Martin Browne Fine Art: The Art of the Possible - Art Collector

Issue 31 January-March 2005

Martin Browne combined his talents as a former diplomat and one-time futures trader with a passion for art into a successful two-gallery operation. He tells Andrew Frost how he did it … and quashes some persistent rumours along the way.

Martin Browne is a great talker. He’s friendly and effusive as he fills in the blanks of my knowledge of his more than two-decade-long career and his various steps along the way towards becoming one of Sydney’s leading gallerists. The real pity of our interview is that the good stuff, the real juice, is followed by Browne saying “…but I don’t think I’d like to see that in print.” Browne holds forth on a few of his bugbears – incompetent art advisers, rumours about him old and new – while at the same time he’s disarmingly honest and open with a great line in self-deprecating anecdotes.

His gallery has two locations within 100 meters of one another – one in Macleay Street, Potts Point shop front, the other at the back of the architect redesigned and former bohemian landmark, the Yellow House. Both exhibition spaces are just around the corner from hisSydney pied-a-terre but Browne’s real home is in Vanuatu.

I ask him if there is a uniting theme to all the artists he shows, from the abstractionists Aida Tomescu, Ildiko Kovacs and Savanhdary Vongpoothorn to the figurative eccentricities of McLean Edwards and the cool minimal landscapes of Chris Langlois and the intense floral colour works of Tim Maguire. “They’re all people I like, which is one important aspect for me in showing anybody,” says Browne. “There are a number of people whose work I admire but I prefer to have a relatively calm and easy life and I wouldn’t show them for that reason. More importantly, everybody I show is at a point in their career where they have a proven track record of innovation, of in some way pushing the envelope. That to me is important.”

There’s another side to Browne’s business that’s not as well known as his profile as a gallerist. He is also a secondary market dealer. Having worked in auction houses in New Zealand as well as at Sotheby’s in Sydney, and with more than a decade’s experience as a private art consultant, Browne maintains an impressive list of clients in the market for the works of Colin McCahon, Clarice Beckett, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Bill Robinson and Sidney Nolan among others. Browne is a mixture of the pragmatic businessman, a psychologist, a shepherd of wayward talent, and a diplomat. How he got that way is a story that starts in New Zealand.

Born in Nelson and brought up in Christchurch and Auckland, Browne was exposed to art an early age. “My aunt and uncle were Patricia and Kobi Bosshard who ran Bosshard Galleries, firstly in Akaroa and then in Dunedin,” recalls Browne. “From the late 1960s to the mid-1980s they ran one of the most important galleries in New Zealand and gave many respected New Zealand artists their first exhibitions. I spent a lot of time with my cousins and we were always surrounded by art works by people like Gordon Walters, Tony Fomison, Jeffrey Harris and Rick Killeen. A lot my earliest memories are actually associated with fairly difficult and challenging contemporary artwork … most of which my cousins and I thought was awful!” Browne laughs when he thinks of it.

While studying politics at the University of Canterbury, Browne took time off from his studies when he was offered part time work in a hotel in Vanuatu. While there, he spent his free time travelling around the islands trading stick tobacco and batteries for tribal artifacts. He counts this time as a formative influence. Back in New Zealand, Browne got a part-time job working for Webb’s auction house as he completed his degree with a Masters thesis on the politics and economic development options of the Cook Islands. Although Browne says that Webb’s owners, Peter and Anne Webb, taught him a lot about the auction market, he went to work for the New Zealand Diplomatic Corps. With his knowledge and experience of the Pacific, it was perhaps inevitable that Browne’s talents were earmarked for the corps’ Middle East Division. “I was charged with the idea that I could make a difference in the Pacific and I was very keen to get in and do something,” Browne says ruefully. “But the idea of me being able to do something on the Israeli-Arab conflict seemed remote.” Abandoning his budding diplomatic career, Browne traded it all in for a more financially rewarding career as a futures trader but within weeks he was already spending more time doing what he was destined to do – he was out at lunchtimes looking at art and advising the firm’s partners on art purchases.

