Tolarno Galleries: "...Everything Else Follows" - Art Collector

Issue 15 January-March 2001

Bridget Crone talks to the director of Tolarno Galleries and discovers an enthusiastic advocate of contemporary art…

It is a successful breed of gallerist that can combine a comprehensive knowledge of Australian art with an astute business acumen and an intimate knowledge of the art scene. Under this criteria, Jan Minchin has, as they say, good breeding. Over and above, however, the director of Melbourne’s Tolarno Galleries is best known for her enthusiasm for contemporary art. As one collector who has bought from Tolarno for more than a decade says, it is “Jan’s enthusiasm and genuine enjoyment of the work” that keeps him going back.

Minchin began her arts career as Curator of 20th Century Australian Art at the National Gallery of Victoria, specialising in art from 1900 to 1960, and has co-authored two books on Australian art – The George Bell School (with Mary Eagle), and Thea Proctor: The Prints (with Roger Butler). She came to work at Tolarno Galleries in 1989 when the founder, Georges Mora, was thinking of retiring, and shetook over the gallery, relocating to Fitzroy after his death in 1992.

Flinders Lane in central Melbourne has been reinvented as a contemporary art precinct in recent years. It’s a vibrant and diverse location, a profile Tolarno has helped build. The gallery is on the fourth floor of a 1930s building, and, typical for the area, other tenants include trophy makers, fashion agencies, graphic designers and architects. “It’s very Melbourne,” Minchin told Australian Art Collector. “People have to seek you out: they come with serious intent. At the same time if you want to browse it’s possible to walk from one gallery to another. Flinders Lane makes sense in terms of culture and business.”

Yet when asked if she has sought to foster a particular style for the gallery in relation to its surrounds, she says, “I never really think of ‘style’. It’s the art that creates and continually changes the ‘atmosphere’ in the gallery. That’s the dynamic of the exhibition program. The actual architecture of the gallery is understated. I hope that it is welcoming – a place where people with shared interests come together. But in the end I think that if I’m sure of what I’m doing, everything else follows.”

She continues, “I’m striving for two things: simplicity in business and to make a cultural contribution. I’m privileged to work with artists of real excellence. I want to match the effort they make in producing the work by the way I present and promote the work. I believe that the best contemporary work from Australia stands up against the best from around the world. I participate in art fairs (like Cologne and Melbourne) and festivals because they offer chances for me to showcase the artists I represent and to meet new curators and collectors. It is often through these events that invitations are extended to artists to participate in major exhibitions and biennales. Many of my artists have been included in biennales – Bill Henson, Judy Watson, Howard Arkley – have represented Australia at the Venice Biennale, for example. Most of the artists I represent exhibit internationally.”

Recent international success for Minchin and her artist include the inclusion of Henson in the Sydney Biennale, and of Patricia Piccinini’s Truck Babies installation (held initially at Tolarno Galleries in 1999) at the 2000 Kwangju Biennale, complete with Korean subtitles added to the video component. Tim Johnson’s paintings were selected for a group exhibition at the LA Museum of Contemporary Art in November 2000, and in 2001 Piccinini’s Breathing Room will be exhibited at Tate Liverpool.

The key to this success is evident in the quality of the artists’ work, although Minchin’s commitment to and admiration for the artists she works with must also be a factor in her success at promoting their work. “Whatever I do it’s always the work first,” she says. “I have to be intrigued by a new form or idea and convinced that it’s an authentic expression. And that means knowing the artist and knowing what powers the work. My business is driven, if you like, by the work of artists I believe in. I stand absolutely behind the artists I represent. If I didn’t, I could not pick up the phone to invite you to look at the work.”

Minchin is just as interested in the processes of collecting and the growth of individual collections: “A
significant collection is worth a great deal more than the sum of the individual works. The most interesting collections tell as much about the collector as they do about the artists. Generally, these collectors are not thinking about
investment when they buy because they already know very well that good art is a great investment in the long term. They’re buying something that speaks to them. They want to spend time with it. They’re not expecting to sell it. Interestingly, one or two who have investment on their minds usually buy the most radical work. And that’s clever because if you look to history the artists we celebrate are those that break new ground.”

It is thus not surprising that Minchin has a loyal following of collectors, many of whom have been with her for more than a decade, becoming friends. She admires the way they “follow artists through successive exhibitions, are competitive and quick off the mark if they want a particular work. They’re keen to preview exhibitions. They’re knowledgeable about current trends and developments and bring a critical eye to the work.” Minchin offers advice to a number of collectors and works very closely with some, such as Corbett and Yueji Lyon, who are, she says, exceptional collectors. They are “spectacular in their approach and in their buying. They have a collection of Australian contemporary art that includes whole installations and in the long term I think it will prove to be one of the most important collections in Australian history.”

Advice to someone starting to collect contemporary art? “Seek out only reputable galleries, look at lots of work, read reviews and art magazines, talk to dealers. Remember that some of the icons of Australian art in our state galleries (John Brack’s Collins Street at 5pm, for example) were bought at the time they were made from the artist’s exhibition.”
And what good reasons exist to collect contemporary art? “It’s an adventure. It’s an investment you can enjoy while it’s accruing value. It adds to the quality of your life.”

Finally, we asked how she chooses her artists. Minchin tells this story: “I was at the computer recently when some new images came through. I was shocked because I’d never seen anything like them. But I had to laugh – these photographs were strange and funny, but truly innovative and I knew straight away that this was a good moment for the artist and for the gallery.

“I present work that excites me or surprises me or moves me in some way.”

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