Success in the art world can be brief and fleeting. New ideas and fresh approaches are swept away in the undertow as tastes evolve – permanence and durability are achieved by just a few. Sydney gallery Sullivan+Strumpf has sailed from strength to strength since its inception, and is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Led by Ursula Sullivan and Joanna Strumpf, the gallery champions some of the country’s most unique and exciting contemporary artists. Starting with pioneering Australian abstractionist Sydney Ball, the Sullivan+Strumpf stable has grown to include marble sculptor Alex Seton, vivid woven installations by Hiromi Tango and marker-drawn illustration by Oakland based TextaQueen.
Originally from Brisbane, Strumpf met Sullivan while they were working for eminent Sydney art dealer Eva Breuer. “On about day three of having arrived in Sydney, I met Ursula and we hit it off immediately,” recalls Strumpf. “We became friends and just started buying paintings. It was natural.” The pair set up yearlong lay-bys to purchase artwork and began a shared collection. At Eva Breuer, and a later stint with Sydney gallerist Denis Savill, “The focus had been on blue-chip, 20th-century Australian artists, like Arthur Boyd, Sydney Nolan, Brett Whiteley,” says Strumpf. “Our passion was always for contemporary Australian art.”
It was a chance discovery that inspired the pair to launch their own gallery. “I was actually looking for a present for Jo, and found this really amazing artist, Alasdair Macintyre,” explains Sullivan. “His work was talking about the history of art, about art and about other artists, and it totally spoke to us. We thought we would try and encourage some other contemporary dealers to take him on, but we couldn’t really let him go. It was our discovery.”
After agreeing to represent Macintyre, artists Darren Sylvester and Sydney Ball soon followed suit. Sullivan+Strumpf gallery opened in a modest Paddington terrace with just seven artists in its stable. “As the number of artists grew, we had some success and we took the second story of the building,” says Strumpf. In 2011, the gallery relocated to its present Zetland location – a vast, two-storey space that has become a veritable destination for vibrant contemporary art. “We just kept growing and growing and today we represent 26 artists,” says Strumpf.
As for how the gallerists account for their lasting success, both believe it is the quality of work that their exhibiting artists continue to produce. “It’s about the artists – that is what makes a gallery,” Strumpf says. Selecting artists to work with is therefore a delicate process, but more often than not is driven by coincidence. “Sometimes it can be very serendipitous. It’s a chance meeting, it’s a fluke event, something can happen that puts the artist and us together. And we either fall in love or we don’t.”
To commemorate the decade past, Sullivan+Strumpf has curated a full tableau of new works by its entire stable. The 10-year-anniversary group exhibition features a powerful watercolour by eX DE MEDICI, new oil and resin pieces from Sam Leach and text works by Dane Lovett. When asked what’s in store for the next 10 years, Sullivan says, “I feel like we’re just getting started! We’ve figured out a few things and it’s really exciting to consider the next 10 or 20 years. I think when we started we didn’t really have any idea.”