Karyn Lovegrove Gallery: New Internationalist - Art Collector

Issue 12 April-June 2000

Establishing a successful practice in America is the impossible dream of many Australian gallerists. Lara Travis profiles a young Melbourne dealer who is doing just that on Wilshire Boulevard...

In the wacky race that is the contemporary art scene, dealer Karyn Lovegrove seems to be leaving the others for dust. Five years ago she was the proprietor of Karyn Lovegrove Gallery, Prahran, one of Melbourne’s more experimental but less than profitable art spaces. In those days, young artists and their friends would mill around at openings, wondering where the patrons were. Today Karyn Lovegrove Gallery operates from Los Angeles, representing a group of international artists including Australians Dale Frank, Bill Henson, Geoff Lowe, David Noonan, Callum Morton and Ricky Swallow, Americans Polly Apfelbaum and Ingrid Calame, Germans Axel Hutte and Candida Hofer and the British artist Simon Periton.

As well as the artists she personally represents, Lovegrove has shown touring exhibitions which featured significant contemporary artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Nan Goldin and Karen Kilimnik. Her sell-out exhibition of Australian artist, the late Howard Arkley, was rated among the top 10 exhibitions of 1999 by art critic David Hickey, in Art Forum International magazine.

Establishing a successful practice in North America is the impossible dream of many an Australian gallerist. While few established dealers would be willing to start a new practice from scratch, in 1996, Karyn Lovegrove’s Melbourne gallery was still relatively young, and she found herself in a position to take the risk. That year, Lovegrove set up a small office in LA and spent a further two years researching the scene and introducing her artists’ work to curators of North American museums and galleries.

A year ago this February, Lovegrove’s perseverance with a group of like-minded dealers paid off, when she was invited to open her gallery among theirs, in the prestigious 6150 complex, situated on the Miracle Mile of Wilshire Boulevard, diagonally opposite the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Designed by Lovegrove herself, the new gallery is about a quarter of the size of her old Melbourne space. Its white walls, floor and ceiling (there are no windows) aim to create the ultimate white cube – a space which is completely neutral and transformable with every new show.

In April this year, Ricky Swallow will be attending his first solo exhibition with the gallery. Lovegrove recently signed up Swallow, whose work burst into the Australian public’s consciousness when his giant Darth Vader head won the $100,000 Contempora Art Prize in 1999. “Ricky’s work is a gift, really extraordinary,” Lovegrove enthuses. “He’s able to inspire whimsical feelings within people. He has a unique outlook on the world, which comes from a wonderful imagination and an extraordinary talent for making the work. Often those things don’t meet… but he has been able to join these two things and create these fabulous pieces that are just exquisitely made.”

With 12 years experience in dealing with artists, which included the expensive and disappointing loss of Tracey Moffatt to Sydney dealer Roslyn Oxley in 1996, how does Lovegrove deal with individuals of such talent and imagination? “It’s something that requires an enormous amount of finesse,” she laughs, but not much. “Because it’s an extremely stressful situation where people are presenting themselves and its very stressful to the dealer who obviously wants to present the work in the best possible situation. ”When we asked her to describe an incident that taught her a lot about dealing she remains circumspect: “All I’m going to say is that your artists are the most important asset to your business.”

Working with artists is no doubt easier when you have the means to support and represent them internationally. For Lovegrove, establishing a Los Angeles gallery seems to have enabled that. While so many galleries are tacitly known to be tax write-offs for rich spouses or silent partners, Lovegrove describes her LA operation as “very much a self-supporting business.” According to Lovegrove, “The difference is in Australia there are an enormous amount of artists and no collectors. In LA there are an enormous amount of collectors and no artists.”

Lovegrove sees her market on several levels. “The whole point of being a dealer is to put an artist’s work in the best possible place… a museum is the ultimate situation. Once you get the work in a museum, collectors are going to be more amenable to the idea of collecting it. In America, you also have public and private foundations… then you have your very important collectors, the people who support your gallery consistently – you need that kind of loyalty and luckily over a period of time I have been able to develop that.” Lovegrove’s clients are often younger collectors who are forging new ground in their careers and are interested in collecting artists that reflect their own experimental attitudes. These collectors understand the nature of the gallery as representing avant-garde work and are prepared to support that. Perhaps due in part to the nature of the work she exhibits, Lovegrove sees the dealer’s role as a didactic one. “I’ve always taken on a very educational role and I love that aspect of it. That’s something that has developed from teaching corporations how to buy art and whenever I’ve (done that) I’ve always tried to be very open and approachable. Obviously that isn’t always the case. Some people think that you’re a snobby bitch and sometimes I hear that back and it kind of makes me want to go away and cry...”