Browne decided to become a private art adviser and bought art for clients in New Zealand from both sides of the Tasman. He found himself travelling to Australia to buy back Kiwi artists’ work in the secondary market and while doing so built up contacts within the Australian art market. It was at this time through an invitation from the then head of Sotheby’s Australia Robert Bleakley that Browne moved to Sydney in 1987. “Robert knew my background and knew that Webb’s had captured the resale market for modern and contemporary work in a way that hadn’t been done here,” says Browne. “Not long after I arrived Warren Elstub, who was the head of the painting department at Sotheby’s, left and suddenly I was, for all intents and purposes, responsible for the gamut of Australian painting. I always rise to a good challenge and a good painting is a good painting whatever country you are in, but it was a quick learning on the job period. I remember sitting at home at night with my flat mate with a book called 100 Masterpieces of Australian Painting and he would put his hand over the caption and I would have to identify who they were. In the daytime, I was valuing works for auction!”

Browne certainly impressed his clients – among them Kerry Stokes, who advised him to go out on his own. After a year with Sotheby’s, he did just that and in 1988 began buying and selling modern and contemporary Australian art while working from his terrace house in Paddington. Browne had a select list of clients, one of whom was Andrew Hamlin who has bought works by John Brack, Rupert Bunny, James Gleeson and Howard Hodgkins with Browne’s help. “I’ve known Martin since the late 1980s when he was at Sotheby’s and when he had started his own business,” recalls Hamlin. “I’ve relied on him for building my collection and educating me. I don’t have a background knowledge of Australian art and Martin has been vital in that regard, educating me in Australian artists and their styles, approaches and ideas.” Collector and gallerist James Erskine met Browne around the same time and describes his natural talent as being the possessor of an eye. “He has a great eye for good stuff and he’s an international traveller, so he knows what’s good on an international scale,”
says Erskine. “He knows what to recommend. You go to other dealers who work on an international scale and it’s like going for an audition. Martin’s not like that, he’s enthusiastic and he’s not precious.”

After setting up a gallery at Gary Anderson’s old space on MacDonald Street, Paddington and selling secondary market work, Browne started to take on artists as well. By 1997 he was on the move again and set up shop in his first Macleay Street, Potts Point space. It was a fortuitous move. “Unbeknownst to me, there was about to be a rejuvenation of Macleay Street,” says Browne. “I would think that there is, in this area, the highest concentration of per capita wealth in any one kilometre strip in Australia. When you consider that the average price
apartments around here is $1.5 million and up, that has been fantastic from the point of view of having a wealthy buying public on my doorstep.”

Browne has been phenomenally successful in his career and has avoided many of the pitfalls of art dealing – he’s even managed a successful two-gallery operation, normally a sign of impending disaster (“I’m very cautious,” he says by way of explanation.) His experiment with a partnership in the New York gallery Cohan, Leslie + Browne ended amicably and although he says he went grey over his work on the Stedelijk Museum’s McCahon retrospective A Question of Faith, he’s acknowledged as one of the leading experts on the artist’s work. Inevitably, however, rumours about him persist, all of which he’s happy to tackle head on. “I’ll put a few of those things to rest,” he says. “I’ve never had backers! James Erskine was never my backer. The only partners I’ve ever had were in my New York gallery. And I’ve never given artists a stipend. I have never approached anybody to be a part of the stable. I approached AJ Taylor from Brisbane after I saw his work at Doggett Street and he didn’t have a Sydney dealer, but everyone else has come to me. I didn’t have any kind of grand design.” Grand design or not, Browne’s artists pay tribute to his talent. “The reason Martin is the best dealer in Australia is because his main priority is to make sure his artists earn a living,” says McLean Edwards. “No distractions to take you away from what you’re supposed to be doing. That level of support is astonishing.” Ildiko Kovacs joined Browne after 10 years of self representation and describes her choice of joining the dealer as intuitive. “I liked the fact that he was a little bit outside the mainstream art scene,” she says. “I had good feelings about Martin and I still do.”

As an art collector himself, Browne understands the nature of collecting and the love of art. “I’m forever being asked by people doing arts management courses, ‘what should I do to work in a gallery?’ The best thing you can do is a psychology course,” he says. “When I look at the way I run my business and the things I bring to it, my eye is something that has formed by years of looking at art and having a family background that prepared me for what I do now. I have a healthy disregard for pomposity or for people with tickets on themselves. To be a successful art dealer you have to be a deal maker, you have to know how to tap into that indefinable need that people can have about art. I know how it is because I’m a collector myself, about how you want to have an art work in your life.”

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