Solander Gallery: Capital Ideas - Art Collector

Issue 16 April-June 2001

For more than a quarter century, Joy Warren has been the undisputed doyenne of art dealers in the nation’s capital, writes Deborah Clark.

It is 27 years since Joy Warren opened the Solander Gallery in the leafy lakeside suburb of Yarralumla, in Canberra. At that time, in 1974, the only other commercial gallery in the nation’s capital was a branch of Sydney’s Macquarie Galleries, largely showing the work of Sydney artists.

In the 1970s, between 1969 and 1979, the population of the Australian Capital Territory grew from 46,000 to 120,000. Warren recognised that here was an educated audience interested in seeing art from further afield than New South Wales, and realised too that there was a burgeoning local art scene with almost nowhere to exhibit. She took a risk in opening the gallery, and has been taking risks ever since, but her timing was right and her judgement was sound, and Warren has made a lasting success of Solander. Her longevity in the often precarious business of selling art she owes to a compelling combination of optimism, energy and zeal.

Before she opened Solander, Warren was already a significant presence in the cultural life of Canberra, where she had come from Melbourne with her architect husband Robert Warren and two sons in 1952, when Canberra was little more than a village. Warren’s background was in theatre, and she rapidly involved herself with the Canberra Repertory Society as an actress and fundraiser.

In the late 1960s she and her husband lived for some time in New Guinea where Robert was building houses in the jungle. Joy worked as a secretary for the United Nations, and immersed herself in organising the social and cultural life of the settlement, establishing a newsletter for UN personnel, and staging entertainments for the expatriate and local population. She found the United Nations library enriching, and developed a passion for the Asmat carvings of Irian Jaya, an enthusiasm which she retains.

Back in Canberra in 1968, Warren opened a Public Relations business oriented towards theatre and the visual arts. One of her clients was Lesta O’Brien, who owned the Australian Sculpture Gallery, and Joy regularly interviewed artists who were exhibiting there, and published articles on the arts in The Canberra Times. She decided that she had a particular affinity with visual art, and, prompted by requests from artists for her help, she began to organise and promote exhibitions of artists’ work in the Canberra Theatre Centre. Eventually Warren decided that she wanted to stage exhibitions in a more congenial setting, and opened the Solander Gallery, in the family home at Solander Court, Yarralumla, which was renovated by Robert Warren toaccommodate its expanded role.

Solander Gallery opened its doors in 1974 with an exhibition of Indonesian art, and in subsequent years Warren established a broad base for her gallery, encompassing works on paper by modern European masters, traditional and contemporary South American and Asian art, modern Australian art and more. Warren introduced Canberra audiences to the work of established artists such as Garry Shead, Andrew Sibley, Fred Williams, Ray Crooke, Robert Juniper and Bert Flugelman, and in addition showcased younger artists, and gave many their first exhibitions. Warren introduced the work of Imants Tillers and Dale Frank to Canberra audiences. In the 1970s Solander was the first commercial gallery in Canberra to have significant exhibitions of Aboriginal art from the Western Desert and Arnhem Land.

These days there are half a dozen commercial galleries in Canberra that show contemporary Australian art and craft, as well as a number of artist-run spaces (and of course the noncommercial spaces such as Canberra Contemporary Art Space, Canberra Museum and Gallery and the NGA). Warren’s role of breaking new ground for Canberra art audiences has shifted in recent years; she continues to show new work by her stable of established artists, and has positioned Solander as the leading secondary market gallery in the region. She is a pragmatist, believing that it’s better to diversify than to specialise in a town paper, Solander shows a range of three dimensional works which reflect Warren’s own eclectic tastes – contemporary sculpture, art and artefacts from New Guinea, Chinese porcelain, Turkish rugs etc. The Australian works could be generally characterised, with exceptions, as figurative modernist. Over the years Warren has built up her own committed group of clients, many of them diplomats and senior public servants. She is proud of her role in guiding their collections, and in helping them to develop their own tastes.

Joy Warren is indisputably the doyenne of Canberra gallerists. She has been supportive to the younger generation of dealers in Canberra, and is held by them in warm regard. Although she cheerfully describes fellow dealers as ‘friendly rivals’ she counts some as close friends, both in Canberra and beyond. Warren had great respect for Georges Mora, who was something of a mentor to her in the 1970s. Rudy Komon also gave her advice and help in the early days. Warren has been a consistent advocate for better professional relations between art dealers, and was a founding member (and former Vice President) of the Australian Commercial Galleries Association. For Warren the strength of the business lies in breadth and diversity: “the more [art] people see the more their eyes are opened”.

Warren sees herself and Solander Gallery as having played a role in helping to educate Canberra audiences in the enjoyment of contemporary art. She is a pedagogue by nature, and her genuine enthusiasm for showing and promoting the visual arts made Warren an effective advocate for art in the years before the (then) Australian National Gallery opened. And she has enjoyed good relations with the Gallery since opening Solander in 1974. In 1986 James Mollison, inaugural director of the Australian National Gallery, opened the new premises of the Solander Gallery at Deakin, which was purpose-built and designed by Robert Warren, and acknowledged Solander’s part in providing a showcase for artists and a source for institutions such as the National Gallery. In 1999 the current director, Brian Kennedy, hosted a lunch at the Gallery to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Solander Gallery (which had relocated back to Yarralumla a few years earlier). This year, Joy Warren received an OAM for her services to the arts in the Australian Capital Territory.

Her trademark vivid clothes and accessories and her larger than life personality have enlivened the Canberra art scene. Her gallery, in both locations, has always had the feel of a large comfortable house with art spilling through its rooms and out into leafy courtyards: Solander is the antithesis of the white cube. Warren believes in the capacity of art to enrich people's lives, and she endorses the enjoyment of things, the taking of pleasure.