Hogarth Galleries: Surviving the Ages - Art Collector

Issue 37 July-September 2006


Hogarth Galleries in Paddington, Sydney, is one of the great survivors of the commercial art world. An innovator that the rest of the world eventually caught up with, it continues today to hold the line that it has been following for close to 20 years – that of exhibiting a range of Australian indigenous art, from traditional bark painting to emerging young artists, such as Rosella Namok, in solo and community shows.

Today the Hogarth name is synonymous with Aboriginal art, but that is not where it had its origins. The gallery was the career-change vehicle of barrister Clive Evatt who remains the proprietor, but has little to do with its management today. Evatt ran Hogarth for the first 10 years, after which he installed managers and curators who have run it ever since. Evatt owns both the business and the building in which it is located, at its original site in Walker Lane Paddington.

Naturally enough, Hogarth’s first 10 years reflected both the tastes of the owner and the financial constraints at the time. The gallery opened in September 1972 with a show by English artist Allen Jones which Evatt calls the Women’s Furniture exhibition. Evatt was keen to bring international art to Sydney and work by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein, among others, was sold through Hogarth. At one point, he was able to arrange for a client to have his portrait done by Warhol for a bargain price – $20,000. Who knows what it would be worth today, says Evatt.

His predilection of American modernism aside, Evatt also sold the work of some of the Australian artists of the time, including Sidney Nolan, Brett Whiteley, Lloyd Rees and Martin Sharpe. Whiteley, he says, was his best seller and he still has in his own collection the Whiteley painting, Henry’s armchair, which he claims was originally commissioned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales but was rejected on the grounds of its allusions to drugs.

Evatt has been quoted as saying that in the difficult economic times of the 1970sthe great saviour of the Hogarth business was selling lithographs and other multiples.Much of the overseas work that was sold fell into this category and Nolanproduced several print series, including seven featuring Ned Kelly and three commemorating the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Some of these works were seen in 2001when the gallery exhibited The Forgotten Nolans.

Evatt first showed Aboriginal art at Hogarth in 1976, bark paintings by Own Pelly. His friend Bob Edwards who was on the Aboriginal Arts Board introduced Evatt to the works. Evatt flew to Arnhem Land, bought a number of bark paintings and sold them through Hogarth. He claims to have been the first commercial gallery to prepare such works for exhibition and display them on white walls under spotlights. He later discovered another source of bark picture – the Anglican Church Mission Society in Bathurst Street in Sydney sold them to him cheaply at the time.

In 1982 Evatt decided to return to legal practice. He had studied fine arts at Sydney University and lectured at various colleges, but 10 years as an art dealer was enough. At the time Hogarth split its two exhibition spaces between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal art. With Evatt going off-campus, it was decided that Hogarth would concentrate on Aboriginal art and the new era began.

Kerry Williams and Helen Hansen, Clive’s staff at the time, took over the running of the gallery. Later, Ace Bourke joined them and, between them the gallery estabw lished its pre-eminent reputation as an Aboriginal art space. Over time, other galleries also came to specialise in Aboriginal art, most importantly Gabrielle Pizzi Gallery in Melbourne and Utopia Art and Cooee Gallery in Sydney.

Helen Hansen, who spent 29 years at Hogarth, says that Clive Evattt deserves credit for pioneering the commercial gallery involvement with Aboriginal art. “Clive Evatt has always been prescient about art movements,” she says, noting that it was Evatt himself who really drove Hogarth’s involvement in those early days.

Over the next 15 years Hogarth was at the leading edge of the rapid development and change that propelled Aboriginal art from a little known practice centering on indigenous forms to the use of non-indigenous materials and the explosion onto the commercial art market.

Hansen nominates several landmarks along the way – Michael Riley’s photographic exhibition, John Mawurndjul, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Ginger Riley, the advent of the Balgo artists, Clinton Nain. And although she mentions a number of individuals Hansen emphasized that Hogarth tried to withstand the star system and whenever possible to show artists in their community or appropriate context.

“It was always exciting and well-presented,” she says. “It had a name for that.” It was the emergence of artists such as Emily and Rover Thomas, whose work was accessible and could be read for their abstract qualities that began to blur the distinction between indigenous and non-indigenous art. Such artists were shown in non-indigenous galleries and the market quickly broadened.

