Philip Bacon Galleries: Straight Talking - Art Collector

Issue 9 July-September 1999

Reflecting on a quarter-century of successful art dealing, Brisbane Gallerist Philip Bacon offers some candid insights into the problems that face the Australian art industry. He spoke to Sally Butler.

Art dealers are essentially brokers between the two worlds of business and art who negotiate the traffic of aesthetic and commercial values. Cold cash meets subjective whimsy. It is an elastic tightrope from where many plunge, but not Philip Bacon. Bacon is a businessman, and his business is art. This year Philip Bacon Galleries in Brisbane celebrates its 25th anniversary, and a longevity and degree of success that is remarkable in the industry. The secrets to that success? No secrets, just a crystalline sense of purpose about his role in the art world and what he wants to achieve.

Although there was no ‘mission statement’ or ‘five year plan’ for the gallery when he started out, Bacon certainly had a clear idea of what kind of art he wanted to sell, and to whom. The gallery opened in July 1974 with a group show of what the catalogue claimed was “four of the finest figurative artists Australia has produced or been able to adopt – Charles Blackman, Lawrence Daws, Robert Dickerson and Michael Kmit”. This was an extraordinary line-up for a debut exhibition, as all artists were already well established and highly regarded. Bacon’s personal penchant for figurative paintings by leading Australian artists, including the Antipodeans, the Sydney Charm School, and later movements, was the foundation of an artistic profile for the gallery that it sustains to the present day.

His interest in art grew from being “dragged around to galleries” by his family, who collected art in a small way. Bacon recalls, “I can remember being impressed by John Olsen’s You Beaut series – I thought they were fantastic. I just loved the whole idea of galleries and particularly enjoyed going to the old Moreton Gallery with its parquetry floors and low lighting… it seemed like another world to me.” Experience in art dealing came from working part-time for Brisbane’s Grand Central Gallery for several years from 1966 while studying law. Studies were put aside when he took on full-time employment with the gallery, despite resis tance from his father who thought art dealing “a very ephemeral way to earn a living”.

In 1972 a gap opened in Brisbane’s gallery scene after the Johnstone Gallery closed. Bacon claims: “This left some leading artists who had their greater success in Brisbane unrepresented, so I started to approach them myself. They were not interested in showing at the Grand Central because the space wasn’t very good, but offered their support if I were to open a gallery”.

Bacon not only had a clear sense of the type of art he wanted to sell, but also of his role in the whole process. “I was never interested in being a painter, unlike somebody like Ray Hughes who was an art teacher and artist who then founded a gallery for somewhere to show his mates. I never had illusions about wanting to be creative, or moving in the avant-garde artists’ circle. It was the business end of it that interested me, so I was more inclined towards having a drink with a client than getting drunk with an artist.”

“A lot of dealers lead their lives vicariously through their artists,” he continues, “but I prefer to keep something of a professional distance. Obviously you become friends with your artists and get to know about their personal lives, but I never wanted to be totally part of that milieu.” From Bacon’s track record of relationships with artists, you could assume that the best friend an artist can have is a sound businessman. Twenty-five years later, the gallery continues to represent all of the artists still painting from the original exhibition, and many of the artists exhibited in the first few years. To mark the anniversary, the gallery will show three of the artists from the debut exhibition throughout this year. A large retrospective of Blackman was held earlier in the year, with shows of Daws and Dickerson to follow.

Collectors who regularly purchased works by artists represented by Bacon over the last few decades would now own a swathe of blueribbon investments. Such artists include Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Brett Whiteley, Donald Friend, Margaret Olley, Ray Crooke, Sam Fullbrook, John Coburn and Tim Storrier. However, when urged to select areas of personal significance over this extensive period, Bacon claims he is most proud of the retrospective of Ian Fairweather which he curated in 1984. He recollects, “My interest was sparked by Lawrence Daws who lived on Bribie Island when Fairweather was there, and was a great friend of his. Lawrence had a lot of ephemera of Fairweather’s – like his swearing stick – and plenty of stories about him, so I felt like I knew him although I never met him. ‘

Fairweather was always someone who interested me and he seemed to me to be obviously Queensland’s greatest artist”. Lawrence Daws maintains that Bacon was the first to define the work of Fairweather in any sort of depth. “There was a lot of scholarship that went into that 1984 exhibition,” Daws told Australian Art Collector. “There had previously been only one minor exhibition of Fairweather put on by the Queensland Art Gallery, but Philip worked hard to round up people who realised Fairweather’s significance, such as Don Mollison and Murray Bail, with a view to introducing his art to a wider audience. A lot of the work he hunted up overseas, particularly the early drawings, made it a much more complex and interesting show.”

