Gallery Barry Keldoulis: The Real Deal - Art Collector

Issue 44 April-June 2008

Since opening his own gallery five years ago Barry Keldoulis has been on a fast track to success, writes Carmel Dwyer. His most recent move to Young Street, Waterloo is his fourth upgrade in that time.

There is something of the cosmic traveller about Barry Keldoulis, a sort of going-with-the-flow that is refreshing in the franticly paced art world of Sydney.

Among the most successful contemporary art gallerists, Keldoulis is a person whose life has unfolded with serendipitous events and puzzling anomalies: he “fell into” working with contemporary art, yet it is hard to imagine many people could be better suited to it; he claims to have no natural interest in business, yet his gallery has gone from strength to strength – and four upgrades in size – in barely five years; he has no formal training, yet has a peerless ability to relate the conceptual work of his artists to curators, collectors and media. Unlike the stereotype gallerist of today’s art scene, Keldoulis does not describe himself in the clichés of being “driven”, “obsessed” or “passionate”; he does not speak in superlatives or hyperboles. Instead he smiles and twinkles and, when asked, gives vent to an unusual gift for talking about art in a way that is both informative and unthreatening.

In his new exhibiting space in Sydney’s contemporary art precinct of Waterloo, he is also poised to consolidate his growing influence. His stable of mostly young artists includes Fiona Lowry, Jonathan Jones, Dan Templeman, Sarah Smuts-Kennedy and mid-career artists such as Richard Dunn and Debra Dawes. Many of his stable lives and works offshore – including the notable Indian artist Jitish Kallat, recent exhibitors Sean Cordeiro and Claire Healy, Jess MacNeil and Grant Stevens. Video art and installation works figure frequently in the work produced by his stable, but several continue to use more conventional media, including painting.

In many ways, Keldoulis is as much an original as any artist – although he has never had personal aspirations in that direction. He is very much a gallerist who follows his own instincts, from choosing artists, to the way he runs his business and his pricing philosophy. If it could be summed up in one phrase, Keldoulis’s view is long term.

The idea of being an artist as an occupation – like a nurse or a doctor or a fireman – is one that has come in and out of currency over the centuries. “There are a lot of people who want to be an artist,” says Keldoulis. “That, unfortunately, doesn’t make you an artist, so I limit myself to dealing with people who are artists in the sense that it is in them and it has got to come out.” He refers to the idea of artists who are the “real McCoys” as opposed to the “sparklers” who are likely to burn out quickly. “The acknowledgement that artists might get through celebrity and public attention doesn’t make their work better,” he says. “I’ve been in the art world for 25 years and it’s a matter of picking the real McCoys. Even if they’re not fashionable in that world now, if they stick to their guns, which the real McCoys do because they have no choice, really, the world will come to them.”

It is a view that is reminiscent of a gentler time in the art world, when instant fame and price ramping were rare and the clamour and the glamour sought by so many collectors was less of a force; when fortunes were only rarely made by buying and selling in short turnaround times.

Keldoulis is equally moderate, even old fashioned, about the pricing and the price increases of artworks. He emphasises the importance of making a broad, solid base of collectors for the work of any artist and building incrementally on that, pyramid-style. This is more easily achieved when the works are not too pricey early in an artist’s career.

“Over a number of years, you get to see cycles – and one of thescary things about the stage we are in with the current cycle is thatpeople are over-excited and they’re not thinking long term.”he says. “You’ve got a bit of the fast buck element coming into it, which is a bit of a worry – the sparklers we talked about.

“But if the conceptual grounding and the pushing of barriers are not in the artworks at the start, they’re not going to be there in 20 years time. It’s something to be wary of and something we are very conscious of.”

His attitude to careful control over pricing and his professed lack of an innate bent for business aside, Keldoulis has had to be successful at selling art. He does not have a backer and borrowed $20,000 from his father in 2003 when he left Sherman Galleries to open his own shop in Chippendale. “It has all been done on the back of sales,” he says.

Keldoulis would say that working alongside artists and mixing with artists as friends and companions is very much his milieu and has been for most of his adult life. But it is not a fact that he knew or perceived at 21 when he blithely left for New York seeking adventure.

An Australian friend had suggested he meet the great Henry Geldzahler one of the leading forces behind the blossoming of contemporary art in New York in the 1960s. Keldoulis was undecided about the wisdom of this when Geldzahler took the initiative and not only contacted the young Australian but offered him a job and catapulted Keldoulis into a life and a world where he not only felt at home but one in which he was to become a success.

Geldzahler was at the time Commissioner for Cultural Affairs for New York City, and was referred to on the cover of Time Magazine as New York’s Arts Tzar, but he had spent a long time in the bright lights and had begun to prefer a life reading and writing and listening to music at home.

His young and energetic chief-of-staff, as Keldoulis was titled, got to deputise for the great man at functions and openings and ceremonies and meetings all over New York City. Keldoulis is modest about his good fortune in meeting collection. Geldzahler; one can only speculate that he must have been an impressive young man to be handed an opportunity that, presumably, would have been grabbed by hundreds of fine launching into his own gallery in Chippendale, then Dank Street arts graduates on the east coast of the USA at the time. This was the early 1980s.

It was from here that Keldoulis’s various innate talents began to be cultivated. His ability to “learn by osmosis” was clearly one of them; his gift for verbal communication and getting on with both artists and the public, were others. He component of his business – a sort of globalisation, if you will. led the art junkie’s life: “My friends became the neo conceptualists, the graffiti artists and the new gallerists downtown. Nine-and-a-half years went by like nine-and- half months.”

Just as unusual was what Keldoulis did next. He nursed his sick mother for several years and became a teacher of English as a second language. He arrived in Australia after his mother’s death in 1995.

He formed connections with the local art scene here but did not work in it until 1997 when he joined Jamu, a public gallery showing works from the Australian Museum’s Aboriginal collection.Starting working at Sherman Galleries in 2001 was his first time in a commercial gallery. He stayed there two years before launching into his own gallery in Chippendale, then dank Street Depot, where he upgraded to a bigger space from his initial space there, before his latest reopening in Young Street.

It was a late start in business but, like many things in Keldoulis’s life, it seems to have happened at just the right time. As business prospers so do his plans to cultivate the international component of his business – a sort of Globilisation, if you will.

“A lot will depend on staffing possibilities. Do you spend the money on more staff or on going overseas to art fairs?” he aspeculates. “This year we will concentrate on single shows. We may go back to a dual show – main show and project show – format. We always want to keep it fresh for the public and for ourselves. Flexibility is the key.”

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