When it comes to culture, Australia can be a pretty bizarre place. We have historically spent a lot of time looking outwards instead of appreciating what’s in our own backyard. But in recent years something seems to have shifted, with Australian galleries both major and minor not only investing heavily in Australian artists, but also taking them overseas, where they have established themselves as “household names”.
In recent years, many of our major galleries have staged seasonal blockbuster exhibitions that have revolved around emerging and established Australian talent—a phenomenon that seems to be increasing in frequency. Thankfully, this seems to be true for both non-Indigenous Australian artists and for Indigenous Australian artists, whose work is becoming more visible, and whose gallery representatives are becoming more accountable.
From conceptual Australian artists with trails of international exhibitions such as Patricia Piccinini, to contemporary artists breathing fresh air into traditional forms, such as Indigenous artist Betty Kuntiwa Pumani, who just took out the $50,000 Len Fox Painting Award 2019, this country has a wealth of homegrown talent ripe for unearthing. Here are some of the significant galleries in Sydney who have invested heavily in Australian artists.
One of the major Sydney galleries, Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in The Rocks has a habit of eschewing international blockbuster exhibitions in favour of supporting emerging Australian talent. More often than not, this risk-taking pays off, and the gallery has developed a reputation as a launching pad for exciting new work, as well as a magnifying glass for artforms and artists who may have been overlooked by other major galleries in the past. In addition to hosting groundbreaking contemporary exhibitions such as “The National 2019: New Australian Art”, MCA also has an impressive permanent collection with a focus on living Australian artists, with a strong commitment to work by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists.
Australia’s oldest exhibiting Aboriginal art gallery, Cooee Art has staged more than 400 exhibitions of Indigenous art since it opened in 1981. The Cooee Art stockroom—which services two retail locations, the original Paddington shopfront and the second Bondi Beach gallery—contains more than 3,000 works of art from more than 150 individual artists, covering a wide range of regional styles. The gallery specialises in historically important bark paintings, 19th- and 20th-century artefacts and early desert boards as well as works of contemporary Indigenous art from renowned artists such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Tommy Yannima Watson and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. Regular exhibitions are held alongside a rotating collection of artworks for sale.
Artspace in the historic waterside suburb of Woolloomooloo was first established in 1983 as a space with a clear objective: to act as an alternative to major Sydney galleries such as the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Run by artists, the space was used as a place of refuge for multidisciplinary creatives whose work didn’t fit into the agenda of more traditional galleries. Decades later, Artspace still functions as a breath of fresh air; with its commitment to testing new ideas, it’s more capable of surprising its audience than most. As well as its exhibition space, Artspace also provides a literal home to many artists, whose occupation of the multi-level warehouse is jointly supported by the gallery and the government.
Little known to the general public, commercial gallery Roslyn Oxley9 is a heavy-hitter in the Australian art world. Owner and founder Roslyn Oxley is credited with launching the careers of some of Australia’s most significant contemporary artists, and is widely known in the industry for her fine eye and enduring relationships. Roslyn Oxley9 is the Australian home of artists such as Bill Henson, Patricia Piccinini, Dale Frank, John Wolseley, Del Kathryn Barton and Imants Tillers, all of whom have exhibited extensively with the gallery. Any exhibition here is a cultural landmark of sorts.
To put it plainly, Kate Owen Gallery is huge. Easy enough to miss when walking past on street level, it occupies three sprawling levels in the inner-western Sydney suburb of Rozelle. The focus of the gallery is Indigenous artwork, split across well-known and collectable Australian Aboriginal artists, and more contemporary items. Many of the works are large in scale and beg viewing in person to appreciate their depth and intricacy of colour. In addition to a huge collection of works on display, Kate Owen Gallery also puts on regular exhibitions of new work by established Australian artists.
Another veteran gallery, Aboriginal Art Galleries has been representing Indigenous art and artists in Sydney for 28 years. Until earlier this year, the gallery had two shopfronts—one in Circular Quay and one in the Queen Victoria Building—but the founding family has recently decided to focus their attention on the Queen Victoria Building gallery. The collection on exhibit within this space demonstrates a mixed focus on emerging Indigenous artists, and artists who are nationally and internationally renowned. Alongside a selection of paintings, visitors can find traditional and contemporary crafts, artefacts and didgeridoos, all of which are accompanied by a Certificate of Authenticity.