Robin Gibson Gallery: Eternal Optimist - Art Collector

Issue 32 April-June 2005

Forty years ago a school teacher boarded a plane in Mt Isa and landed in the centre of the Sydney art world. Robin Gibson launched his landmark gallery in 1976 and before long was exhibiting works by Brett Whiteley. He’s never looked back – until he spoke to Carmel Dwyer for Australian Art Collector.

Robin Gibson remembers vividly his reaction to his first job in a commercial art gallery. He had embarked on what could only have been a huge adventure for a young fellow from country Queensland, leaving a secure position as a primary school teacher in Mount Isa. “I flew straight from Mt Isa to Sydney. I didn’t stop to say goodbye to the folks,” he recalls. “I had met Robert Haines who had been director of the Queensland Art Gallery and at the time was director of David Jones Gallery. He said to me that if I ever thought to come to Sydney to go and see him about a job.”

Gibson did just that and was happier than he could have imaged. “It was like being in heaven.” Almost 40 years have passed since Gibson boarded the plane in Mount Isa, uncertain of what lay ahead, and all indications are he is just as happy today as when he had that first heavenly feeling in David Jones. For almost 30 of those years he has run his own business, never tiring of it, always ready for the next thing, always looking forward to opening the doors for business.

“I’m sure I’ve changed during that time – I am certainly not the same person who opened the gallery [in Gurner Street, Paddington] in 1976,” he says. “In 1976 I had a building with a huge mortgage, no money in the bank and lots of optimism. Today, I don’t have a mortgage, don’t have a ton of money in the bank, I think I have a good track record regarding the gallery and I’m still full of optimism.”

The imposing Victorian building in Liverpool Street, Darlinghurst, in Sydney, which has been HQ for Gibson for more than 20 years is a testament to that optimism that took Gibson from a boy from the bush to working in the thick of the burgeoning commercial gallery world for the past four decades. He lives upstairs on the premises, has exhibition rooms on the first floor and a vast storeroom in the basement.

Young Robin Gibson had no formal art education when Robert Haines took him on in the 1960s. But he must have been a quick study. Where Haines dealt in a giddying range of art from contemporary Australia to Greek and Roman antiquities, 18th century French and British works to traditional artworks and sculpture from Thailand, Cambodia, India, China and Japan, in Gibson’s next job the focus was on the next big names in Australian art – Brett Whiteley, Tim Storrier, James Willebrant, Ian Grant. After three years with Haines Gibson landed a job with the doyen, Kym Bonython, and his fate was sealed.

Learning from these two great mentors handsomely compensated for his lack of formal art education and he counts himself as fortunate. Gibson worked with Bonython for eight years until he closed his Sydney operation; he is still in contact with both Bonython and Robert Haines, now in his 95th year and living in Toulouse. Bonython’s withdrawal from Sydney left a yawning gap. It had never occurred to Gibson that he would have his own gallery or his own business but, urged on by a few of his artist friends, he took the leap, sold his modest real estate investment in Glenview Street Paddington and put all his hope in Gurner Street.

While a number of important artists came with him from Bonython’s, more of them had doubts about the new venture. It was the support of rising star Brett Whiteley and a successful exhibition of his works that helped establish Gibson and the new business flourished. His association with Whiteley made life interesting in more ways than one. When he had outgrown Gurner Street and before he found Liverpool Street Gibson briefly owned premises in Church Street, Paddington, where he had just one show: Brett Whiteley’s Birds and Animals of Taronga Zoo. It happened quickly and without the approval of the local council to run a gallery and have exhibitions.

“I had bought the building. Brett saw it and said, ‘Mate, this is fabulous. Let’s do a show here!’ I said I had to get permission from the council and he said ‘No, I’m ready for a show now. We’ll do it in three weeks’ time.‘ So we did it in three weeks’ time. “The street was very narrow and we had a wonderful opening. It was a nightmare for the neighbours. The traffic stopped for three hours. The police were there and I’m sure they would have arrested everybody if they’d thought it was the right thing to do. But they allowed it to go on and people eventually left.”