This overseas work was obtained on one of Bacon’s many scouting trips to England, where he was offered a major group of Fairweather paintings from two periods. One group was the early drawings of Fairweather’s family and drawings going back to 1916 at the Slade School, and the other was a group of important paintings from the 1930s and 40s from the Redfern Gallery which represented Fairweather in London.

Bacon used these works as the basis for the retrospective and then approached a number of clients to ‘flesh it out’.

“James Fairfax was very generous and in a ‘letting go’ mood, so I sold about six Fairweathers of his,” Bacon recalls. “It was a fantastic exhibition and we substantially repriced Fairweathers with works selling for around $15,000, which was a lot of money at the time. Those same paintings are now selling for around $90,000, so it started the whole Fairweather thing off in a way.”

Before opening his gallery, Bacon had an art collection of his own that he’d paid off over a number of years, and always desired to be not just an artist’s representative, but a dealer as well. To this end he has maintained a stock of nineteenth century artwork and early moderns that would meet the demands of a wider market. Some very significant artworks have passed through Bacon’s dealership over the years, including The Squatter’s Daughter, by George W Lambert, which was sold to the National Gallery of Australia after Bacon located it in England and negotiated its repatriation. He also located an important work in Paris by Rupert Bunny, entitled Au Bord de la Mer, that went into a private collection in Melbourne, and was the dealer responsible for handling the sale of the prestigious Trout Collection.

Bacon has a keen eye for real estate as well as art. The location of the gallery in New Farm was originally chosen because of its proximity to the commercial centre of Fortitude Valley and considerations of Bacon’s targeted market. He recalls, “I chose it because it is on the way to the airport. From the beginning I was targeting the Sydney and Melbourne market as the Brisbane scene was so small at the time, and I figured that I would have a large clientele coming and going from the southern states”. Taking on the large premises of an old tile factory in an ailing but central area of town involved risks, but Bacon’s decision proved astute. An entire art precinct has grown around the gallery over recent years, accompanied by numerous urban renewal projects, a blossoming ‘eating with ambience’ trade, and a buzz of up-market high density residential developments.

Bacon’s reflective mood also penetrates some areas of the art market rarely discussed, particularly in the realms of business ethics and principles. He believes that maintaining an impeccable reputation is not simply the right thing to do – it is sound business practice. He shrugs, “It is self-interest and it is also self-evident that you don’t rip people off, and that includes artists. That’s the one thing I really can’t understand about this business – what bad payers we are as an industry, and we continue to get away with it”.

He continues: “Artists are the most put-upon race, they are often so pathetic and grateful to get a show with a gallery, and even more so if someone actually sells something. The third part of the equation is getting paid and that seems to be where a lot of galleries just don’t bother. They get the money from a show and they spend it, forgetting that they only own a part of it. It’s poor business practice and just self-defeating, but it is so common and why so many galleries come and go”.

Bacon believes it is an amazing industry, in that so much is based on trust. It is not just the artists who put their trust in dealers, but also their clients. “People walk in here sometimes with goods worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and I say ‘Fine, I’ll sell it for you’, and you know, there is no contract, no registration. I mean, I could just run off overseas with it immediately, and it does happen but it is amazing to me that it doesn’t happen more than it does.”

As a dealer, Bacon has been caught himself, placing artworks on consignment with other dealers and never getting paid. He says it is not endemic in the industry but certainly happens more than it should, and concludes, “The industry is very under-regulated, I believe. So those who are self-regulated and maintain a standard should survive”.

It is this kind of straight talking that appeals to Lawrence Daws, and why he has maintained a business relationship with Bacon for 25 years. “With Philip what you see is what you get. He is very straight with clients and artists alike, and an excellent dealer because he is always expanding and never settles with the status quo. His mailing list changes with each show and he is always expanding the gallery in terms of younger painters, which I think is very healthy for the industry.”

The wellbeing of the industry is one of the reasons Bacon chose to sponsor the Philip Bacon Lecture Series, a highly successful initiative held in conjunction with Customs House Gallery and the Art History Department of the University of Queensland. Bacon sees the series as an avenue to open up debate about modern art and art generally, with high profile speakers who “try to create bridges between artwork and people, rather than trying to obfuscate it”. Speakers
to date have included art historian and former curator, Daniel Thomas, and director of the National Gallery of Australia, Brian Kennedy.

The lectures are attended by audiences of over 300 people, and are held in the elegant surrounds of the recently renovated Customs House, with refreshments served on the riverfront terrace. Bacon says it is a way of “putting something back into the industry”, and Brisbane’s art scene obviously appreciates it. The good news is that this dealer, who art market expert Terry Ingram recently called “probably the most powerful in Australia”, has only just turned 50, and has ample enthusiasm to continue for another 25 years.

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