Mary Place Gallery

Campbell Robertson-Swann  and Lauren Harvey, art dealers with a sense of history, have taken over the lease of the ground floor of Mary Place Gallery for 2018 with the aim of doing quality shows by established artists. Sydney entrepreneur, John Feitelson, is supporting the project.

‘No strugglers, no students, no second-raters,’ says Robertson-Swann, who swears he’d rather leave the gallery vacant than hang something just to pay the rent.

Defiance, the duo’s Newtown gallery, has always been too small for their ambitions and too far from the centre of the Sydney art scene. Even though that scene has been drifting south-west for more than a decade it has yet to challenge Paddington’s primacy.

Over the past few years Defiance has held a number of larger, more ambitious exhibitions at the Yellow House in Potts Point, showing work by artists such as Peter Godwin, Peter Powditch, Ann Thomson and the late Roy Jackson. The association with Mary Place seeks to broaden the gallery’s role by inviting proposals from other dealers and hosting specially curated exhibitions. The first event, which opened at the end of February, is a group show featuring senior Defiance artists.

The aim is to hold four to five Defiance exhibitions per year, while handing over ‘complete curatorial and administrative control’ for all other shows. While Robertson-Swann is obsessed with quality, he is also concerned that audiences don’t see everything as a Defiance initiative. For once, he wants to act as a catalyst rather than a control freak. Several exhibitions have already been pinned down while others are being negotiated. Janet Clayton, for instance, will be showing Bill Brown’s work. Charles Nodrum and Utopia have also signed up, and there is a proposal for a survey of contemporary Indonesian art.

One of the attractions of 12 Mary Place is its long pedigree as a exhibition space. This dates back to July 1979, when architect Julius Bokor took possession of the building. By then it had already been through multiple incarnations.

The four-storey structure began life in 1919 as a builder’s workshop and storeroom. In 1921 it became a chocolate factory which would be destroyed by fire two years later. From 1924 until 1979 the building was owned by the Wearne family and rented out to a succession of enterprises, including a commercial printer, an upholsterer, a toy factory, and a light engineering workshop.

The first hint of an art-associated use dates from 1967, when Paddington was evolving into Sydney’s Bohemian quarter. The building housed picture framer Steven Reid, and served as a venue for exhibitions of prints and art classes. Artist Janet Dawson and her literary husband, Michael Boddy, lived and worked there for a while. Other tenants included an architectural firm, AIT Consultants, and the advertising agency that became known as Mojo.

When Bokor became owner he envisaged the building as both an architectural studio and a gallery. Those who would use the space included long-term Sydney dealers, Gallery A and Barry Stern. The most notorious tenant was David Reid, who rented three floors from Bokor between 1980 and 1982.

The Reid family began with soaring ambitions, launching a charm offensive on the Sydney art scene. John Olsen was the prize catch, but Bokor also remembers shows by Marion Borgelt, Keith Looby, Suzanne Archer, Robert Jacks, Liz Coats and David Van Nunen.

One of the memorable moments of the Reid years was a joint exhibition of Brett Whiteley’s work organised by dealer Robin Gibson, whose own gallery was too small for the massive paintings the artist had been producing. According to biographer Ashleigh Wilson, it was Whiteley himself who decided on Mary Place as the venue for the show, which included Oberon landscapes, pictures of a crucified Joel Elenberg (Whiteley’s sculptor friend, dying of cancer), and the portrait of Nobel Prize-winning author Patrick White that now resides in the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

Wilson writes how Whiteley ‘burst through the doors one day and declared: ‘Look at all this wonderful space! I’ll have my exhibition here’.’ At this time Whiteley’s star could not have been higher, with every show greeted as a major event on our cultural calendar. The work was widely reviewed, the artist’s genius ritually debated in the media, and sales were robust. One report described “breathless buyers” swarming around
Robin Gibson.

‘It should have been the making of the Reids,’ says Bokor. But it wasn’t. The fluctuating fortunes of the David Reid Gallery over the following two years is a fascinating study in its own right, and a cautionary tale for artists. While the wine and bonhomie flowed freely, bills and rent remained unpaid. Eventually Bokor had no choice but to lock the Reids out, and arrange for all works of art to be picked up on a single day in March 1982. Barry Stern agreed to lease the first two floors shortly afterwards, ushering in a decade of stable tenancy which ended in 1992, when the dealer moved overseas. Rather than look for a new full-time tenant, Bokor decided to use Mary Place as a freelance exhibition space, ‘available primarily to curators, galleries and launching artists’.

As Sydney’s longest-running rental gallery, Mary Place pioneered a model that is becoming increasingly common in an era when art fairs and the Internet are making it difficult for dealers to maintain a permanent exhibition space.

The list of artists who have been through the Mary Place Gallery over the past 25 years includes Suzanne Archer, David Aspden, Kate Briscoe, Bill Brown, Gunter Christmann, Lucy Culliton, Roy Jackson, Ildiko Kovacs, Peter Powditch and Ann Thomson. The ground floor has proven to be an excellent venue for three-dimensional work, with exhibitors including Paul Hopmeier, Kevin Norton, Michael Buzacott and Clara Hali. Among the leading Indigenous artists who have been seen at Mary Place are Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Kathleen Petyarre and Billy Thomas.

In 1995 Don Holt used Mary Place to stage a survey of Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s work at a time when her reputation was escalating.

The gallery has provided a venue for Melbourne dealers such as Niagara Galleries, Charles Nodrum, Irene Sutton and William Mora to hold Sydney exhibitions, and has hosted shows put together by art consultants and freelance curators. In 2002 Bokor initiated the annual Mary Place Exhibition to show works by emerging artists under the age of 30. Rising stars such as Ben Quilty and Guy Maestri featured in these overviews.

For Robertson-Swann and Harvey it’s largely a matter of keeping up the traditions that Bokor established, while bringing some fresh vision and energy to the task. If there’s a sense of urgency it’s because of the rapid changes overtaking the Australian commercial gallery network which have seen the closure of so many established venues. Even the venerable Watters Gallery has announced that after 54 years in the business it will wind up at the end of 2018.

In the new world of art there will be many artists left without representation and others with little chance of ever joining a reputable stable. We’re entering an age of self-reliance, in which there will be more flexible alliances between artists and their agents, and an ever greater demand for spaces to hold one-off shows. Mary Place has history and location on its side. If the new leaseholders have their way it will soon be reclaiming a prominent position on the Sydney gallery circuit.

Mary Place Gallery
12 Mary Place, Paddington, NSW
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