Melissa Collins who has run the gallery since 2004 joined Hogarth in the mid- 1990s and worked part time for many years. She, too, had had a long association with Aboriginal art.

“I met Ace Bourke in 1985,” she says. “He was working for the Aboriginal Artists Agency with Gabriella Roy and Ace put on a show at Blaxland Gallery in the city, which I was then managing. It was the first survey show of Aboriginal Art at a nonindigenous space and because of that was very ground-breaking.”

Collins recalls how the momentum of interest in Aboriginal art began to change in the 1980s: “In the mid-1980s it really started to become commercial. Prior to 1985 there were very few exhibitions of contemporary Australian Aboriginal art. Things just started happening. Papunya Tula was up and going but other communities started getting attention.

During the 1990s Hogarth presented landmark shows: Michael Riley; Destiny Deacon; Clinton Nain and Darren Siwes.

“Our philosophy has always been to show the best of emerging artists and their communities,” says Collins. “I don’t see our role as going to communities and choosing the most commercial artists. Our role is to show artists and their communities in an evolving way.”

Often, the shows at Hogarth are group shows and the relationship between the communities and artists is fluid and might or might not involve repeat business – although it often does. Some artists who exhibited alone have moved on, for example, Clinton Nain is now with Sherman Galleries and John Mawurndjul, the leading bark painter who has been commissioned to paint a ceiling at the new Quai Branly Museum, opening in Paris in 2006, is with Annandale Galleries.

“We are fortunate that we are still showing our core group that we have shown since the 1980s,” says Collins. “For example, the artists from Maningrida and Yuendumu. Although we have shown them on and off, it has mostly been on. The Warnum Art Centre opened in the late 1990s and we’ve shown them ever since.

“A new community we have developed a relationship with is Lockhart River and we’ve been showing them one way or another since 1998. We have just had our first show with the Ramingining art centre, Bula’Bula Arts for the first time since the 1980s. In the late 1990s we showed artists from Balgo who are very collectable now. They were both a critical and financial success.

“Over the years we have probably shown every community, but it comes and goes. We have very strong links with the communities, but we have no ownership and we have to accept that. The business is built on trust and relationships.”

Collins agrees that there were points where Hogarth could have taken a tougher commercial position.

“We could have become an uber-gallery and used the leverage we had to lock in artists. We could have just had big blockbuster solo shows with established artists, but it was not our vision and it wasn’t where any of us were coming from. I think we have stuck to what was originally intended.”

But, with that, Collins concedes that Hogarth has had to become more pragmatically commercial. “I think in the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a lot of experimentation, a lot of shows that didn’t pay their way, but which were groundbreaking and interesting. As the market has become more competitive our brief has had to change. The economic reality is that we have to at least break even and to do that we have to show work that is mostly commercially viable. Having said that, every show is a risk.”

Evatt is very much a hands-off proprietor and freely admits he hasn’t been to the opening of an exhibition for 10 years. His daughter, Ruth Evatt, who is Hogarth’s financial director, maintains daily contact with the gallery. For some years Hogarth also operated two art shops, one in The Rocks and one at Sydney Opera House, but closed the last one in 2005. Collins noted that when The Rocks store opened it was the first of its kind and today there are more than 12 galleries at The Rocks selling Aboriginal art.

Although Evatt himself is distant from the business, he still maintains it is just that: a business that is viable and healthy. Part of that is due to the opening of the gallery to emerging artists, a policy that every now and then throws up a Rosella Namok or Fiona Omeenyo who are among the most sought-after younger Aboriginal artists in the country. They and others of their generation from Lockhart River are straddling a line between indigenous and contemporary art, often dealing with traditional subjects and motifs, but with a looser, more expressive flavour.

“Over the last six years the commercial successes have been the introduction of artists like Rosella and Fiona,” says Collins. “The first Rosella show sold very well;the second show sold out and now we have a waiting list for her work.”

The Hogarth ethos and its financial realities represent a delicate balance, one that is constantly being finely tuned. “We stand by our reputation,” says Collins. “We’re solid. Our clients know the provenance is there.”