Gitte Weise: Angels at her table - Art Collector

Issue 27 January-March 2004

Taking possession of an historic Paddington gallery for her stable of contemporary leading lights has had the Sydney art world asking, how does Gitte Weise do it? In an Australian Art Collector exclusive, the gallerist reveals all to Michael Hutak.

Hard workers get all the luck, so the management gurus say, and if ever there was an example of persistence paying off it is Sydney gallerist, Gitte Weise. Launching her gallery in 1992 from two pokey rooms above a busy deli, today Weise nurtures a growing national and international interest in her stable of contemporary artists from prestigious Paddington premises. In an exclusive interview with Australian Art Collector, Weise paid tribute to a series of mentors whom she said made it all possible, but remembers a time when the future did not look so certain.

Flashback to the mid 1970s and 17-year-old Weise moves into a commune in Karlsruhe, southern Germany, a lively university town on the French border, where she would study social work, psychology and philosophy. “Mostly I just hung out with artists and students,” she told AAC almost 30 years later, on a hotel terrace overlooking a quiet piazza in Venice. Like just about every other contemporary art gallerist, Weise is in town for the 50th Venice Biennale. “The next big thing was meeting Chris [Snee],” she remembers. “We met on the ferry from Athens to Crete in 1977. He was this handsome Australian artist who had been traveling for two years. I was still a student, I had 500 marks in my pocket, my English was very poor, and I fell totally in love. After two weeks he said to me do you want to come to Australia with me and I said yes! My parents died when I was very young and I didn’t have any family ties apart from my adopted communal family.” Immigration to the lucky country being what it is, Weise would not finally settle in Australia until 1981.

After a brief period when Snee worked on an oil rig and Weise at a Gold Coast acupuncture clinic, the couple, now married, finally settled in Sydney. Weise started selling hand-painted t-shirts at Paddington markets while Snee studied art at what is now the University of New South Wales, College of Fine Arts.

Weise remembers Sydney in the early 1980s as “a creative place in an exciting time”, but she knew what she really wanted to do was “run my own gallery space, but how am I going to do that? I had not a cent to my name.” What she did have was her time and labour, and she proceeded to dedicate body and soul to the task. The turning point came in 1985 when she took a gallery management course and joined the staff of the 1986 Biennale of Sydney, as an intern under director Nick Waterlow. It would be the ideal entrée into Sydney’s art world and Weise was on her way.

It was around this time that Weise met Robyn Martin-Weber (then Robyn Brady) and began working as a gallery assistant in Brady’s Painters Gallery in Darlinghurst. “Robyn was dealing in early Sydney modernism and I got a crash course in Australian art history. She had some really fantastic works come through the gallery – Grace Cossington Smith, Ralph Balson you name it – and I saw how she used the secondary sales to show her contemporary artists.” Weise regards Martin-Weber as a major mentor and role model. “She had such a total passion for art and was different to people who you would just call dealers. She has since gotten out of the business full-time but she has been a great sponsor of my endeavours.”

Another big influence was Anne Flanagan, now general manager of exhibitions at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, who was exhibitions manager for the ’86 Biennale: “She’s one of the best organisers, in terms of logistics, that I have ever seen. I learnt just so much from her.” Weise continued to alternate with the Painters Gallery one year and the Biennale the next. In
1988 Waterlow put Weise in charge of the vast Pier 2/3 space in the Rocks. “It meant I got to work closely with 30 to 40 artists; they would come and create and install the art there and that’s what I loved most.”

Then, in 1990, famed international curator René Block swept into Sydney to direct the Biennale and add his name – and reputation – to the Weise’s list of angels: “Rene was my total hero mentor.” Block put Weise in charge of exhibitions at the Bond Store, then the Biennale’s huge second venue. “Working with René and all those incredible artists from Nam June Paik on down … they have such incredible respect for him and Rene would say ‘Gitte’s responsible for the Bond Store’ – well, it was just the most beautiful experience I’ve ever had.”

The Biennale had afforded her access to every major curator in the country and by 1992, the time had come to take the plunge. She cut a deal with the owner of an Oxford Street, Paddington café: Weise would manage the café in return for free rent on two rooms upstairs where her first gallery, Kunst, would take shape. “I opened with Bill Seeto – a room full of cardboard boxes – you couldn’t even see the space. It was called Continental Drift, a most beautiful work.”

Straddling the established commercial circuit and Sydney’s artist-run gallery scene, Kunst quickly became known as a place to see challenging art by fresh and emerging artists. “Most of the artists I showed I had seen in the artist run spaces. Like Helga Groves. I first saw her work at First Draft and I thought ‘why hasn’t anybody snapped this girl up?’ She’s a fantastic artist, the materials she works with, like perspex, were so different to what everybody else was doing. Helga was my second show and (influential curator and art historian) Mary Eagle walked in and the first work I ever sold was one of Helga’s to the National Gallery of Australia for $1,200. I remember jumping up and down in the little office, ringing everyone up to tell the news.” Groves, winner of the 1997 Moët & Chandon art prize and selected for the first Beijing
Biennale in October 2003, has been a stable staple ever since. Indeed, artists who join Weise tend to stay. Of her Kunst-era artists Seeto, Groves, Snee, Renate Anger, Pip Culbert, Paul Saint and Geoff Kleem are all still represented by Weise.

