Michael Lett: Fiercely fair - Art Collector

Issue 60, April - June 2012

Josie McNaught talks to straight-talking dealer Michael Lett, currently the envy of the New Zealand art world, about why he’s so committed to taking his artists to international art fairs.

Michael Lett knew he wanted to do things differently in the art world when as a young and hungry 25-year-old he decided to strike out on his own and open his eponymous gallery on Auckland’s Karangahape Road in 2003.

Since then he’s built up an eclectic stable of artists – the eldest, Jim Allen, is in his 90s and the most recent, Imogen Taylor, is freshly graduated from Elam School of Fine Arts. In June he’s off to show Simon Denny at Art Basel, the seventh time he’s shown in the prestigious art fair town (the gallery previously exhibited in the satellite event Liste) and the second time he’s been selected for Art Statements at Art Basel itself. A year ago he moved the gallery westward and now presides over 600 square metres of contemporary art space on Auckland’s Great North Road.

And he’s currently the envy of New Zealand’s small art dealer community, fresh from selling Michael Parekowhai’s Venice Biennale exhibit to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington.

How would you describe your aesthetic in terms of your gallery today?

If you mean does the gallery have a particular look – it doesn’t. I’m not interested in presenting a gallery look or style. I am, however, interested in working with great people, artists who are really driven and who are extremely aware of their own practices.
I think meeting an artist tells you a lot about them. You can pick whether they are the real deal or not. I think it’s about an attitude. They don’t necessarily have to talk about their practice, but at the very least they should be able to leave me wanting another conversation.

I’m also attracted to artists who are fiercely driven – and push the gallery to keep up. The shift to a larger, more flexible space is part of that and we are able to be more ambitious than we could be at the old Karangahape Road gallery, and the artists respond to that. If they want to punch a giant hole in the wall, or dig into the floor, if it’s to follow through with a great idea, I’ll let them.

What is it about you and your gallery that appeals to the powers at Art Basel?

Art Basel is the most important art fair in the art world right now and if you want to be engaging with a global audience you need to be there. The energy is addictive too. I caught the bug of art fairs early on when they seemed to be on the rise internationally. Originally we got into Liste in 2004 and we’ve stayed focused on Basel through being in Statements [the Art Statements section in Art Basel]. But in the future I’d be just as happy back at Liste. In saying this I’m delighted that another New Zealand gallery, Hopkinson Cundy, is showing there, waving the flag for New Zealand.

Two NZ galleries at Basel but none from Australia. Any theories on why they’ve been left off the list – again?

It’s surprising, and I don’t really know the answer. Australia used to have a strong presence via Sarah Cottier Gallery and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. I suspect it has a lot to do with the Biennale of Sydney being right in the middle of Basel. You kind of have to choose one or the other. But I don’t understand why more Australian galleries don’t apply – they are missed. We’ll see what happens next year.

You are the dealer who travels the furthest to be at Basel. Surely it’s not just to sell art?

It’s heartening to sell, but it’s also extremely important for New Zealand to just have a presence, mainly because it normalises contemporary art from this region for European and American audiences – and it keeps New Zealand in collectors’ and curators’ minds. When we first started going to fairs, people would just ask about Lord of the Rings. Thankfully that has stopped and now they come into the booth because they just want to look at good work. The fact that our signage says Auckland, New Zealand is almost irrelevant.

What other fairs are you attending this year?

We’re presenting a group of artists at Art Cologne in April as well as showing Simon Denny at Art Basel. We’re also participating in a satellite fair in Melbourne. That’s it for now.

Why did you become an art dealer?

I’ve always had a very clear conviction that I wanted to work in a gallery. Before I set up my own space, I was of course involved with another gallery, but quickly realised I wanted to work with artists in a closer, more collegial way. I also felt there was a group of artists who weren’t as well represented as they could be. The aspiration was to be very pro-artist and involved in a very hands-on way with the exhibitions, not just working with the final results in a dislocated kind of way. •

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