King Street Gallery: Two Kings - Art Collector

Issue 19 January-March 2002

In 1984, setting up the King Street Gallery was a bit of a gamble. Add to it one more King Street Gallery in another part of sydney, and you’d really have to play your cards right. But, for several years now the two Kings have come up trumps. Story by Carrie Lumby.

Someone aloof, head-to-toe in black, who can dismiss you with one patronizing look. “What do you mean you don’t know who Gerhard Richter is?”

If this is the stereotypical view of an inner city art dealer then king st gallery’s Randi Linnegar is its antithesis. She may be dressed in black, but that’s where the comparison ends. Observing her before we sit down to talk, she is someone equally enthusiastic and generous to the steady stream of students who hassle her for information for their school projects as she is to the collectors who walk through the exhibition space.

Further proof of this refreshingly relaxed attitude is the nature of the partnership behind the king st galleries: Randi Linnegar is equal partners with her ex-husband, the ever laconic Robert Parkes Linnegar.

Despite their somewhat unusual relationship these days, the close bond between them keeps emerging throughout the interview: She finishes his sentences, he’s happy to let her do it. Parkes Linnegar comes from a family of painters, sculptors, and wood workers. He studied fine art photography and spent many years as a professional photographer.

Despite no family interest in the arts, US born Randi Linnegar became a kee collector in her early twenties. She studied art as an undergraduate and also worked in a gallery in the States while completing an MBA. In 1986 she came to Australia to run Holdsworth Contemporary Art Gallery. When Holdsworth closed in 1996 she decided to stay on in Australia and go into partnership with Parkes Linnegar. The result has been extremely successful: Together they operate two contemporary art spaces – king st gallery, Newtown and king st on burton in Darlinghurst, Sydney.

The history of the galleries is an interesting one. In 1984, Parkes Linnegar founded the original gallery in Newtown. As he tells it: “I had a photographic studio upstairs and Hugo [his original partner in the photography business] was doing the framing out the back. There was a demarcation dispute over the actual space, over who was going to have more space, so we decided to turn the front room into an exhibiting gallery. The prospect was that we’d have exhibitions, we’d just do them once a month.”

It was an ambitious project to say the least. At the time, Newtown was akin to Siberia in terms of the contemporary art scene. Not only that, they were down the St Peters end, far removed from Paddington or Woollahra in terms of passing trade. Originally, the gallery showed primarily photographic work, reflecting the business that was going on in the back. Quite quickly, however, it extended its range to encompass a broad cross section of the visual arts.

“[Shows] that combined music and photography, graphic work and a variety of different types of mediums,” recalls Linnegar. “We did great project shows. There was Janet Lawrence, David Aspen, Robert Owen – some of the good names. We did them all down here.” In the early days the Newtown space was, in Parkes Linnegar’s words, “very much a neutral space,” a meeting ground for the warring factions of the contemporary art world: “We’d have Sam Fullbrook to Michael Johnson to Stan Rapotech all under the one roof at the one time. And dealers as well. They’d all come down here each month. [Critic] John McDonald, everybody was here at the openings. I’ll never forget Michael Johnson going up to Sam Fullbrook and saying ‘Sam Fullbrook, I thought you were dead!’ ”

Leaning back in his chair, reflecting on the early years of the gallery, Parkes Linnegar is quick to acknowledge the support of others in the arts community in the development of the gallery: “People like [the artist] Ruark Lewis gave us great help in the early days. He knew a lot of the dealers and he’d introduce us to them. He’d come up with these way out ideas that were really quite good.” In 1990 he took over the Darlinghurst space of another mentor, dealer Gary Anderson. For Parkes Linnegar, Anderson was “a rogue, but he was a friend. He had a fantastic eye. And we were in constant touch. He’d always come up with ideas as well. He would send us artists and say ‘you must show them’. And he didn’t send us shit, they were always good artists.” Yet another supporter was dealer Frank Watters. “Our first mailing list came from Frank,” Parkes Linnegar points out.

During the ‘90s the Darlinghurst space – king st on burton – became the primary exhibition space for the gallery. king st gallery, Newtown, was instead a space for project shows, and, because of its size, housed the stock.