In 1996 Weise stepped up a notch, moving to spacious rooms on the first floor of a landmark building on the corner of Crown and Oxford Streets, Darlinghurst. After showing her artists the new space, they petitioned her to retire Kunst and come out of hiding once and for all. “They pointed out that everyone says they are ‘going to Gitte’s’ anyway. I said it’s not about me it’s about you guys but I eventually saw their point. I think up till then I was a bit scared.” The new space meant bigger overheads, which in turn forced innovative solutions. “Sales were still really tough and I still didn’t know enough private collectors; I certainly didn’t have the money to wine and dine people. So we came up with the idea of Room 35. Rental spaces were very popular at that time, and we wanted something that was professionally run, we kept an archive, I would look after the space and document the exhibitions. I don’t take any commission, all sales go to the artist, and I must say from the start it has gone really well.”

Weise curates Room 35 shows to fit in with the main gallery program, and mounts around nine shows per year. In 2002 she culled the program from 85 proposals. “There’s such a great need out there, I get upset turning people down. I’ve met some fantastic artists through Room 35 and I’ve actually taken on several – Sarah Robson, Maria Kontis, Cherine Fahd. I could take on people every year but I just can’t expand any more; you can’t look after too many artists.” Weise also said the rental space “is a great way to get know how the artist works. The relationship (a dealer) develops with the artist is such a close one, it’s very important for me to have a good understanding with the artists. And if there’s personality clashes I won’t go into it, no matter how good the work is. It’s my whole life I’m putting into this, and the artist does the same. You have to be honest and open and trusting – it’s all based on trust.”

Like any dealer worth her salt, Weise is also prepared to stand by an artist that is yet to break through, usually with dividends for all concerned. Her stable star, Rosemary Laing, a photoartist with a long and sustained career, has only taken off internationally since 2000. She now has New York representation with the prestigious Lelong Gallerie and was named one of
Australia’s 50 Most Collectable Artists by this magazine last year. “In 1999”, Weise remembered, “when Rosemary did the first flight research series for Contempora 5, I had not one phone call, no body was interested. I couldn’t believe it because when I first saw the work in her studio I said to her ‘this is the work that is going to break you’. I’d literally never seen anything like it. Rosemary had spent her last penny on producing the work, she didn’t win Contempora (a $100,000 prize) so I said: ‘I’ll take you to [the Armory Art Fair in] New York in 2000 and I’ll take only you. I had a total sell-out show there and that was the break for her internationally.”

Weise herself began branching out in 1998 at the innovative and influential Gramercy Park Art Fair in Manhattan. “I took everything in a suitcase, you showed the work in a hotel room and it was great. By 1999 they’d outgrown the hotel and started the Armory Show which I’ve gone to every year except this year, what with the war (in Iraq) and all that shit. I’m so glad I didn’t go because I heard it was badly affected (by the war).” In 2002 Weise participated in Spain’s biggest art fair, ARCO Madrid, when Australia was the focus country. This year she went back for more and plans to go again in 2004. She also participated in Art Forum Berlin in 2003. Driving all this activity is the confidence that comes from a major backer, Mitchel Martin- Weber, husband of Robyn, Weise’s mentor at the Painter’s Gallery in the 1980s. In 1999 Martin Weber became a silent partner in Gitte Weise Gallery when he purchased one of Sydney’s most historic art spaces – the former Coventry Gallery in Sutherland Street, Paddington – and offered the space to Weise. The gallerist is still incredulous at her good fortune. “I walk through the building still thinking, can you pinch me? Is this for real?”

Chandler Coventry ran his gallery from 1973 until his death in 1999. His extensive collection of over 400 works by luminaries such as Ralph Balson, Peter Booth, Gunter Christmann, Dick Watkins and Brett Whiteley is housed by the New England Regional Art Gallery. “I felt so honoured to inherit this space,” said Weise. “You think all the people who have walked through this building since 1973, it’s incredible,” said Weise, who extensively renovated the three-level building, including removing the lift that the wheelchair-bound Coventry used to access street level.

“Of course, with the move, everybody thought I’d bought the building, but how do these people think I could make that much money with contemporary art? So basically, I’m renting the building from Mitchel, he’s my landlord, and he’s also a partner in the business along with Chris and myself. But I wanted to make sure at the start that I have total control over the work that we’re showing and Mitchel has been fantastic, from that point of view. He’s a great supporter of the gallery’s artists and a great collector in his own right.”

For a contemporary artist still emerging it is usually preferable to have works acquired by important public collecting institutions like state galleries rather than to be away from public view in a private collector’s lounge room. Achieving this for her artists has always been Weise’s forte, but now with major overheads and a large stable Weise is starting to shift the balance towards her private clients.

The building, with its renovations and history, has brought a new clientele to the gallery. “It’s gone really well, but you know, I’ve worked for it. I’d been running a gallery for eight years already, but for many people it was completely new. The building looks like a million dollars and many people need that to be able to trust that what you are showing is good. If they were to see the same work at Kunst, perhaps they wouldn’t have bought it.” “But I still want to stay loyal to the collectors who have been with me from the beginning –they will always get first preference.”

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