Dianne Tanzer can remember a specific moment, in midst of the post-GFC hangover that has been dampening the Australian art market since late 2008, that she decided it was time for her longstanding Gertrude Street gallery to shift course. “We got this general, but very strong feeling that things were changing in the art market,” she recalls.
“Galleries were closing, collaborating, moving offshore, popping-up and we felt that it was sort of stultifying for us to just sit here…and do nothing about it.”
The route that Tanzer – who established Dianne Tanzer Gallery + Projects in 1990 and whose current stable of artist includes Juan Ford, Victoria Reichelt, Michael Cook and Natasha Bieniek – felt she had to take was clear enough. “Before Tony Ellwood [new director of the NGV], it felt as though a lot of galleries were really being bypassed by certain institutions,” she offers frankly. “It was like: ‘What do we do? Just sit here forever waiting for curators to come in, or do we actually get out there and put our money where our mouth is and take it to the world?’”
In the last two years, Tanzer has shown at the Korean International Art Fair, SCOPE New York, Art Platform Los Angeles and Art Stage Singapore, with shows at Art Basel Hong Kong and Auckland Art Fair later this year. The gallery isn’t alone. While the international art fair experience was once the exclusive domain of the top tier of Australian art dealers such as Anna Schwartz and Sydney’s Roslyn Oxley, a growing band of smaller galleries are making the international art fair circuit a priority in their yearly programming.
As Tanzer’s co-director Edwina Bolger offers in no uncertain terms: “It’s not just about the physical gallery space anymore.”
It could be said that market conditions have forced the galleries’ hands. With such a small circle of collectors propping up the Melbourne and wider Australian market – not to mention flat Australian sales post-GFC – the need to expand into the growing Asian market would seem a necessity as much as a flight of fancy. But it’s not quite that simple. The act of showing an artist to a new overseas audience and the realities of trying to the sell the work are two distinct concepts.
Nicola Stein, associate director of Helen Gory Galerie in Prahran, frames the gallery’s recent participation in Art Platform Los Angeles and Art Stage Singapore as informed by an “increasingly borderless” art world. The idea of garnering a new market is a residual one. “Broadening our market is definitely one of those reasons [we participate in fairs], but realistically, that is a longer-term goal; it takes far longer than a four-day fair.”
Utopian Slumps director Melissa Loughnan, who has shown at a host of European and Asian fairs since 2010, concurs. “You shouldn’t even be going into a new art fair that you haven’t done before hoping to sell out,” she says. “It’s great if you can make a few new contacts, but it’s as much about artists being introduced to media and curators and other gallerists and expanding international opportunities for them.”
For Loughnan, Melbourne’s increasing presence in the international art market is more symptomatic of new sense of confidence and a willingness to see just how we stack up to what’s happening elsewhere. “It’s about trying to be a bit more relevant in an international context…and trying, eventually, to be taken a bit more seriously overseas.”
It’s an idea that might be applied to CBD gallery Neon Parc, which hasn’t only been showing at international art fairs for some years, but bringing some of the biggest names in world art to show at the gallery’s humble Bourke Street space. In July last year, director Geoff Newton pulled off something of a coup in hosting an exhibition featuring legendary Austrian sculptor Franz West and famed New York abstractionist Josh Smith (not to mention successfully negotiating the release of their works from two of the world’s most powerful art dealers in Gagosian and Luhring Augustine).
While it sounds glamorous, such manoeuvrings flaunt high costs and even higher risk. “You could call it confidence,” says Newton with a laugh. “But it’s more just oozing bravado.” Indeed, the outlay involved in such exercises – with no guarantee of monetary reward – are “not even funny” to think about.
But for Newton and his contemporaries, it’s all part of much longer-term schema. Indeed, two of Neon Parc’s artists, Elizabeth Newman and John Spiteri, have gone onto be curated into major international exhibitions in the wake of European art fairs – and most of the galleries can share a similar story. “You can start to connect the dots after a while,” offers Newton. “If you really make a commitment to taking the work overseas…opportunities arise and it all becomes a bit more of a level playing field.”
Tanzer agrees. “It’s definitely a work in progress,” she says of her gallery’s international presence. “You have to put in the hard yards.” A pause.
“But I would rather go on the road five years than sit here for another 15 waiting for things to change.”