Bett Gallery: Success takes time - Art Collector

Issue 56, April - June 2011

Tasmanian gallerist Dick Bett likes to tell budding artists that success takes time. But it seems the motto could be just as true for his own family-run gallery writes Judith Abell.

Idistinctly remember visiting Hobart’s Bett Gallery with my university print class years ago to learn about representation. In his characteristically direct way, gallery director Dick Bett served up a reality check, saying it was definitely possible to make a living from art, but it would take at least 10 years to find your feet and 15 to 20 to become sustainable. Interviewing Dick and his daughter Emma recently, I realised those brief statements contained the seeds of the philosophy behind his family-run gallery.

For Dick Bett, growing up around his mother’s business – the Elva Bett Gallery in Wellington, New Zealand – provided a readily accessible knowledge base and also instilled a love of art. Taking over as director in the late 1970s, he remembers securing the sale of a significant Tony Fomison work. “It was the buzz of that sale that determined my future career, it turned it around.” A subsequent five years as a director of the Govett-Brewster Gallery in New Plymouth reinforced ambitions.

Bett moved to Tasmania in 1985, working with experimental artist run space Chameleon (which became CAST Gallery) before he and his wife Carol purchased the only commercial gallery in town. He says Tasmania’s commercial art culture at the time “was about watercolour painting and not much else – my interests were much broader”. He had discovered a frontier.

Twenty-five years down the track, the couple and their children Emma and Jack now share the running of Bett Gallery Hobart. The business has a stable of loyal artists, some of whom joined in those early days, such as David Keeling, Helen Wright, Philip Wolfhagen, Raymond Arnold and David Stephenson.

In our recent interview, Dick reiterates those words I remember from my student visit, saying that it is possible for anyone with reasonable talent to make a living off their work so long as they believe in the commercial system. He sees this system as falling into two interconnected parts: “Identify talent, nurture talent; identify clients, nurture clients; build artistic practice, build the quality of the collector … the system gets better … it’s very achievable.”

Bett says: “We pride ourselves on being able to pick talent very early and we are in a position to nurture that talent.” Contacting several of the gallery’s artists – Philip Wolfhagen, Raymond Arnold, Julie Gough, Jonathan Kimberley and Tom O’Hern – I receive overwhelmingly positive replies speaking of years of advice given, support when needed and well-timed kicks of encouragement to pursue new directions or audiences.

Approaching its 25th anniversary, Bett Gallery Hobart is soon to be rebranded in celebration of evolutionary change. Two third-generation gallerists – Jack and Emma Bett – are primed to extend the gallery in new directions, including contemporary Aboriginal art, which Emma is passionate about. Significantly, what the pair have undoubtedly inherited from their father and grandmother is an irrepressible enthusiasm for Tasmania and its artistic output. As Dick says, “there’s so much new talent around and it’s very exciting … Tasmania has a very bright future.”