This changed when Linnegar came on board in 1996 and both galleries became full-time exhibiting spaces. In general terms, the aesthetic of the gallery is tied to a commitment to abstract work. Even the figurative work shown tends to be constructed abstractly. “When the gallery started carrying more painting, installation work and sculpture, the premise was always to the more abstract because that’s my and Robert’s sense of aesthetics. And we’ve carried that along since the gallery’s been in existence,” says Linnegar.

This interest in abstraction is reflected in the considerable private collections that both dealers have. Interestingly, the two gallerists have also developed a comprehensive collection of work from the gallery itself. In addition to being an historical record, this collection is but just one way that they are able to support the younger artists in their stable. As Parkes Linnegar puts it: “We will get what we perceive is the best work [of exhibiting artists] and buy it for our collection. You can’t help it. If you’re in the business because you love the business, as we are, and you love the work, you can’t help but buy.”

During the early years the gallery showed many unknowns. Over time, however, the Linnegars have concentrated on developing the careers of more established artists. “It’s a bit different now because we have a constant stable of artists, people we have carried for many, many years”, says Linnegar.

Their stable includes the more established, high-profile artists such as Elisabeth Cummings, Jenny Sages, and Wendy Sharpe, as well as emerging artists like Jo Bertini and Alexander McKenzie. “The idea is to do the best for the artists that we have rather than take on additional artists, says Linnegar while torching up a cigarette. “We do on occasion take on new artists but we always try to keep the stable to thirty or below. You can only do so much for so many. And if the idea is to establish a career for the artist, and to keep things going for the artist and the gallery, then you have to concentrate on a number and not try to cover a large spectrum of artists.

Parkes Linnegar underlines this approach with a culinary metaphor: “It’s a bit like going to a smorgasbord of really nice food and saying, ‘well, what am I going to do?’ Am I going to make myself sick or am I going to take a selection and really enjoy it.” It’s clear both directors feel a great passion for the work they show and a great deal of loyalty to the artists in their stable. As Parkes Linnegar explains: “Because that is the nature of this operation, everyone is almost family orientated. It then becomes clear that whatever happens in their lives affects us and vice versa.” Linnegar completes this thought: “When you work with artists for a number of years you can’t help but get involved in their personal lives. That’s the nature of the business and we’re quite happy to have that relationship.”

Of course, occasionally, the friendships can get stretched a bit far: “You can find when you come home, the roller door open and the lights on and think ‘we’ve been robbed!’ and then find one of our artists upstairs watching telly and having a meal!”

Like a number of private dealers, the Linnegars prefer to handle their artists exclusively in Australia. Unlike most dealers with exclusivity clauses, however, they are actively engaged in creating opportunities for their artists interstate and overseas. Next year, for example, they will be holding four exhibitions of king st artists at Span Gallery in Melbourne. And they have a number of overseas projects on the boil. “We’re presently working on an exhibition in Manila. We’ve just had a meeting for a group exhibition in London. And I’ll be approaching a couple of galleries in New York. The idea is to get our artists out there a little bit more,” Linnegar points out enthusiastically.

This commitment to the promotion of their stable inspires a similar loyalty from the artists that constitute it. Archibald winner Wendy Sharpe, for example, likes the Darlinghurst gallery because it is: “An adaptable space. Both large and small work can be shown here. The [Darlinghurst] gallery is in a good location, close to Oxford St, the National Art School. A lot of people get to see the work. I like the design of the gallery with the larger room in the front, and the smaller, more intimate space at the back.”

Sharpe also appreciates the fact that her work “sells all year round at the gallery, not only during my exhibitions.” Jenny Sages likes showing at king st gallery “because of its modesty, and my admiration and respect for the company I would keep. The space and the artists who show there from to time. Idiosyncratic, often quiet works that talked loudly to me.” As Sharpe sums it up: “Robert and Randi are professional, supportive, and honest. They work hard for the artists that exhibit there.”

And if these artists can avoid cooking up any more unexpected TV dinners, then it’s likely they can expect continuing success with the help of the king street gallery.

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