Bill and Anne Gregory: Mixing it up - Art Collector

Issue 38 October-December 2006

Bill and Anne Gregory may soon be joining the Paddington art strip with a new contemporary space while their Annandale Galleries will continue to show Maningrida bark painters and other acclaimed living and modern international artists. They spoke to Carmel Dwyer.

Annandale Galleries’ exhibition programme for the last half of 2006 explains a lot about the gallery and its directors Bill and Anne Gregory. July and August were consumed with the art of Arnhem Land great Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek and the first Sydney show of bark cloth paintings by the Omie women of Papua New Guinea. These were followed by a major show of new work by Sydney painter Guy Warren, then two British artists from Annely Juda Gallery in London, Alan Charlton and Roger Ackling, followed by the Maningrida great John Mawurndjul and Samuel Namundja. Wide-ranging, eclectic and exciting or lacking focus and confusingly mixed? Annandale Galleries is certainly not conforming to any com-mercial gallery formula that is familiar. It is, however, reflecting the breadth of interest of its owners and placing its artists in a global and memorable context. The Gregorys have had some sort of art business in Australia for the best part of 20 years and have always marched to a slightly different beat. They opened Annandale Galleries in a converted Masonic Hall in 1991 and although large exhibiting spaces have become the norm in the years since then, there is probably no other commercial gallery in the country that matches the museum-like loftiness of their huge first floor space. Bill Gregory admits he couldn’t run a business like Annandale in any of the other major art centres of the world: it is too eclectic, too hard to pin down. But in Australia it works, mostly because Gregory gives the market things it otherwise might not have – major works by important living artists from overseas, a handful of modern masters, an exciting link into the Maningrida community of the Northern Territory and its currently most famous son John Mawurndjul, and an interesting, if slim, list of local living artists. From the local pool he has Brian Blanchflower and Cathy Blanchflower, Matthys Gerber, Leslie Dumbrell, Denise Green, Guy Warren and Kevin Molloy. Dumbrell and Warren, says Gregory, have produced some of their strongest work ever; Cathy Blanchflower and Kevin Molloy deserve more recognition than they currently receive and Gregory is pushing their work. He concedes that it’s hard to keep all these balls in the air – local, Aboriginal and overseas – and the solution, he says, will almost certainly be a second space, probably in the art hub of Paddington-Woollahra where the local artists will predominate.

Gregory says he enjoys having new, younger artists coming into the stable as it keeps the dynamic vital. “If you imagine that all the artists you show exist in an amorphous shell, if you bring somebody new into it, everybody else has to change position,” he says. “The perception of the gallery changes significantly as you bring somebody new in. I think it’s very important to keep things moving and changing. The last thing you want is to be just somebody who can be relied on to do the same old thing all the time.” Annandale is a direct product of its history. In the early 1980s the Gregorys lived in Paris where Bill was an art dealer. It was the business he moved into after an exceptionally early retirement – in his mid 20s – from commodities trading in New York. In Paris he dealt at the top end. But he was always adventurous. In the mid-1980s he had his first contact with Aboriginal art and had a show of Papunya Tula paintings there, quite a while before most Australians had ever heard of the Aboriginal movement.

A series of decisions around family life brought the Gregorys to live in Australia and provided Bill with the opportunity to satisfy his growing desire to move into a gallery of his own. With him came his European and American connections and it was not too many years before he sought to reconnect with Aboriginal art, albeit from a different community. Representation with local artists was a given and Annandale started representing a lot of Melbourne artists before building its local relationships. One of the undoubted jewels at Annandale at the moment is John Mawurndjul. He was one of nine Aboriginal artists who had work in the opening of the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris in June. Gregory was there, astonished, along with everyone else, at the strength of Mawurndjul’s work. In addition to the ceiling on one of the lower floors, Mawurndjul made a giant pole, covered in bark, for the opening. “It is about one meter in diameter and five meters high,” says Gregory. “It’s the biggest bark surface ever painted and he did it in three weeks.” Another is Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek. The Gregorys first saw his work at the Australian Museum in 1994 and he became the trigger for their relationship with Arnhem Land artists. Nadjamerrek, Gregory says, is a living national treasure and the esteem in which he holds the artist is evident. Aboriginal work comprises about 25 per cent of the gallery’s exhibition calendar, usually two shows a year by various artists or groups. In the coming year it will be three, the third in London at the end of March when Bill Gregory, in conjunction with his godson Josh Lilley, will mount a major show of works from the Maningrida artists’ community, centering on Mawurndjul. Gregory was quick to see the appeal and merit in Aboriginal art and his insight in that sphere has been repeated again and again in others. In mid-2005 David Baker and the writer Drusilla Modjeska came to Gregory to show him the Omie bark cloth paintings they had bought in Oro Province in Papua New Guinea. Their friend Janet Laurence had suggested Bill Gregory, her former dealer, might be the right place for the Omie. Gregory took a chance.

The works were compelling for their apparent links to imagery from Aboriginal art, oriental carpets, and other iconographies from the Indian-Pacific hemisphere. And yet, they were entirely unique in their manifestation. Gregory took a punt – with gratifying results. Strong museum interest in Australia and inquiries about taking the works offshore made the Omie show a success. Bill Gregory’s strong interest in international art is evident and understandable. He shows William Kentridge, Alan Charlton, Rebecca Horn, Leon Kossoff, Larry Bell and John Virtue. In the 1990s he was known for extensive shows of modern master works. He has associations with Annely Juda Fine Art and Bernard Jacobsen in London, and LA Louver in Los Angeles and he clearly relishes the offshore component of his business. Making it work has been another thing. Gregory set about tackling the resistance he encountered to overseas art in two ways: he set about showing the links between Australian and overseas artists and he decided to go big.

The first part wasn’t quite so hard. How could you understand an Australian artist like John Olsen without appreciating the influence Miro’s work had on him? How could you see Brett Whiteley if not in the context of the work of William Scott which influenced him only slightly less than Lloyd Rees? Nicholas Harding has discussed his interest in the work of Leon Kossoff. And so on, and so on. Australian art does not exist in a vacuum. “When people see international art they are often amazed at just how good Australian art is in comparison,” says Bill Gregory. “It may show up some of the cracks, but it will also show just how good some of our artists are. For example, you might own a Brian Blanchflower and go to an exhibition of works by Sean Scully – and you realise there’s nothing in the Scully show that’s better than your Blanchflower.” Going all out became another policy for Gregory showing international art. It was so much easier to sell if a show included large major works.

“What you have to do to sell overseas art, in my opinion,” says Gregory, “is you have to put on an exhibition of the same quality that they’re going to see in New York and London because your clients travel to those cities. You’ve got to go absolutely flat out. We have an exhibition of Alan Charlton (September-October 2006) and Alan designed that show specifically to fit in our space upstairs. He’s been working on it for 12 months and it will be, in his opinion, one of the finest he’s done in years for the simple reason that our space is a challenging space. “If we went small and showed just a few Alan Charlton works we’d sell nothing. But we’re bringing out bigger works and more of them and they can show in his main gallery in London afterwards.” Gregory’s inclination to go all out manifests in many ways – the big exhibition space, the preparedness to take risks based on his own judgment, the depth of his involvement. He has an art library of thousands of volumes and almost always writes a catalogue essay for the shows at Annandale. “I like doing it and I think when you’re doing a show the process of writing the essay prepares you very, very well for the period of the exhibition and the process of selling the work. It forces you to get your facts together and crystallise your thoughts.” It almost always involves thinking big.

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