Gallerysmith: Hard at work in the smithy - Art Collector

Issue 58, October - December 2011

Courtney Kidd talks to Marita Smith, the director of Melbourne’s Gallerysmith, about her path to the art world and the grit and determination needed to run a gallery.

The name Gallerysmith is not only a nod to the name of its director, Marita Smith. It’s also a play on words like blacksmith and silversmith, pointing to the grit and hard work needed to run a gallery. Smith recalls Adelaide artist George Popperwell telling her “fortune favours the brave” and it’s something she carries with her.

The gallery opened in 2008 with a stable of 10 artists. It now represents 25. Smith says her mandate, then as now, is to select artists whose work “expresses the height of cultural endeavour” or has “important cultural value by reflecting our social history”.

She works with artists including photographers Nici Cumpston and Siri Hayes, and painters Chris Pease, Ian Friend and Dadang Christanto. She represents a number of younger artists too, such as Eric Bridgeman, Arryn Snowball, Monika Behrens and Arlene Textaqueen. As a gallerist, Smith is interested in artists who “make provocative statements about all aspects of humanity and ultimately how we function, or not, in society”.

Located in a converted 1950s warehouse, Gallerysmith has three gallery spaces: one houses the feature show, another fledgling artists, and the third is used for visiting artists and stockroom works. Artist studios on the top floor are rented out which helps supplement costs. In addition to the gallery’s block of 10 shows per year, Champagne Saturdays are a weekly celebration of Gallerysmith’s survival despite the recent pressures of the global financial crisis.

What other galleries did you work at before founding Gallerysmith?

I’d worked as a curator at the Victorian Arts Centre from 1995 to 2007, so I began the gallery with more of a curatorial directed stance than, say, that of someone who may have come from working in the secondary market.

Why then the shift from the curatorial to commercial world?

I had one of those life-changing catalysts. My middle child spent the best part of a year in the children’s hospital. I had to resign from the job at VAC. We had two other children. Four weeks after my three-year-old finished chemotherapy I opened Gallerysmith. Planning the gallery during those months spent nursing my son was my salvation. I found meaning in art.

Who were your art world mentors?

Diana Gold of Gallery 101 for her terrific sense of how to work in the commercial art world; and Dianne Tanzer for her fresh, open and inspiring assistance to a fledgling arts person.

Have you ever had to work with a difficult artist? What happened?

Artists are really interesting people who have a unique perspective but they often find it difficult to move between their creative space and the real world. I respect that. That is why they do what they do and why many artists need galleries to deal with other aspects of their practice. I represent artists in whom I have an intense belief and immense faith. One of my selection criteria is that I must also be able to work well with them and all of my artists are a delight to work with.

What’s the hardest thing about being a gallerist?

The quarterly BAS statement [and] convincing my friends that I’m not bored sitting in a gallery all day. Being a gallerist is a little like being a white duck in a pond, you know, you’re serene and dignified on the surface, but under the water you’re paddling like mad.

Which artists first made you fall in love with art?

Rothko for his expansive vision; Rachel Whiteread for her capacity to view the world inversely; Rebecca Horn for her clever play in art; and Joy Hester for her capacity to get inside someone else’s head. Sidney Nolan, too, for his skill in expressing emotion in his work.

When was the last time you were really truly surprised by something in the art world?

I am surprised by the fascination with esoteric conceptual art. While I find some conceptual art interesting, I think it is important to remember that visual art is a visual language, and that language must be articulate otherwise it fails as visual art, regardless of its concept. I find a lot of conceptual art falls into that category.

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