curious to me, however, was his suggestion that the government-funded arts centres and arts organisations in Canberra are supplementing their incomes by functioning as commercial art outlets. Does Grishin really believed that the Tuggeranong Arts Centre, whose gallery is only a tiny part of its operations and which focuses on emerging artists, plays a significant role in putting the commercial galleries out of business. Obviously Solander Gallery director Joy warren doesn't think so -- she gives a $1000 prize each year to them for a young artist.

And the Belconnen Arts Centre, working hard to achieve a profile after just a couple of months of operation, is certainly not raking in the dollars. I have been to dozens of small art shows at such centres where artists are allowed to sell their works and, believe me, the profits at best run into the low hundreds, not the thousands.

Other funded organisations like the Canberra Contemporary Art Space permit their exhibiting artists to sell, but take no commission. If their artists are represented by a gallery, however, that gallery may take a cut.

Let's get real. Commercial art galleries have a lamentably tough job surviving everywhere. Helen Maxwell's brilliant 20 years of showing art by women, indigenous Australians and new artists is justly praised, but surely she wouldn't want to point the finger at individuals or organisations for putting her out of business.
Helen Musa