After that Gibson was even less confident of council approval and he continued to operate out of Gurner Street until the Liverpool Street premises were found.

Gibson’s long years in the art business seem more impressive when one considers the astonishing list of artists who have exhibited with him in either group or solo shows: in addition to those mentioned, Bryan Westwood, Brian Dunlop, Margaret Olley, Justin O’Brien, Donald Friend, Sidney Nolan, Joel Elenberg, John Coburn, Sydney Ball, Geoffrey Dance, David van Nunen, Geoffrey Proud, Tom Carment, Elwyn Lynn, Alan Oldfield, Clement Meadmore, Simon Fieldhouse, Bert Flugelman, Guy Gilmore and many, many others. One senses a great sense of community running through the lists of exhibitions, something that unquestionably comes from Gibson himself. A great advocate of artists, Gibson clearly genuinely likes the artists he shows and feels great empathy for both he established and fledgling in their ranks.

If something of a traditionalist, he maintains a strong identity as a conduit of the new in his annual New Talent shows for which he selects a handful of new graduates from the National Art School and the mid-year sculpture show that is always on his calendar.

Around 20 of his long list of gallery artists have been with him since the beginning. And the personal relationships are strong. It would be impossible, he says, to show an artist that one didn’t like. It has happened, of course, but the relationship has withered quickly.

“You have to like the person as well as their art. We’d never show anybody who was a great guy but did dreadful paintings, but on the other hand, I’d never show someone who was a wonderful artist but I hated his guts.”

Art is a personal matter for Gibson in an entirely other way as well. He confesses to having been a keen amateur painter, working in all sorts of paint on all sorts of surfaces and admits to being a reasonable draughtsman. Never convinced he could develop his gift into the life of a working artist, he turned his talent instead to promoting and representing others. This little-known passion of Gibson’s is certainly one of the things that has fuelled his enduring passion for his work, with only the occasional backward glance wondering about his own practice. Importantly, Gibson does not tire of work that he regards as good.

“The very first painting I ever bought was a Geoffrey Dance painting from Kym Bonython when I worked for him,” he says. “I am still working with Geoffrey today and I still have that first painting I bought.”

In fact Gibson boasts holding on to the great majority of the art he has ever bought – all of which he still claims a strong attraction to. Now and then he has had to part with the odd piece – in times of desperate cash need or when he wanted to buy a picture that required selling something else by the same artist in order to buy a better work.

As tastes and fashions have changed, Gibson has also adjusted his views and gradually come to appreciate the new era of photographic artists and the great wave of Aboriginal art that has been nothing short of a revolution. Occasionally there has been an epiphany.

“Art appreciation is all to do with learning and seeing and looking and taking things in,” he explains. “Quite often there have been things I have dismissed for a period of years and then suddenly [he snaps his fingers] something snaps and I see the light. Dale Frank, for example. I have always looked at Dale Frank and thought this guy is just having accidents on canvas. But the accidents on canvas, if they are accidents, are just so good. It’s a bit like Jackson Pollock where the gestures are pre-determined so that he knows exactly what he is doing, exactly what to expect. It took me a while to accept Dale Frank as an artist of some note, but now I look at his work with great admiration which I couldn’t have done 15 years ago.”

Gibson’s ability to be candid, to reconsider his views and his deep enthusiasm for art have been great qualities in an industry which has seen so much change in his time. Business stability has been underpinned by a wise progression of real estate investments as well as the long-standing relationships he has had with both artists and staff such as the painter Stuart Watters who has worked alongside Gibson for 18 years.

Retirement is a word that passes his lips only fleetingly. “I don’t ever expect to retire,” he says. “I’m still as much in love with the art world as I was when I was 15.” Then again, perhaps he’ll pick up a brush himself one day…

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