Karen Woodbury Gallery: Seriously Risky - Art Collector

Issue 36 April-June 2006

Just two years after Karen Woodbury’s Melbourne gallery opened its doors all of her artists are going strong. Her strategy of considered risk-taking seems to be paying off, writes Edward Colless.

Karen Woodbury’s gallery is just off Richmond’s hectic Church Street, in the heart of the designer furniture quarter of design-conscious Melbourne. Cruise the stretch of Church Street from the Yarra River up to an intersection packed with cafes and bars at Swan Street and, in the showrooms of space age chairs or eccentrically Italianate dining tables, you’ll get a glimpse of what the décor of many chic city warehouse conversions might be. On the floor above Woodbury’s gallery is a showroom specialising in coolly modernist furniture and fittings, Eames and Herman Miller among other labels. But the precinct isn’t just showrooms. It may be brewing in the cluttered studios of the area’s old industrial buildings where indie fashion, jewellery and graphic design are cooked up, but that atmosphere of creative style is in the air outside too.

The neighbourhood’s cocktail of edginess and elegance, of sleek business and funk made it an appealing choice for a gallery when Woodbury decided, just over two years ago, to move her office out of her home and – after more than a decade of success in the trade – to move out of dealing in the secondary art market. It was a risky move, but not an uninformed one. Woodbury grew up on the idyllic northern beaches of Sydney, but recollects that as soon as she could walk she’d be taken on regular trips by her father, a high school art teacher, into the city and eastern suburbs to tour the galleries.

“I was lucky,” she recalls, “that I had a young life full of new art and surrounded by works of art. A lot of artists were friends of my father, and that kind of life seemed natural to me.” The exposure fuelled her appetite rather than sated it. She threw herself into art at school but was increasingly drawn toward art history rather than being an artist herself, going on to do a degree through the Power Institute at Sydney University and a Masters in Art Administration at UNSW’s College of Fine Arts.

Art history isn’t, of course, simply the chronology of canonical works sitting serenely in famous museum collections and used as sources for textbooks. It’s a battlefield of contesting interpretations and attributions; and, also, it’s a market place that can be as exotic as a Moroccan bazaar or as cut-throat as Wall Street. Although it may not fit the outward appearance of many art historians, there’s a touch of the Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones in all of them.

At least, art history is written in the transactions of auction rooms as well as in academies. Discoveries can be made, prices inflated, careers annulled, fashions manufactured, collections and the taste they represent can be dispersed like ashes in the wind. The secondary market is a crucial force on what we consider to be art of historical importance. But it can also be influenced by art historical expertise – the connoisseurship, scholarship and research skills that are crucial to the discipline.

For Woodbury, her enthusiasm for the history of art aligned directly to her interest in the trade in art, working as a gallery assistant while an undergraduate and then, after three years in Japan, returning to Sydney and honing her commercial talent for a couple of years with the mega-dealer, Savill Galleries. “They were big on turn over, and on selling” says Woodbury, “but there were major works by major artists coming through – Boyd, Nolan, Blackman – and you learned much more than just an effective sales pitch.”

She evidently did learn a great deal from the experience, because when she moved to Melbourne in 1997 she brought a professional reference with her that scored her three job offers at once. One of those was with Deutscher Fine Art, and her former boss Dennis Saville told her without hesitation to go there. It was a big adjustment, and Woodbury adds it gave her a new perspective on the business. The gallery had a great deal of respect and prominence in the secondary market. But it also showed new work by living artists: Peter Booth, Bill Henson, Imants Tillers. This was strong, sometimes controversial work and not without hazards. Some years before, when Deutscher had shown Tracey Moffatt’s now celebrated Something More series of photographic tableaus, only one of them went – for $2,000. (That print would now be valued at $100,000.)

