Lisa and Ken Fehily: More than a feeling - Art Collector

Issue 73, July - September 2015

On opening Fehily Contemporary in 2011, collectors-turned-dealers Lisa and Ken Fehily wanted to create a welcoming space in support of artists, art lovers and collectors alike. Lisa talks to Helen McKenzie about doing it thier way.

Fehily Contemporary dealers Lisa and Ken Fehily, photographed for Art Collector Issue 73, July - September 2015. Portrait by Zan Wimberley.

Arriving at Fehily Contemporary Gallery in Collingwood late on a Saturday afternoon, there is a warm welcome and a loud (for a gallery) buzz. An artist, a collector, a handful of gallery hoppers and the owners are happily engaged in noisy conversations about art. This is exactly what Lisa Fehily hoped would be happening when she and husband Ken took the “crazy” step to open their own gallery in 2011.

Lisa concedes that they were latecomers to visual art, that the family’s interest had been more in books and reading. 12 years of collecting turned the pair into avid supporters of contemporary Australian art. “Collecting changed our life,” says Lisa. “Understanding the power of the visual took us to a totally different place, engaging with artists, institutions and other collectors.”

Lisa backed up her interest in art and embarked on a practical visual arts degree at Melbourne’s Monash University. “I challenged myself to find out what it meant to be an artist. It was the turning point. I realised that not only do you have to be in a certain headspace, you then have to plan and execute. It is solitary, with long hours. It was at that point that Ken and I discussed the idea of a gallery to help artists,” Lisa says.

The gallery is in a two-storey building comprising a large downstairs space and reception. Upstairs there is a smaller gallery and an open plan area that includes accessible racks that act as a storeroom.
Fehily Contemporary represents 22 artists working on a variety of mediums and at various stages in their career. Lisa describes the artistic make up of the gallery as “an apple pie with all different slices – Abdul Abdullah is a young emerging artist, we want to help along his journey. Then we have established artists like Kate Shaw, whose solo show we are taking to Art15 in London. After working with glass for the Venice Biennale, Penny Byrne wants to further develop her practice in bronze. Different artists working in different mediums and at different stages of their career, which satisfies different collectors.”

The gallery business is challenging, says Lisa. “In order to be successful you have to build relationships with both collectors and institutions. To be sustainable you have to have artists that are collectable, then others that are more conceptual that appeal to institutions. At least 80 per cent of collectors still ask for painting.”

Lisa is keen to develop inroads into the London art market and to form relationships with British institutions: “We are going to concentrate on London. I am originally from there – I understand the psyche and the visual arts world there is thriving,” she says. Fehily Contemporary will attend this year’s Sydney Contemporary but Lisa is more circumspect about other international fairs. “International art fairs are very expensive. Often you find that the works are bought by Australians and it’s not really about developing the artists internationally.”

Recently Fehily Contemporary hosted a special exhibition of a Melbourne collector group’s works. The show allowed the five-year-old group called Local Collection the chance to view their 30 amassed works in one space. Extending on the theme, the gallery organised a forum with advice for people wanting to form a collector group.

Lisa clearly remembers their early collecting years and feeling intimidated in some galleries. “It was as if the gallerists were saying ‘do you know what you are looking at?’ and panicking that you were saying something ridiculous. We wanted to do the gallery our way. We felt you should be as open as possible and encourage the wider audience. It doesn’t mean that we wanted to dumb down, it’s about giving the audience something to take away with them and to keep looking.”

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