Beverly Knight: Fair Dealing - Art Collector

Issue 27, January - March 2004

Through her Alcaston Gallery in Melbourne, Beverly Knight has been exhibiting the work of living artists in remote Indigenous communities since 1989. Alcaston moved to a new purpose-built gallery in 2001 where in six exhibition spaces she regularly shows the work of more than 200 artists. She spoke to Michael Hutak.

MICHAEL HUTAK: Who is your most popular artist? How do you go about sourcing works?
BEVERLY KNIGHT: The late Ginger Riley from Southeast Arnhem Land would probably be my main artist but I exhibit artists from all over – mainly Balgo Hills in WA; Pupunya Tula in Central Australia; Maningrida in north-central Arnhem Land; Jilamara in the Tiwi Islands. I am constantly traveling to the communities. I don’t go to collect the art, I go to develop the relationships. When I sell something I have to know about it, where it’s come from; I have to know the country and what the artist is all about. From now [September] till Christmas I will fit in three trips. Our focus and obligations must be with the 200 or so artists we support financially. This often means we are the lifeline for them, their families and their art centres. We are empowered by them to promote their culture and I believe we are known for our fair dealings and integrity.

MH: Do you typically buy up front or take works on consignment?
BK: Most are offered on consignment, but I help fund the exhibition because if you want the best work you can’t expect people to put the best work away for a year without a commitment to an exhibition ... Most of the top artists are elder people, in their seventies. I spend a lot time trying to convince coordinators to let me, if you like, control the wall price, so they don’t have to put up with the pressure of quantity. Let’s just concentrate on quality and if people want it they have to pay the price.

MH: How did you get in the business?
BK: In 1988 … CAAMA [Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association] were starting up an arts centre with the Utopia artists and they asked me to represent them. I said no for six months, because I was in hospitality, I had restaurants, but then I sat up in bed one morning and said ‘why not’? Kathleen Petyarre had been painting only for two months when I put a work of hers on my first invitation.

MH: On the export front, Spain has been good to you in recent years…
BK: The ‘Comunidad de Madrid’ commissioned me to curate an exhibition in 2001 – we toured 46 artists to 16 regional galleries over 12 months. In 2002, at ARCO [Madrid’s annual contemporary art fair], all the Spanish really wanted to talk about was Indigenous art. ARCO in 2003 wasn’t that great – the [Iraq] war just broke out, SARS was happening, a lot of journalists didn’t travel there. We couldn’t exhibit Ginger because he’d just passed away but the number of requests for his work was still enormous. It was still good overall and we’ll go back next year.
The interest has been amazing but it’s what you do with it that counts. 10 years ago there was no point – you couldn’t follow up, or let people grow to love the work. But now with the web we have a tool that if we get clients overseas we can develop them, let them learn and understand the work. Now we look at a client from Sydney, South Yarra or Rome as essentially the same. MH: What are the biggest challenges facing the Indigenous art market? BK: Because they are all older, the top Indigenous artists have a fairly short career span, say 10 years max, but some only six years from when they take up the brush. The pressure from other galleries coming into the market on these older people is sometimes rather distasteful, because in non-Indigenous terms they’d be in a nursing home basically.

MH: What about the younger people? Are they not taking the baton?
BK: Culturally it’s very difficult for the younger artists, especially the men, because they’re not able to paint stories – it’s not acceptable until they’re older. So I’ve done about seven ‘football exhibitions’ where I get the young people in the communities to paint their heroes. I’m getting others to do sculpture or wirework – different sorts of areas where they can channel creative energy but which is also acceptable in their community. The Tiwis are very different because they don’t have a Dreaming like mainland Aboriginal people, and they have the youngest group of artists working in traditional communities. MH: You’re on the board of Essendon Football Club and footy plays a role in the gallery too, doesn’t it? BK: Certainly does, the exhibition schedule is worked around Essendon’s draw, and home games in particular, because whenever an artist visits it’s the most important thing on the agenda. Daisy Andrews from Fitzroy Crossing, who I showed last week, is in her seventies and all she wanted to do here was see the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

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