COMA: Open Minded

Beginning with a mission to show Australian artists alongside international practitioners and not be tied down by the traditional stable model, Sydney’s COMA gallery is now firming up its roster.

Words: Chloé Wolifson

Photography: Zan Wimberley

While visiting galleries and museums in the United States in 2015, then-art consultant Sotiris Sotiriou was struck by the notion that “Australian collectors were buying artwork by young international names and [because] the works were moving straight into private collections, the Australian public was missing out on physically viewing important parts of contemporary art today. It also made me want to recontextualise certain Australian work, by placing it in group presentations with international practitioners.” Upon returning home, Sotiriou went out on a limb and opened his gallery COMA in November 2016 in Sydney’s Rushcutters Bay. The space opened with the inaugural exhibition True Love Over Physics, a group show featuring the works of Cornelia Baltes, Gabriele Beveridge, Ophelia Finke, Brian Kokoska, Ebecho Muslimova, Oliver Osborne, Jon Pilkington, Yves Scherer, Colin Snapp and Chris Succo.

Rather than take a traditional approach of representing artists, COMA has operated as a mixture of commercial and project space. “We wanted the ability to program on the fly, not beholden to any artists or external forces, and also to allow relationships to form through exhibitions and collaboration as opposed to committing to individuals we did not have working relationships with.” In 2020, change is on the horizon. “We have operated like this for a few years now, and are at the point where we have consolidated these friendships and relationships.” In the next six months, COMA will announce its representation of a small selection of Australian artists, with more to follow in 2021, including international artists.

What are the qualities of the COMA artist? “I am first and foremost looking for interesting individuals who will naturally build compelling narratives and position themselves in the world today. An innate curiosity to experience more and then filter and distil that information is very important to me. If an artist [recognises] that they shape the stories around them, and that what they want to say will change drastically as the years go by, then inspiration shouldn’t be too far off. A lot of artmaking is hinged on very singular life events that creators lean on too much to support work. To me this is a backwards methodology. Due to this, a lot of historical, environmental, conceptual and research-based practices are of great interest to me.”

With the announcement of a dedicated roster of artists comes the consideration of art fairs. “COMA only participated in a single fair soon after the gallery opened to introduce ourselves to collectors and colleagues. We plan to participate in international presentations once travel is back on the table.”

Like many arts organisations COMA was impacted by COVID-19, notably from a logistical perspective. But Sotiriou points out that the gallery was “able to pivot quickly into one-on-one consultations with collectors, and actually take the time to get to know client’s collections and needs in greater depth”. Sotiriou’s ideal collectors are those “willing to take the time to discuss what a work is really about, and why the artist is making that work. We are looking for open and curious minds to dive into some of the most exciting artists’ practices. Collecting art is often about simply providing yourself with another perspective, and lasting stimulation.”

The internationally-minded dealer is a big fan of the Julia Stoschek Collection in Germany, which he describes as built on a “focused collecting ethos and drive that seems to never waver from its goal: cutting-edge, time-based art and scholarship that supports established careers and emerging practices.” He continues: “A collection with a purpose is always more engaging.”

Sotiriou is passionate about his profession, inspired by dealers’ stories and their desire to share great art with new audiences. “Dealers and curators from all walks of life, points in time and places in the world have influenced me. Joseph Duveen, Leo Castelli, Colin de Land, Marian Goodman, Arne Glimcher, David Zwirner, Kamel Mennour, Paul Kasmin, Sadie Coles, Olivier Babin…The list goes on.”

Having recently moved COMA into a new home in Darlinghurst, Sotiriou notes that “change is a good thing for both the gallery and the artists. It has given me a great sense of what our artists can and want to achieve, while also making it clear which artists fit the COMA family going forward.”

Photography: Sotiris Sotiriou by Zan Wimberley

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