Tuesday, January 13, 2015


Photo: Judith Crispin
By Helen Musa

When I visited Joy Warren some weeks ago in John James Hospital, a wicked inspiration led me to bring her a bunch of yellow gladioli.

Though grappling with spinal pain, Warren was right onto the nuances, laughing about Barry Humphries even as she admired the sheer beauty of the flowers – “I’ve always loved beautiful things,” she proclaimed.

But, true believer in the arts that she was, Joy Warren was no Mrs Everage.

A larger-than-life personality and at the same time a respectable PLC Melbourne girl, Warren first descended on the fledgling capital in 1955 with her architect husband Bob, who would go on to design everything from the Queanbeyan Swimming Pool to the purpose-built Solander Gallery in Grey Street Deakin, now slated for demolition.

Papers held in the National Library of Australia reveal that the Warrens were roped into Canberra Repertory Society two days after arriving in the ACT. Armed with a thespian background at Melbourne’s National Theatre, (established in 1935 by soprano Gertrude Johnson) Joy trod the boards as Lady Macbeth while Bob designed sets. Extraordinarily, Joy also played the role of   a public-service wife in a promotional film aimed at attracting cadet diplomats to the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Warren was always proud of her journalistic skills during this period, and she found work with John Fairfax Pty Ltd from 1959 to 1962, later becoming a life member of the National Press Club. Never taking herself too seriously as an auteur critic and preferring to write promotional pieces on the burgeoning arts scene in Canberra,  she moved to the “dark side” in 1963 when she opened a public relations business, Joy Warren Promotions.

Her media-savvy background was to come in handy when she later launched her own gallery. Many a journalist would quake at a ferocious phone call from Warren charging neglect of some important exhibition or artist.

But her husband's consulting work with the UN took them to Indonesia and Jordan in the 1960s, though Joy maintained a Canberra presence as president of the Arts Ball Committee from 1961 to 1970, organising around nine balls to raise money for artists.

Once back in Canberra she preceded the 1982 opening of the NGA by opening Solander gallery in 1974.

Acutely aware that she needed to develop her knowledge of ‘the business,’ she found time to study art at the ANU. She became  a Commonwealth Valuer under the Taxation Incentives for the Arts Scheme and vice-president of the Australian Commercial Galleries Association from 1983 to 1984. She  also served as a board member of the Canberra Festival in 1975 and the Opera Board in 1984.

It is widely agreed  that Warren seduced Canberra into a sophisticated understanding of art, exhibiting Australia’s most eminent artists and introducing painters and sculptors from Indonesia, Papua New and further afield.

It is equally well-known (indeed Warren often boasted of it) that her powers of seduction extended well beyond the art sphere, and in her “tell-all” autobiography, (whose process was cut short by the death of its editor Wendy Brazil) she planned to name names, including at least one Prime Minister. We may never know.

Warren knew a good party when she saw it and until her last months enjoyed a drink, alarming staff at John James Hospital by secreting multiple bottles of Black Label wherever she could, which they struggled to confiscate, while she sat resplendent in her red kimono, sipping from teacups. Red was her favourite colour and, the colour she wore to one son’s wedding in a typical tilt at convention.

Warren was a fearsome business competitor, jealous of her preserves,  but  she happily invited peers from other commercial galleries to her lavish parties and openings, which were for many years the toast of the town. She loved opening nights, first nights at the theatre, the Shell Aria and gala events at the NGA.

My own association with Warren began when I joined “Muse” arts magazine as editor in 1990 and continued throughout my arts editorship of the Canberra Times into the recent past. She was also generous enough to donate paintings presented at the annual ACT Arts Awards to Artsit of the Year  Peter J. Casey and Min Mae.

I admired her outrageous conversations, her skills in bridge, her unfading appreciation of the good-looking young men she needed to have around her, her fastidious taste in 20th century art, and her dislike of mediocrity.  I was quite terrified of her driving and once just survived a road trip in a red sports car bearing the number plate "Joy" to Coolac for lunch with the founder of the Bald Archy Prize, Peter Batey.

In January 2001 she was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for service to the arts. She was unblushingly gleeful that some of her contemporaries had been passed over -- she could be acerbic about those she did not admire.

And yet, there was a deeper side to her personality that put her ahead of her time. Joy Warren relished meeting and encouraging people from indigenous and unfamiliar cultures, with whom she was totally relaxed  and she plainly valued their art as highly as that of her famous client artists.

A farewell to Joy Warren took place on Sunday January 18 in the Canberra Yacht Club, of which she was a founding member and a life associate. Not surprisingly, there was a large  turnout of people keen to mark the passing of a woman was anything but a Mrs Everage, but rather as they said, "Teh Queen of the Arts."

Joyce Dorothy Warren, b. October 10, 1922, d. January 2, 2015.

She is survived by her sons, Robert and Boyd, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.