Art Collective WA: So Far, So Good

Art Collective WA was a unique proposition in 2013: a self-funded, not-for-profit gallery owned and operated by senior WA artists for themselves. It’s now coming up to its tenth year in business.

Words: Victoria Laurie

Photography: Bianca Woolhouse

Felicity Johnston often ponders the conundrum posed by her wealthy home state. Western Australia produces the bulk of the nation’s resources, yet the state suffers from a lack of investment in its visual artists, both locally and nationally. “I do see a lack of interest in Western Australian artists”, says Johnston. “That’s why our Collective was set up solely to represent established and senior Western Australian artists.”

She’s referring to Art Collective WA, a not-for-profit gallery business with a unique mission. In 2013, when she was asked to set it up as inaugural director-curator, she had just stepped away from curating the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art at the University of Western Australia. Johnston comes equipped with managerial and communications skills that were honed in former roles at the National Association for the Visual Arts, Australian Galleries and Savill Galleries in Sydney. Johnston also has prior experience running her own gallery in Perth more than a decade ago.

“At that time, a lot of the commercial galleries had closed due to lack of support and a generational change, as gallery owners became tired and traditional collectors filled up their walls,” she says. “The dialogue between artists disappeared because they had no places to meet and talk. So Art Collective WA was set up to fill that gap. We got together and decided on a not-for-profit model that was artist-owned; our board would exclusively consist of artists. It was important that established artists with long careers could be supported financially after they’d lost the ability to regularly show their work.”

It’s been a unique success story. Art Collective currently has 36 artist members; it has presented more than 200 artists in 134 exhibitions and sold more than 75 works to institutional collections. The long rollcall of artists includes Trevor Vickers, Eveline Kotai, George Haynes, Angela Stewart, Alex Spremberg, Giles Hohnen, Merrick Belyea, Brad Rimmer and Vanessa Russ.

On any day, Art Collective’s light-filled gallery will be visited by one of its owner-members. The atmosphere is casual but keenly professional, the interior spaces small but imaginatively used. The exterior view is attractive – a grassy square bordered by St George’s Cathedral and the historic State Buildings, Perth’s bespoke hotel and award-winning restaurant complex.

Johnston is proud that Art Collective WA has survived and thrived. She says 2020 was their best year, despite the Covid lockdown. “We had a captive audience that had disposable income. People weren’t spending three months overseas or going to Melbourne to buy work. And there was a resurgence in supporting local enterprises, which extended to ‘Let’s support our artists.’”

Art Collective WA is entirely self-funding, “although we occasionally apply for project funding,” she admits. “Because we’re solely owned by artists, we’ve always had the luxury of making decisions that weren’t financial. There are no accountants or lawyers telling us we shouldn’t do a $50,000 book or go to an expensive art fair.”

Art Collective WA has done both, producing high quality monographs of four West Australian artists, with a fifth due to be published about Haynes, one of WA’s most prolific living painters.

As for art fairs, the Collective was represented by 30 works in Sydney Contemporary in September. “We’ve been at the Sydney art fair every year since it started, and we will be displaying the work of Joanna Lamb at the Melbourne Art Fair next year,” says Johnston.

She says art patron Janet Holmes à Court is a great supporter, and Art Collective WA will hold its ten-year anniversary show in October at Holmes à Court’s private art gallery at Vasse Felix winery in Margaret River.

Art Collective WA has recorded 50 interviews with its artists. “It’s to fill the lack of an archive of West Australian art history. There’s nobody doing that work.” It also holds regional exhibitions in Geraldton, Albany and Bunbury. “And each year, we invited a guest curator or artist to create a show, so that it’s not just my vision that dominates.”

Yet Art Collective WA’s prolific activities occur in a tough environment. While Indigenous art is faring better, Perth is suffering a general decline in art purchases by university and corporate art collections, and even the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

“They have shrinking acquisition budgets, and we don’t have many regional art galleries to sell to, unlike other states,” Johnston explains. “Individual buyers are now our main purchasers. They tend to be professional types who like to buy from around Australia, but some have a deliberate policy of supporting the state’s visual artists.”

“At this stage we will continue, as long as we are doing good things,” she says. “We don’t want to forget our core business to represent established WA artists and raise their profile. We just have to stick to that.”

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 106, October – December 2023. 


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