Facing Facts – a partnership in hard times.

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Facing Facts – a partnership in hard times.


Maxwell, Helen.


Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.



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Facing Facts - a partnership in hard times

Facing Facts – a partnership in hard times.
by Helen Maxwell


What I am going to say is a strange mixture of observations, confessions and facts — which come to an abrupt end. There is a lot more that can be said about the business of running a gallery and artist/dealer relationships.

The current exhibition at australian Girls Own Gallery, which is work by Marie McMahon, is called Still there: Coronation Hill, Rum Jungle. It struck me that I could call this talk Still here — sorry, the analogy is only meant lightly — but after three and a half years I am happy to say that aGOG is still here.

One common predicament that the dealer and the artist experience is the difficulty of selling art — particularly in times when more people are less inclined to buy art. There is no doubt that since the latter part of the 1980s less art has been purchased — which calls into question why I started australian Girls Own Gallery in 1989.

In a way the crash in the art market meant little to me — not being a business woman. My entire experience to this date almost negated any sensible sense about business. I did grow up being turned on by amongst other things, art. But I never connected it to business. In a vague sort of a way — vague because of something in my own perception of things — I was aware that my life was mapped out for me.

I was one of three kids in a middle class family. Both my parents had served in the Second World War. I had two older brothers. Our parents were very concerned that we had a good, long education and that we make the most of all the opportunities which were then available for children. Looking back I can see clearly that their hopes for me included going to university, becoming a teacher or a social worker, working for a while, getting married and settling down to bringing up a family.

The workings of business did not enter my experience. I never even managed to grasp an understanding of writing cheques until I was in my twenties.

I did go to university and studied Arts, and later Fine Arts (Art History), and then worked at the Australian National Gallery as a public servant for six years — in the Department of Australian Art where I learnt a lot and enjoyed myself to a large extent.

But in a word I was ‘green’ when I decided to set up a business — and I talk about aGOG as a business because it is a lesson I’ve learnt — that when your survival and existence depends on selling you have to approach it in a certain way and adhere to certain tried and tested principles.

When australian Girls Own Gallery opened on the 16 March 1989 I can say I had no understanding of these principles. I had, on advice, attended a small business course at the Centre for Continuing Education at the Australian National University, which I think went for three hours a week for ten weeks and dealt with questions like analysing your market, tax returns, cash book keeping, public relations, promoting your business. At the end of the course I felt no more equipped than at the beginning to open a small business. Perhaps the only thing I gained was an 'inkling' that what I was about to do was not going to be all fun.

The thing is I wanted to do it. I had decided that I wanted to establish a gallery to show women’s art. People of course, questioned this. Why a women’s gallery? Wasn’t such a thing a bit out of date? Maybe a women’s gallery was necessary in the 1970s but no longer. Didn’t I think it would marginalise women’s art and wasn’t that negative? How could I expect the ‘main stream’ art world to take it seriously? There were jokes about it as well. I've forgotten how many blokes have told me they are thinking of opening ‘abog’ next door.

The misgivings and criticisms that some people expressed did not worry me. I had a lot of support and constructive advice from people who counted. My feminist politics were well enough developed to resist the criticisms. Anyway, I was driven by an idea. I wanted to start a commercial gallery — commercial because I thought it would allow me a freedom to do what I wanted to do — showing some of the best work being made by women around the country. I wanted to work with women artists.

It was a personal, political choice I made.

There are times when you want to do something enough that danger signals (like the state of the art market) don’t have an effect. I had sublime faith that people would come to australian Girls Own Gallery, recognise what good art they were seeing and buy it. That through this simple set of events I would be able to exhibit, promote and sell more women’s art, make a living and have a lot of fun. It was a mixture of optimism and naivety.

It hasn’t been quite so simple. However, in the three and a half years I have actually sold approximately $400,000 worth of art. It sounds like a lot to me. Of this, approximately $256,000 went to the artists, which meant there was approximately $144,000 to run the gallery. Running costs include rent, advertising, artwork, printing, postage, telephone, framing, opening expenses, photography, to list some. They amount to sums which nobody can ever guess at until they are actually involved in these activities. It is one reason why I think it is good for artists to be involved in running their own exhibitions at least once.

It currently costs $1,500 to $2,000 to put on a three week exhibition at aGOG. The sum varies slightly from exhibition to exhibition and covers advertising, artwork, printing, postage, opening expenses, rent and phone. So in order to cover just the basic costs I have to sell a lot of art.

But anyway, enough about money. I grew up learning it was not nice to talk about money and I still have an awkward hangover. In business you confront money problems daily and for me it has been a challenge coming to terms with it. I have learnt to keep a tight cash book, to think about cash flow, about keeping the ‘in’ above the ‘out’, to temper my tendency to be extravagant and deal with the consequences later — in short to develop a good business sense, and enjoy it.

So I see aGOG as having two sides the business, and the other, which is about looking at work, developing relationships with artists, selecting and organising exhibitions, seeing them through, ongoing promotion. This other side is the reason for the gallery’s existence and it has presented me with an enormous amount of stimulation and pleasure. It is this which has made me ‘dig my heels in’ when I have realised on a few occasions in the past few years that because of financial pressures it would have been easier to close the gallery.

On the whole I have had a great time with artists, many of whom have become friends, where we have successfully conducted business and personal relationships.

The artist/dealer relationship is an interesting one. While it is a commitment to art which is the central focus in the relationship, it is the business side of things which sets up the interdependence between artist and dealer. And both must remain clear about this for it to work.

When I first opened aGOG, I felt adamantly that a contract was not necessary — that the artist and I would come to an understanding on an informal basis and everything would be fine. On the whole this has been the case. The artist and I have discussed the terms of the exhibition and in most cases I have written a letter of confirmation.

However, there have been a few occasions when misunderstandings have arisen, and these occasions have led me to the opinion that a contract which addresses all issues, sets out all terms and conditions, is probably a useful tool. We may not adhere to everything which is set out, we may renegotiate parts of it, but it remains a reference for both the artist and the dealer. I hasten to add that though I have been working on a contract refining it to suit the nature of the gallery, I have not actually started to use it.

This part of the artist/dealer relationship is very important. And whether or not there is a formal contract, both artist and dealer have a responsibility to themselves and to each other to come to an agreement and to be clear in the terms of that agreement.

Artists who have become involved with the activities of showing and selling their work, whether through a dealer or not, have an absolute responsibility to themselves to develop some knowledge of the business side of things. I reiterate this because I think there are some artists who would rather be ignorant, believing the issues of business are incompatible with the creative process which produces art. It is not true.

Creativity ought not only prompt the making of art but also should permeate the associated activities, and it is my experience that an understanding of this by both artist and dealer results in the most satisfactory outcome.

© Helen Maxwell, 1992.
Paper presented at The Second Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1992