August 16, 2020
The Sydney Morning Herald

Local galleries booming as art fiends open wallets in lockdown


Amid the concert halls and theatres darkened by COVID-19, there is one splash of colour for the arts in Australia.

Australian art galleries are thriving. Galleries are reporting sold out shows from buyers, new and old. Paul Becker, CEO of Art Money, a finance company specialising in buy-now-pay-later for art purchases, said revenue has doubled in the last 12 months.

Artist Svetlana Bailey  with Artereal Gallery’s Rhianna Walcott and artwork ‘Passion Berry’.
Artist Svetlana Bailey with Artereal Gallery’s Rhianna Walcott and artwork ‘Passion Berry’.

But it all looked miserable in March.

Just as lockdown in NSW hit, so did solo shows of ceramicists Glenn Barkley and Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran at Sullivan and Strumpf gallery. Sales were wild and mostly online. Director Joanna Strumpf said there was an initial shock at lockdown but then collectors returned.

“Perhaps it’s working from home that has inspired new acquisitions, or maybe it’s that art is feeding the soul in times of uncertainty, or maybe a bit of both,” she said.

Young collector Lindsay Clement-Meehan, who works in financial communications, is all for feeding the soul but not just her own. Since she bought her first painting in 2015, Ms Clement-Meehan has focused on collecting the work of emerging artists. Enjoying a secure job, Ms Clement-Meehan has bought work by Zan Wimberley and James Lieutenant since the pandemic began.

"It's an important time to keep buying from those artists because they are the most vulnerable. They all have casual jobs and we need them to keep doing what they are doing because we need the arts to survive at the other end of this," she said. "I'm earning to spend."

University of NSW economics professor Richard Holden said there were plenty of Australians whose incomes had been unaffected by the pandemic, yet they have fewer things to spend their money on.

“They can’t go overseas and buying art is partially about consumption and partially about entertainment. You can go to a show and buy a painting and it is one of the relatively few ways you can have an enjoyable time out. There is not a lot of entertainment about once you are done with Netflix.”

Associate director of Artereal Gallery Rhianna Walcott said her gallery decided if it couldn't go ahead with a physical show, it would conjure up online programs made for an audience which might have less money to spend. Two online exhibitions, again by ceramicists, went gangbusters: Luke Ryan O’Connor followed by Ebony Russell. Then when the gallery reopened, its first physical show was Jason Wing, whose work is vividly political. The artist identifies with both his Chinese and Aboriginal heritage and the show coincided with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

"We had significant sales to private collectors and major institutions and sold over $50,000 worth of artwork in that one show despite the COVID climate," said Walcott.

Director of Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery Roslyn Oxley said her shows of Dale Frank and Kudjla/Gangalu artist Daniel Boyd were near sell-outs.

"A lot of our art buyers go to art fairs at this time of year and spend three or four months overseas. They haven't been able to do that."

Oxley said the gallery will continue with video "walk-throughs" which have proven popular with buyers, but she longs for a return to openings. "I miss going out to a cocktail party and having a drink and talking to people."

Co-director of Galerie pompom Samantha Ferris said local and state government assistance has been crucial for keeping her team together.

"[But] we have had more online engagement, from a more art focussed audience. People that would otherwise be spending money travelling and/or buying at overseas art fairs are acquiring art from us," she said. The gallery's small show of Warmun artist Evelyn Malgil last month sold out in three days.

Accenture economist Andrew Charlton said COVID has had a significant financial impact on Australians, and about half have "more cash in their pockets today on average that they have had in any recent time in history".

"Car sales are up, Bunnings, Officeworks, home renovations, spending on pets," Mr Charlton said. "Australians have more disposable income and they are stuck at home staring at blank walls. They are not waking up after a big night out with empty pockets. Art is just a way to spend that extra disposable income."

By Jenna Price