Peter Fay: Playing his own game - Art Collector

Issue 57, July - September 2011

Peter Fay is well known in Sydney as both a curator and a collector with ahead-of-the-curve taste. He talks to Carrie Miller about why he’s chosen to play a different game and ignore the art market darlings when it comes to choosing art for his home.

It’s not every day you meet a prominent art collector (usually wealthy conservative types with waterfront properties) who you have already seen rolling around on a bed naked discussing his sexuality. But there is nothing typical about the legendary Peter Fay.

How I came to see him in this state of undress was as the subject of a video work by his friend, artist Dani Marti. Fay’s willingness to participate in such a revealing portrait itself reveals a lot about one of the most beloved collectors of Australian contemporary art. As with the Marti work, Fay engages with artists on their own terms, forming relationships with them when they are just starting out and providing a mentoring role that often continues throughout the artist’s career. He is an artist himself, as well as a respected curator, but it is his generosity not only as someone who provides financial support to young artists but as someone who gives his time – sharing a book, an article, or ideas he thinks may be relevant to the artist’s practice – that sets him apart from a typical collector.

Indeed, when you walk into Fay’s cosy, modest house in Sydney’s inner west, the first thing you notice is the absence of big names on the walls. This is in part due to the fact that he has gifted 220 pieces to the National Gallery of Australia – including the early work of now big names such as Robert MacPherson, Adam Cullen, Mikala Dwyer, Noel McKenna and Ricky Swallow ­– but also because some of the work he most wants to live with has no commercial value at this stage and may never have. As he explains his approach: “I think you have to be open enough to see something that causes your knees to shake, whether it be in the gutter or anywhere. But if you are only going looking for what society deems important you’re playing another game – you’re playing the stock market. I’m not interested in that. I could walk through the Art Gallery of New South Wales and there wouldn’t be anything I would want to steal.”

As a retired English teacher, Fay could have done with the money his collection would generate but he has no interest in art as a commercial product. The fact remains though that his approach to collecting could be a profitable one – to buy work by non-represented artists early on – and yet it is one that no-one seems to take. So does he have any advice for collectors who might lack the confidence to veer off the conventional path of collecting what the market tells them to?

“When you close the front door, it’s yourself you’ve got to live with. Have the faith to say ‘I don’t care, but I like that’ and don’t put any monetary value on it. You don’t put a monetary value on your kids – the things you really love, you don’t put a value on. It’s the same with art.”

Peter Fay’s watchlist

So who is causing Peter Fay’s knees to shake these days? Carrie Miller asks him to name a few of the artists he is watching closely.

Justine Varga
A young Sydney photographer who Fay thinks has “an extraordinary ability to focus on the work” is Justine Varga. Varga creates surreal, whimsical, and exquisite vignettes composed of found objects that she photographs and then displays as photographic prints. The delicate, minimalist palette and careful composition of these works evoke the conceptual and aesthetic aura of abstract painting. While represented by Hugo Michell Gallery in Adelaide the artist is biding her time in terms of other representation.

Angus Mordant
Angus Mordant is currently an undergraduate student at RMIT majoring in photojournalism. While Mordant’s interest lies in this more documentary form of photography than photography as a pure art form, Fay, who is not interested in artificial categories as much as the work itself, sees a quality to Mordant’s work that shows “a real eye” for his broad-ranging subjects. “He’s someone I’ll be very keen to watch,” he says.

Marc Etherington
While Marc Etherington’s style of painting may be called naive, there is a knowing wink behind them. A pretty picture of a public swimming pool is accompanied by the words “public toilet,” for example. “He’s a young guy who has suddenly been hit with the need to make work – I admire that,” says Fay. “It will be really interesting to see where he is in 20 years’ time.”

Elaine Campaner
Elaine Campaner makes little dioramas that she then photographs. Fay thought her last show was just “fantastic”. Unlike the many outsider artists he promotes, Campaner has exhibited extensively in mainstream contexts since graduating with Honours from Sydney College of the Arts. She has been practising for over 10 years now, is represented by Damien Minton Gallery and has been collected by the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Gallery of Australia.

Lisa Reid
Part of the Arts Project Australia stable, Lisa Reid’s paintings are populated with everyday imagery taken from old family photos and pictures of celebrities. Her paintings, while intuitive and raw, also reveal a meticulous approach to their construction and an attention to detail not always associated with this type of work. Reid has been collected by the National Gallery of Australia and has shown in mainstream exhibitions here and overseas. To Fay, “she’s just extraordinary”.

Sarah Contos
A recent graduate of the College of Fine Arts’s Masters program, Fay first saw Sarah Contos’s work at First Draft Gallery in Sydney. The Western Australian artist impressed him by “taking on a really big theme … she had a go at something rather than just putting up work for sale”. Fay will be curating her into his upcoming exhibition at Macquarie University. “I’m really excited by her work,” Fay says of the artist who is coming to notice for her interdisciplinary practice.

Alan Constable
An older artist who has been part of Arts Project Australia, an artist run initiative for outsider art that is close to Fay’s heart, Alan Constable has become a well-known painter and ceramicist in mainstream circles, including as a finalist in a number of major art awards. While the subject matter of his paintings can be serious, his use of colour and form imbue his work with a sense of joy. “He’s simply amazing,” says Fay.

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