Sarah Cottier Gallery: Back to Base - Art Collector

Issue 37 July-September 2006

Sarah Cottier Gallery closed in 2003 after a decade exhibiting some of Australia’s leading contemporary artists. With an international presence, the representation of overseas artists in Australia as well as a serious engagement with the contemporary art world, Cottier’s sudden departure from the scene was keenly felt. But now she’s back. Cottier and partner Ashley Barber are reopening their gallery after a three year hiatus with a new vision for their artists. She spoke to Andrew Frost.

Australian Art Collector: Where is the new gallery?
Sarah Cottier: It’s at 3 Neild Ave, tucked away at the lower end of Paddington close to Stills Gallery. It’s a single storey building that used to be a butcher’s shop when I was a kid. It has large windows looking on to a very generous footpath and it’s next door to one of Paddington’s great secrets – a small park with a topiary maze in it – magic!

AAC: Your gallery in Redfern had built a reputation as one of the leading contemporary galleries in the country. After 10 years, its closure came as something of a surprise. Now you’re reopening after two years. What prompted you to start a new gallery?
SC: Because there is work to be done, and we’re good at it! There is simply a lot of great art being produced that deserves a good venue. Closing in 2003 was a very difficult decision, but it was necessary. Once we’d sorted out the various family issues that contributed to the suspension of the gallery it became possible to imagine a slightly different way of working; one that would satisfy our goals and fulfill a need in the marketplace. In the end, I think that the sabbatical break was a very civilised and constructive way to reinvigorate the project. We began in 1994 with big ambitions, and in 10 years I think that we realised most of them with a great deal of success. It was a very complete and satisfying project. Now we’re attempting to keep things interesting by changing the parameters slightly.

AAC: Were you looking for a specific kind of space?
SC: The hiatus provided lots of time to assess a future model for the gallery. We have purposefully chosen a very small space for this incarnation of the gallery. After operating out of large, warehouse style spaces for 10 years we were keen to approach the new gallery within a very different architectural framework. In Newtown we had a single 100 square metre exhibition space and in Redfern there were four separate spaces over 300 square meters. While we enjoyed the opportunity of staging museum-scale exhibitions, and undertook with the artists some extraordinarily ambitious installations, the necessity to repeatedly execute the grand gesture began to pall. This time around we’re very keen to operate against the tyrannical imperative for contemporary art to function as spectacle. So we have found a new space that’s intimate, almost domestic in scale. It has windows on to the street and the maze, with lots of natural light. Somehow it is the antithesis of the hermetically sealed, rarefied gallery that we’ve come to expect. We’re looking forward to bringing art into an atmosphere that is connected to life rather than needing a separate and isolated zone. Initially also, we intend to have no staff other than ourselves. We want to be able to provide personal attention to artists, clients and visitors. A small business as opposed to big business.

AAC: Did you have any misgivings about joining Sydney’s “Paddington art belt”?
SC: We’re anticipating that the move will only be positive. We operated very happily outside of the art belt for 10 years. Our location was never a political statement, just a practical necessity – there are precious few warehouse spaces in Paddington! Art galleries tend to cluster in precincts in every city in the world, whether it’s West Chelsea in NY or Mitte in Berlin, there are synergies that can be achieved and it makes the art viewing experience easy for the audience. It’s an undeniable fact that a large number of people do the circuit of galleries in Paddington. Neild Ave is within walking distance from Oxley, Sherman and Kaliman. This new location will offer a new level of visibility that can only be a good thing for the artists we show.

AAC: Although there were obvious and notable exceptions, the perception of the kind of art that was shown at your previous gallery was that of a conceptual, minimalist art. Will the new gallery be looking at different art and artists? Dwyer, Matthys Gerber, Hany Armanious, Diena Georgetti for example – made up a significant portion of previous programs and contributed to the undefinable nature of the ground that we occupied. The qualities that we look for in art remain the same as they always have, so I guess it’s reasonable to expect some familiar faces, both international and local, and a certain proportion of “conceptual, minimalist art”. It’s the work of interesting artists that will construct the future face of the gallery and it’s sometimes hard to anticipate what form that will take. Having said that, the gallery will not be replicating its previous program and we’re looking forward to working with a whole range of new people.

AAC: Will the new gallery have a stable of artists as your previous gallery did or will you be doing things like non-gallery group shows and curated projects?
SC: Initially the gallery will operate a fairly open program. I would imagine that, in time, a stable will form and we are happy for that to take shape organically.

AAC: Did having a few years away from running a gallery full time give you any new perspectives on art, galleries or the market?
SC: I don’t think that the Australian art scene allows much room for significant, rapid changes. Things have certainly shuffled around and reconfigured slightly. On the gallery front, the departure of a few good players has resulted in the further concentration of activity into the hands of a few. This lack of diversity in presentation has been countered to a certain extent by the advent of several very good artist-run galleries who manage to keep things interesting. The changing of the curatorial guard at Artspace in Sydney promises to enliven the atmosphere. The reawakening of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s acquisition program for Australian art was an encouraging move too. The buoyancy of the market has been discussed in very self -congratulatory terms, but in the end, it’s an extremely closed signifier. The popular press pays even less attention to contemporary art than before we closed, but that may be ameliorated by the greater focus on contemporary art by Australian art journals, not to mention the advent of blogs that thoroughly cover what’s going on. So, the support structures for the dissemination of art may have changed, but thankfully the efforts of artists continue unabated!

AAC: Are there any worries for you about reestablishing a base of curators and collectors buying from the new gallery?
SC: No.

AAC: Any clues on what might be coming up for the first show?
SC: The program is still under construction. You’ll have to wait and see!

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