MARS Gallery: Landing on MARS - Art Collector

Issue 50, October - December 2009

Andy Dinan hopes her gallery feels like a different world. Pointedly anti-elitist, her approach is all about accessibility, whether that means inviting collectors in for discussion nights or providing a baby change table in the bathroom, she tells Ashley Crawford.

A recent opening at Melbourne Art Rooms made it abundantly clear what sets this gallery apart from most. The haunting works of Sydney-based photographer Stuart Spence graced the walls, sombre and melancholic images. But MARS director Andy Dinan was in party mode. Film stars, models and rock musicians milled about and Paul Kelly graced the crowd with a semi-impromptu performance. Quality wine flowed in abundance. The show sold out on opening night.

But for all the glamour, one thing Dinan despises is elitism, which was one of the motivating forces behind starting the gallery in the first place. Dinan makes it clear that she simply loves sharing the art with her decidedly varied clientele. Artist Domenico de Clario says “there is no other commercial gallery I know of doing what these people are doing,” while art consultant Ian Rogers states that he “didn’t think it was possible to create a commercial space like MARS”.

As the owner of a major public relations company, Dinan had often found herself giving free advice to artist friends who felt that their exhibitions were going unnoticed. “My artist friends seemed so unhappy with their dealers,” she says. In a bold moment she decided to sell her company to Clemengers advertising agency and look into starting her own gallery. Three years of planning and MARS opened in Port Melbourne.

Dinan admits that she had little idea what she was getting herself into when she started. “I had never worked a day on a gallery floor. The only thing I knew was what I definitely didn’t want the gallery to be. Hence, that became my philosophy behind MARS – that’s why there’s a baby change table in the toilets! If I got stuck, I often rang other gallerists and asked advice. Everyone was fantastic and really supportive.”

Four years later, with 96 exhibitions, 100 artists shown, 50 interns, over 1106 sales, an artist residency program, art intern program and artist wine discussion night, Dinan says she is just beginning. “I always was in for a slow gallery career and have not rushed in many areas, [I] just keep learning on the ground as I’m going. My artists have embraced the philosophy and honesty of my business approach.”

Dinan says she chooses artists via “gut instinct and emotional response”.

“They have to meet my personal criteria which is quite clear and focused: technically perfectly implemented, thought-provoking, [and] the work needs to stay in my mind long after I first see it.
“I still can remember the first time I sat on the floor in Julie Irving’s studio and Bernhard Sachs’s storeroom and looked at those works. I wanted them desperately and I knew my clients would too.”
Dinan is not afraid to take risks. When she exhibited Sachs she allowed him to present literally hundreds of unframed drawings stacked on trestle tables. Clients had to wear cotton gloves to view the works, taking a literally hands-on approach.

Amongst the other artists represented by MARS are Sam Tupou, Bill Sampson, Wendy Sharpe, John Scurry, Zoe Amor, Anne Judell, Jud Wimhurst, Emma de Clario, Christian Froelich and Saffron Newey.

Dinan’s intern program is another twist to the usual running of a commercial gallery. “Interns are not paid but receive the hot lunch program, where a hot lunch is provided and every one in the gallery sits down, including whatever customers are there. A table is pulled out and wine is poured, the gallery and art scene are discussed and some great young and old ideas are tossed around,” says Dinan. “This is often when I receive feedback and hear about young artists in town.”

MARS have also funded their first young artist residence project. Sculptor Christian Froeleich was selected and financed to travel to regional New South Wales for a residency with another MARS artist, Anne Judell.

“I firmly believe this amazing experience will provide Christian with some life-enriching experiences that only living in the bush and working with an artist of Anne’s repute could provide. Each year a MARS artist will get to experience a regional retreat with a senior artist.”
She also hosts free wine and cheese discussion nights on major art issues that “the media show no interest in, yet artists remain committed to,” she says. These have included artists Godwin Bradbeer and William Kelly discussing war and art, a reading by political poet Joel Deane and a session with Paul Kelly.

“Trends come and go but really, great art is so hard to find,” she says. “There is so much mediocrity. I hope my clients buy from the heart and not just for investment, but having said that, if you had bought a Sam Tupou in his first show at MARS you’d be laughing now. And I have constant calls for those damned skulls!”

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