Jim Barr & Mary Barr: Online crusaders - Art Collector

Issue 60, April - June 2012

Collectors Jim Barr and Mary Barr have been long-standing advocates for the arts in New Zealand. Now, through their blog, their outspoken take on the art world is more talked about than ever. They talk to Sue Gardiner about why they believe they can make a difference.

When Wellington-based art collectors Jim Barr and Mary Barr were going on their first overseas trip in 1975, they fitted their entire collection, all paintings at that time, into a station wagon and drove it to the Govett Brewster Gallery in New Plymouth where it was to be shown and stored on loan while the Barrs were travelling.

Known in the art world today as focused collectors, outspoken bloggers and strong advocates for artists, the Barrs’ collecting may have outgrown the station wagon but not so the practice of making generous gifts and loans to public galleries around New Zealand. They currently have works on long-term loan at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery and The Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt, and have also gifted a number of works to both these institutions as well as the Christchurch Art Gallery.

“We were always keen to lend works to public galleries, to help make public holdings more substantial and to help fill any big gaps in their own collections,” Mary comments. “But one big issue with this process is the possibility that if we make loans, public institutions may conclude that they don’t have to buy so it is important that the loans act as a stimulus to encourage an institution’s own collecting, rather than be a back stop for them.” For the Barrs, links between the private and public art world extend further, with Jim being a former director of The Dowse, and through their work as editors, writers and curators for a number of exhibitions. Their support for Michael Parekowhai through the 2011 Venice Biennale project was invaluable, for example. “We were there to be supportive for the artist, to make things a bit easier for him,” Jim says.

But their collecting is certainly not aligned to a public institutional approach. Indeed, it is the sense of freedom at the core of private collecting that interests them. “One of the beauties of private collecting,” Jim says, “is that you don’t need a plan. Patterns do emerge over time though, even if they are not immediately obvious to us.”

Acquisition of works by artists who were close friends such as Don Driver, Philip Clairmont and Tony Fomison were typical of the Barrs’ early collecting priorities and is something they continue today: valuing and seeking a close relationship with the artists they collect; never buying anything from artists they hadn’t met; visiting studios regularly; following and supporting the artist in their chosen directions; looking always outside the mainstream; and buying mostly contemporary New Zealand work, until the opportunity to meet more Australian artists arose – artists such as Ricky Swallow, Mikala Dwyer, Rose Nolan and Hany Armanious.

“Mostly we buy work and keep on buying that artist’s work until it gets to a certain point, buying more than one work from artists we are interested in and keeping a quite tough-minded, particular focus,” Mary says. Not waiting until the artist is established and their work is unaffordable, the Barrs typically focus on work across a range of media from artists in their late 20s and early 30s – artists like Kate Newby, Dan Arps, Simon Denny, Fiona Connor and Xin Cheng, Francis Upritchard, Ronnie van Hout, Dane Mitchell and Marie Shannon.

Describing themselves as part of the “service industry,” they can make a contact for an artist, exert some influence, attract an audience, establish connections and make things happen. Over time they have become spokespeople for the arts, responding to what they see as a cautiousness in the industry.

“This is really why we started the blog [overthenet.blogspot.co.nz]. Regular art lovers want to know and hear stuff. There shouldn’t be any secrets with only a few in the know,” Jim says. As a result, the Barrs’ blog has become a go-to site for the art world and gives the writers a chance to explore issues of interest to them.

One such area of interest at the moment is the future of the public art institution, faced with funding cuts, the need to seek private philanthropy, the professionalisation of marketing strategies and rigidified exhibition formats. “While the rest of the world has dramatically changed, nothing much has changed for the art museum. We are looking for something interesting,” Mary explains.

“That is where the private collector sector is leading the way right now. Collectors are more open to failure, to experiment, to be strong minded, and willing to break established formats,” Jim says. Being a collector today, they believe, is an exciting time – there is great work being made at the moment and the field is wide open. •.

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