After a year in her Wilshire Boulevard gallery, Lovegrove is still very much the new kid on the block. However, her background in the Australian contemporary art scene goes back to the late 80s. Studying Arts/Law at Monash University, she established friendships with students who have since become significantly involved in contemporary art, such as the curator and writer, Natalie King and the art collecter, Daniel Besen.

It was at Monash that Lovegrove met Kate Williams, daughter of Australian landscape painter Fred Williams, who helped secure Lovegrove’s first job, as William Mora’s assistant in his Meyer’s Place gallery. According to Mora, Lovegrove was an ambitious graduate, “She was there to learn, she learned quickly and then she moved on.” Lovegrove saw herself as “very much the assistant there” and after three months went on to a short stint as Assistant Director at Blaxland.

She then approached Chris Deutscher and began working as Assistant Curator for Deutscher Fine Art in 1988, becoming his protégée. They were boom times for the Australian art market, times Lovegrove hasn’t experienced since, despite widespread claims for the current era. Lovegrove recalls: “When I worked for Chris it was the heyday. It was an extraordinary time. There was so much money around and every show was a sell-out. You’d never come to an opening and find anything available – there was a huge energy and enthusiasm and amazing excitement around art in the Australian scene.”

Her former supervisor, Vivien Anderson, a private dealer and consultant specialist in Aboriginal art for Deutscher- Menzies (now an auction house) well remembers Lovegrove from those days. “Karyn was very much in touch with a lot of interesting artists at the time – Brett Colhoun, Brent Harris and later, Robert Hunter. She was also mixing a lot with the Tension (Magazine) group such as Ashley Crawford and Ray Edgar. There was a real pot boiling up at the Tension headquarters, they seemed to live and breathe and eat art and Karyn was very much a part of that. There was no doubt that it was in her blood and she wanted to pursue this. But I think she outgrew the idea of being a gallery assistant very quickly.”

After securing a position as consultant to the BP corporate collection, Lovegrove was in a position to leave Deutscher and start her own gallery. It was Sydney dealer Stephen Mori who encouraged her to take the plunge. “He was extraordinarily generous to me. We met in New York just by coincidence. Natalie (King) and I were sitting in Jerry’s Bar one afternoon and he came up to us and said ‘G’day girls’. He thought we were American. He almost fainted when we answered back ‘fine thanks’ in classic Australian accents. We spent a couple of weeks in New York and it just happened that Narelle Jubelin, Susan Norrie and Matthys Gerber and a few more of his established artists were there doing a show at Artspace... and he basically talked me into starting a gallery. He said ‘Don’t work for somebody else, work for yourself, you can do it. I’ll give you my artists’... and that was why I showed so many
Sydney artists at first”.

Stephen Mori recalls, “It was more just recognising somebody who was on that path anyway, that she had a social skill and a passion and the madness to run a commercial gallery. I think you’ve gotta have a fair bit of madness. I encouraged her to approach artists that I work with and not to feel uncomfortable about that. She did and I got a bit scared then (laughs) I actually started to shit myself (laughs some more) I thought oooh no... but then I got over that – you get a bit jealous. I would have loved to have had a gallery in New York but things happen. I think it’s really good that Karyn is showing Australian artists but also that she’s also trying to build up a practice, an integrity in LA.”

With the support of Mori, Lovegrove established her gallery in Prahran. Meanwhile, the boom that had built her former employer Deutscher Fine Arts into a small empire, had fizzled. In addition to the economic downturn, which Lovegrove acknowledges as the “worst possible climate” to start an art gallery, her penchant for emerging art, as yet unvalidated by the market, meant that her practice was supported by consultancy work for corporate collections. She recalls, “I didn’t need to make money. So the gallery could operate very much as a forum for young, emerging artists. Obviously you want to sell things. But if their installation was something only suitable to sell to museums that didn’t faze me, whereas I’m sure other dealers would be fazed by that... That’s how I did it. I don’t have rich parents who can do that. I mean I didn’t have that kind of support like a lot of galleries do.”

Lovegrove may not have independent wealth behind her new Los Angeles venture. But what she does have in her favour (besides entrepreneurial ability and helpful friends), is the current fashionability of a global style in the contemporary art market. Lovegrove’s selection of artists suggest that she’s intending to ride the swelling popularity of art that participates in a visual culture common to countries all over the world. Whether you live in Hong Kong, Melbourne, LA or London, if you have watched Star Wars or Planet of the Apes, if you or your kids ride a BMX bike or play video games, if you ever had a music box, then you can relate to Ricky Swallow’s work. Likewise, Callum Morton, David Noonan and Bill Henson are dealing in styles and subjects that are recognisable to anyone who hasn’t had their head in a bucket for the past fifty years. If Lovegrove’s career so far has prepared her for one thing, it is to ride that wave.

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