Michael Carr: Destined to Deal - Art Collector

Issue 26 October-December 2003

As a child the dichotomy of professional versus artistic simply didn’t apply. As an adult Michael Carr went from lawyer to art dealer with a minimum of fuss. Story by Carmel Dwyer.

Michael Carr might always have been destined to be an art dealer but it wasn’t an option he seriously considered until he looked for a career change in his late 30s. And when he finally did decide to make the leap to follow his heart, he found his path propelled a series of serendipitous meetings and alliances.

Conforming to one part of the family tradition, Carr opted for a professional career, studying law at Sydney University and going on to take his Masters degree at Cambridge. After a stint in the diplomatic service he knuckled down to life in a big city law firm and for a number of years looked like he would move comfortably through the ranks in the usual way.

But there was another side to Carr’s family life that had at least as much impact on his as the professional line.

“My mother, Pat Harry, is a painter and my earliest memories were going out on picnics while she sketched, being taken to galleries and those sorts of things,” Carr explains. “The first book I was given was an illustrated bible, with reproductions of pictures by the great painters of the Renaissance. There wasn’t a perceived dichotomy [between the professional and artistic worlds]. The house was full of paintings, sculpture and pottery and I grew up in that environment.” That environment included being acquainted with the taste leaders of the era – as such art dealers Kym Bonython, Frank Watters and Ann Lewis of Gallery A. While he worked at his education, art was never far from the centre – he took a fine arts major as part of his arts-law degree and attended the Slade School of Fine Art lectures while he was at Cambridge. He also did the usual undergraduate trips to Europe and spent an enormous amount of time wandering through the great galleries of Europe.

It was perhaps because he never considered practising art himself that he waited so long to pursue what was for him a passion that was bred in the bone.

“I was never attracted to drawing as such; I never had the ability. I think artists to a great extent are born and can be refined but are generally not made,” he says. “I always knew my strengths were going to be theory rather than practice. I was a good student and I enjoyed studying. The study of law, as I found out, is very different from the practice of law which I didn’t really enjoy.”

Carr was seriously considering leaving the law when he met Tim Olsen. “I was in my late 30s and the next step for me was to make a commitment to the firm I was with and become a partner,” Carr recalls. “I had seen enough about how partners worked and operated to realise I didn’t want to spend the next 30 years of my life doing that. And I had reached the age where you are conscious that time is passing and that you should do what you are passionate about.”

Mutual friends introduced him to Olsen and the two quickly recognised their common interests and the potential synergies of Carr’s legal experience and Olsen’s in art dealing and, as the son of the esteemed painter, John Olsen, his life-long connection with the art world.

Both men were decisive by nature and within about a month they had decided to try going into business together, found premises in the heart of Sydney’s traditional art precinct, Paddington, and opened the doors of Olsen Carr. Those first premises took them through the four years of business before they moved one block up Elizabeth Street to a larger building where Tim Olsen still operates today.

Not long after the founding of the business with Olsen, Carr had a once-in-a-lifetime coup when he became instrumental in the sale of a portrait of Cosimo de Medici by Bronzino to the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). The picture had been brought into Australia by antique dealer Martyn Cook for a client who changed his mind after the work arrived. Cook agreed that Carr could try to find an alternative purchaser
before the picture was shipped back to Europe. Both the National Gallery of Victoria and the AGNSW expressed interest, but it was the latter which was able to find the funds for what was to become it’s most expensive acquisition.

It was a moment of affirmation of both Carr’s decision to move into art dealing and of his eye and instincts. He noted wryly that had he been in Europe or America a sale like that might have been enough to set him up as an Old Master dealer, but Australia has neither the market nor the access to such works for that to be possible.

It was around the same time, in the mid-1990s, that the market for contemporary Australian art was beginning to change rapidly, both in terms of the volume of business and attitudes to collecting and buying art. Carr describes the increasing commodification of art since then in terms of the growing importance of art as a “brand”, with both artists and galleries being assessed in terms of brands and investment values.

“A lot of interest in art has been investment related, which is different from some of the earlier collectors like the Laverty’s or Ann Lewis, for example,” says Carr. “They were collectors in the true sense that they bought not with a view to financial return, but would acquire substantial holdings in an artist’s work for no other reason than they liked that artist’s work.

“And even 80s style entrepreneurs like Ian Joye had a great passion and collected artists who are now neglected [by the market] but still highly regarded. I don’t see or get a feeling that many young collectors are doing that. It’s very much a commercial exercise and there is a large element of trading. I would be asked by young collectors, more often than not, what this painting will be worth in five years time.

“In a sense the Australian market has caught up with the art markets of Europe and America where art has always been a commodity and a very expensive commodity. The only thing that stops us from reaching the dizzy heights of the European and American markets is that our market is still a good deal smaller. But the number of people who are prepared to pay large sums of money for art as investment is increasing dramatically.”

Carr describes his involvement with Olsen as a “splendid” introduction to the art business. Before long they were dealing with major artists such as David Larwill and Robert Jacks. John Olsen sold through Sherman Galleries at that time but, by arrangement, Olsen Carr was able to sell his smaller works.

“In a very short space of time we went from putting together and curating mixed shows to being able to present a reasonable range of very prominent artists,” says Carr. “It was a fast learning curve but it worked very well.”

While he was involved in Olsen Carr, another important relationship developed with businessman Sean Howard who had been immensely successful with the internet company Ozemail. As both a friend and business associate Howard was able to finance Carr’s decision to strike out into his own gallery, initially in central Sydney for 18 months and then to the current premises in Woollahra.

He describes his current stable as an eclectic mix, everything from abstract expressionists, Colin Lanceley and Ron Robertson-Swann, to a range of contemporary painters and, more recently, several young digital artists from Melbourne. He also deals more generally in the secondary market when asked to do so.

In many ways Carr’s attitude is that of a classic man of art. He is interested in the old and the new and, in a no nonsense sort of way believes the best of both live happily together. Perhaps his business name expresses his down to earth approach best of all: Michael Carr Art Dealer.

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