Tim Olsen Gets Serious - Art Collector

Issue 42 October-December 2009

Tim Olsen has been in the art business for twenty years but his recent move to a larger gallery space will see him taking a different direction. Carmel Dwyer spoke to him about some of the changes to expect. Photography by Nick Watt.

The opening of a large new commercial gallery space is always news; in the pricey real estate of Sydney’s Woollahra it attracts more than average attention. In the most recent case, the protagonist is art dealer Tim Olsen, scion of the art world. His news worthiness concerns his buying an historic building in Jersey Road, converting it into two elegant floors of plain white, oblong exhibition space and mapping a big plan for further expansion.

Olsen, son of painter John Olsen, has spent all of his 45 years living, working and studying in the orb of Australian art, a degree of exposure that would send some rushing eagerly to escape into gardening, investment banking or law – anything else. So it is intriguing to hear the warmth with which he announces his renewed vigour, enthusiasm and determination for building his business. Buying the old coach house where he has moved his main business from the previous Paddington Street premises, is both a leap of faith and a strategic manoeuvre which will give him the space to create a bigger-scale business than was possible just a few hundred metres away in Paddington.

Olsen also thinks it’s a bit of good fortune. The price of the coach house was attractive, the accountant said the numbers worked well and the location – just doors away from Susan Avery Florist and art dealer Michael Nagy and a two-minute walk from Rex Irwin and Eva Breuer – feels right, somehow. Olsen has had the space renovated with steel reinforcements for all the walls and floors so that it could carry the weight of the hoards of people he hopes to see thronging to his new gallery. Olsen’s optimism seems to have infused the whole of the space with natural light and an engaging buzz. Or is it a sense of relief? Despite a predictable volley of trivial but annoying hiccups in the first few days in the premises, it is clear that Olsen is about to exhale that big breath of deliverance.

Tim Olsen himself is a mixture of sometimes conflicting influences. Like one who has spent his whole life around art and artists, he is curiously unconcerned about fashion; making good art is about much more than that. But as one who is still young and a graduate of both the National Art School and College of Fine Arts he is a man of his time. He does not count himself as part of the “high contemporary” push, but continues to expand the ranks of up-and-coming artists, such as Guy Maestri and Rhys Lee in his stable. As the son of a painter it is understandable that he has an affection for that medium and although his stable includes Robyn Sweaney and Peter Vandermark, painting is very much his strength. “This is a gallery that celebrates painting,” he says.

Women are also strongly represented in Olsen’s stable, something he attributes to a unit on the history of women in art during his fine art studies. Cherry Hood has joined in the past 12 months, joining Joanna Logue, Marnie Wark, Louise Tuckwell, Marie Hagerty and Celia Gullett.

“I don’t set out to be the most fashionable gallery, but I stick by good artists,”says Olsen. “And having been an artist myself and grown up in that world, I havean instinct for which people are real. And by sticking with them, despite fashion trends, I’m sure I’m going to win in the end. And so will they. “What keeps me going is loving a new artist that I’ve seen or seeing ways that we can make things better and better. The thing that makes me really happy is seeing how some artists who came to me with nothing now have houses and studios and trips overseas. People like Guy Maestri, Charlie Sheard, a young guy called Paul Davies, Celia Gullett, Tim Sommerton, and Matthew Johnson for that matter. Marie Hagarty is another one, and Philip Hunter. These are all artists who are all in major institutions.”

Despite his protestations about “high contemporary” art, Olsen does admit that he’s interested in making the new gallery “more cutting edge, tougher in terms of the art we show”. The new space is a fresh start, an opportunity to redefine himself. “I’ve always had problems with people who don’t really know me and who come to the gallery saying that I’ve been handed all this on a plate because of my family. And then there were certain sectors of the art community who thought that if I didn’t have a gallery like Sherman or Oxley that I was like a John Olsen annex-cum-secondary-market-young-artist-quixotic mess.

“This gallery is hopefully going to address the seriousness with which I take the artists. So, after 20 years in the business, in some ways I feel I have only just begun.”

While the sling and arrows have obviously stung over the years, Tim Olsen has a capacity for generosity towards other dealers and artists that is unusual. Ask him: Who is in his private collection? Clement Meadmore, Ricky Swallow, Ildiko Kovacs, Donald Friend, his dad. The list is long. What has he bought this year? Unusually, not very much – a McLean Edwards from Martin Brown – most of his spare cash has gone into the new building. His best art experience in the last year? Seeing Damien Hirst’s 35-foot tall pregnant Madonna, The Virgin Mother, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Perhaps it’s easier to be generous with some of the genuinely enviable memories that comprise his experience. Tim Olsen’s links to art extend back to infancy. As a youngster the family friends he remembers are John Passmore, Donald Friend, Rudy Komon, his father’s dealer, Fred Williams, Albert Tucker and artist and printmaker Max Miller. He still represents the last of these. “The most important thing I got from my upbringing was just learning how to look at pictures,” he says. “Going to other artists’ houses. Lying in bed while my parents had dinner parties and hearing the rumblings of intelligent talk.” As an adolescent and young adult he spent seven years at art school learning drawing, painting printmaking and art history and theory. From the same time he worked for art dealers Stuart Purves and Rex Irwin and, learning a different sort of aesthetic, the food consultant Anders Ousback.

For the first six years (1993-1999), Olsen was in business with Michael Carr under the name Olsen Carr Art Dealers and that business proved a successful beginning for both men to eventually branch off on their own. Early acrimony around the split has given way to more cordial behaviour over the years and Olsen, these days, says, “Michael and I are fine.”

When it comes to his own art practice, Tim Olsen does have a few regrets. “I feel terribly disappointed in myself that I don’t print-make – and I will do that again, but only for myself. There’s an enormous part of my soul that’s dormant at the moment. I have another creativity, despite the fact that I didn’t become an artist, and that has to do with being able to drive other creative people. I have a deep knowledge of an artist’s existence which is something I can convey to my artists.” His intention is to share some of this in a book called Advice for a Young Artist, based on an interview he conducted with Donald Friend many years ago. “It talks about all the things that art schools don’t teach any more. The simple things of doing a drawing a day.” When I asked him what’s the secret of becoming a good artist? He said, “just do a drawing a day. Or keep a sketchbook. And read: read poetry, read great writers. ”

Olsen’s genuine enjoyment of artists is taking another form: the new gallery website will have podcasts of interviews he does with artists before their shows. He will make these little “docos” with a filmmaker friend and offer them as an addition to the material available on his artists.

There is almost no sense of complacency behind these words. Instead, there is something of the wide-eyed kid in Olsen. And an open-mind.

“When you think you’re as evolved as you can be you start seeing something in something else. You’re always evolving. That’s something you have to instil in collectors too: don’t be trapped by what you bought in the past. Don’t be frightened of selling something and starting again. Don’t be afraid of the fact that your taste might be changing. It’s part of life.”

With his own taste for change apparently invigorating a new phase, Olsen has further plans for the new gallery. As well as buying and renovating the main building he is renting the place next door, historically part of the old coach terminus, which he hopes, eventually, to buy. There are also schemes for a rooftop sculpture garden, an artist’s flat for city visits, and lots of storage, admin space and a decent office for the boss.

“I hope this gallery lasts a really long time,” says Olsen. “It has a great feel and it’s a wonderful location and I want it to be a landmark.”

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