Deutscher Fine Art was in its last year of operation, going through a make-over to become Deutscher-Menzies. Woodbury was offered the position of Director of Paintings, in which she worked for about four years, handling Australian art from colonial to contemporary. The pace and process of the auction house experience was invaluable. “You’ve got be able to identify and value a work of art on the spot, at someone’s house for instance,” she says. “It’s different to the more patient work in a stockroom. You have to think on your feet, fast, and make big decisions on your knowledge and instinct. That’s definitely spilled over into my own gallery: when I look at an artist’s work I get a sense of whether or not that artist is going to go well in the gallery almost at once.”

There’s an edginess with most of the art that goes up in Woodbury’s gallery. “It’s to do with a sense of risk that I have in myself,” she explains, “and that I respond to in the artists. If there is quality in their work, then I’m keen to take the risk and support it. Of course, I have to balance my personal enthusiasm with an objectivity, and I know certain work is better going to someone else’s home or collection than my own. But I love it when artists push themselves into uncomfortable work. When I can feel a struggle. That the artist is battling with themselves to get the work out. Drama. Striving. I respond strongly and supportively to work that looks like it’s searching for something, questioning itself. Not that it isn’t assured, but is self-exploratory. That’s exciting.”

Woodbury opened her doors in March 2004 with a group show designed precisely to this recipe. Cathy Blanchflower’s intricately, compulsively patterned and mathematically refined abstract paintings were shown alongside Monika Tichacek’s lush photographic portraits of her transgender hero Amanda Lepore, lounging in a pink satin-lined boudoir and bound to Tichacek by a monstrous plaited switch of blonde hair as sinister as a coiling anaconda. Next to these was Del Kathryn Barton’s ornately writhing eroticism, with brooding and wounded pubescent figures in pencil and gouache that seemed born out of high-key Japanese manga and the dark woods of the Grimms’ fairytales. After that came a solo show of Lily Hibberd’s glow-in-the-dark paintings, based on images of alien abductions and possession from s-f and horror movies.

Two years on, with Woodbury’s stable creeping toward twenty, her intuition and risk-taking are working: all of her artists are going strong. There are enquiries for Del Kathryn Barton’s work almost every other day. She and Michael Doolan – well-known in Melbourne for his lustrous platinum coated ceramic trophy figures of frozen, featureless toys resembling Babar or Spongebob—have waiting lists of up to fifty. McClelland Prize winner Lisa Roet has had a major monograph published on her, and enquiries about her monumental sculptures of apes have tripled. And Monika Tichacek’s challenging video work The Shadowers has been shown all over Australia, with a recent screening back in Melbourne for the Midsumma Festival. Her work is also being shown in a half dozen venues across the UK at the moment, in a high profile international program.

“I think there’s a strong aesthetic running through the artists represented by the gallery,” Woodbury reflects. “I’m attracted to art that is fresh, new and that I can grow with. It’s important to have that kind of relationship with my artists, and with my clients. And to make that openness and excitement part of the style of the gallery, visible to anyone who might walk in.” Woodbury relishes describing some grotesque recent encounters in New York art galleries as perfect examples of worst practice. “In one gallery there was a guy who looked like a model in an Armani suit at the front desk of totally sterile room. Lined up on the shelf behind him were large white folders, with big name artists prominently on display. But peer around behind the shelf and there’s nothing in the folders, no clippings, no slides. These were props! An advertising sign. And out the back there’s a guy who looks like Ralph Lauren sitting at a desk staring at computer, and I swear he was pretending to be on the phone. I thought he was an installation or performance piece, but he was working there!”

Woodbury wants visitors to see the seriousness of her commitment to the art she deals in. But she points out that a gallery can’t be a prop or stage for the art. It’s a working environment, and a place where relationships between clients and artists are initiated and encouraged. “There’s an important distinction between a sales pitch and a genuine greeting to a client or potential client. Get them confused and you’ve changed your business,” she declares. “You have to believe in the value of art itself, beyond any attempt to secondguess the public. Of course, if you had the skills and simple-minded drive to do that you might make a killing. But would you be enjoying the art, and enjoying your life?”

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