William Mora Galleries: Beyond Rebel Lines - Art Collector

Issue 20 April-June 2002

Being something of a cultural institution by family name and business, William Mora Galleries is firmly on the map of Melbourne’s art scene. Ashley Crawford takes us on this tour of the gallery’s rebel history.

“I wanted to treat the indigenous work like any other contemporary work,” says William Mora of his decision to take on indigenous art several years ago. “Previously, this kind of work was exhibited in terms of community rather than as individual artists. A terrible amount of it was treated as tourist items, not mainstream contemporary art.”

No advocate of the conservative, this is precisely the kind of statement gallerist William Mora can be expected to make. And when it comes to pushing the boundaries, being an offspring of the Mora family could have provided no better training for the young William Mora.

The Mora clan, and especially William’s French-born parents, have taken on an almost legendary status in Melbourne, partly due to their ability to surprise those around them with the new and unexpected.

William’s father, Georges, began the now legendary Tolarno restaurant and then the Tolarno Gallery in St. Kilda in 1967. As a restaurateur, Georges Mora was, it is said, unsurpassed, influencing Melbourne hospitality with his newly continental style. His irrepressible wife, artist Mirka, would paint murals around town, and continues to spread her cheeky (seemingly everyone in Melbourne knows of an anecdote involving her) and tireless enthusiasm for art and life around Melbourne.

The Moras had three sons, Tiriel, Phillipe and William, all of whom inherited the exuberance
and love of culture from their parents. Tiriel Mora is well-known for his roles in the film The Castle and the ABC television series Frontline.

Phillipe Mora became a film producer, absconding to Los Angeles. He has recently returned to Australia to direct a film on the lives of John and Sunday Reed and their artist friends at Heide. The project began generating controversy from the beginning, with serious historians concerned that the result will concentrate on the intriguing sex lives of the participants rather than cultural history. However, Phillipe is well placed to produce such a film – the Mora boys grew up spending considerable time at Heide, and the works of Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and John Perceval were their first introduction to the world of fine art.

But William opted to follow in his father’s footsteps, becoming a director at Tolarno Galleries in 1975.

“I was there working with my father for 10 years,” says Mora. “We had some amazing first shows by artists at the time – Robert Hunter, Howard Arkley, Dale Hickey, Ti Parks. We also held major work-on-paper exhibitions by Joy Hester, John Perceval and Albert Tucker.”

Georges Mora was a significant player in those early years and helped establish the museum at Heide, as well as the Australian Commercial Galleries Association along with Rudy Komon and Frank Watters.

“I was involved when he set up both of those projects,” says Mora. “I would sit with Bert Tucker, John Perceval and Charles Blackman, cataloguing all of their works.”

With encouragement from William, Georges also gave David Larwill his first solo exhibition in a commercial gallery in 1985. Larwill was one of the founders of the ROAR Studios in Fitzroy, and Tiriel Mora had bought works from ROAR and enthused to William and Georges about the excitement of the new Fitzroy movement.

Soon afterwards, William Mora decided to make a break from his father’s enclave and establish his own space.

“Georges wasn’t going to retire and I was going in a different direction,” he says.

The raw exuberance of ROAR and their go-it-alone approach had inspired him. While he had initially hoped to include a
number of the artists then showing at Tolarno, it did not eventuate, as Mora felt there was too much of a difference in artistic sentiment between the galleries.

It was also an economic boom-time for the visual arts in Australia. The artists were keen and the time was right. Mora went hunting for his first space, eventually finding a home in Windsor Place in inner-city Melbourne. “It was a very similar space to the old Tolarno,” he says. It was also conveniently located between his father’s domain in South Yarra and the haunts of the ROAR artists in Fitzroy.

“I think I took on a number of the ROAR artists,” he says. “The success of an opening was judged on how many slabs of Victoria Bitter were consumed rather than red stickers.”

From the ROAR group of artists, Mora exhibited Larwill, Mark Howson, Karayn Hayman, Mark Schaller, Pasqualie Giardino, Wayne Eager, Judi Singleton, Andrew Ferguson and Peter Ferguson. But Mora did not rely on the ROAR group alone. Before long he was also representing John Anderson, Deborah Russell and James Smeaton – artists who have shown with him until this day.

In 1989, Mora eschewed the small space in Windsor Place for a cavernous exhibition area in Flinders Lane. Anna Schwartz and Luba Bilu had established City Gallery a few doors up, and Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi was in the next block. While Flinders Lane became Melbourne’s new art hub, William Mora Galleries was undergoing a profound shift.

“A lot of the ROAR guys went their own way when I moved,” he says, explaining that the departing artists provided an opportunity to expand his enthusiasm for indigenous art.

“That [showing indigenous art] began in the early 90s,” says Mora. “I had met Ginger Riley at Windsor Place and gave Ginger a solo show in conjunction with [dealer] Beverley Knight who didn’t have her own space at the time.”

Before long, Mora was also holding solo exhibitions by Rover Thomas, Queenie McKenzie and Emily Kame Kngwarreye in between exhibitions by non-indigenous artists, such as Smeaton, Russell and Lisa Roet, who he also represented in the mid-90s.

“To me [indigenous art] is just great contemporary art informed by an incredible cultural tradition,” says Mora. “A lot of these artists are bringing content into abstraction, which is often not the case in western abstraction. They have become real artists experimenting with colour and optical illusion. Western op-art was precise, gridded, planned. A lot of these artists are equally, or more, impressive without the need for a ruler.

“Unfortunately, about 80 percent of what is out there is just tourist art, and that’s probably being generous.”

By the end of the ‘90s, change was around the corner yet again for Mora. Rents in inner-city Melbourne sky-rocketed and, alongside the impossibility of parking for collectors, Flinders Lane was becoming untenable for William Mora. Consequently, he decided that the money previously gone on rent would be better spent on paying-off his own, architect-designed space. A property was acquired in Richmond and the ambitious project began.

“I wanted to consolidate everything,” he says. He was also concerned about his mother, Mirka, who was living and working alone in St Kilda, and the need to provide a larger home for his growing family. Thus the Richmond building ended up becoming home for Mora’s family (including his mother), and an impressive new showing space – all under the same roof. The new William Mora Galleries opened on 11 May, 2000.

Mora’s ambitions have grown along with his gallery spaces. In 2001, he spent a month in New York, taking along 10 major Papunya Tula works.

“I wanted to see if these mythical American collectors existed,” he says. “They do.”

Mora’s father, Georges, had endeavoured to find a market for European art in the antipodes. William Mora’s ambitions are to take Australian art to the international market.

“I just jumped in the deep end. It’s going to take months each year to build it up, but I’m determined to give these works an international market,” he says.

Mora emphasises that he is not neglecting his other contemporary artists. He has recently taken on Stephen Eastaugh in his stable. But there is less interest in Australian artists who have been informed by a Western tradition in the United States.

“They [collectors in the United States] believe they have their own equivalents,” says Mora.

“It’s the same as here – most Australian collectors are not interested in contemporary American work, they want contemporary Australian artists.”

Mora currently represents 25 artists. The nature of his relationship to his Aboriginal artists is identical to the nature of his relatoinship with his other artists, such as Russell, Smeaton, Kate Daw and Darren Sylvester.

He also works closely with consultant, Tony Oliver, who coordinates artists from the Kimberley region, and with Daphne Williams from Papunya Tula Artists Cooperative in Alice Springs to organize exhibitions of indigenous artists.

Interestingly, the mix of art informed by Western tradition and that of Aboriginal tradition is beginning to find an equal footing with Mora’s collectors.

“A lot of my clients have swung to indigenous art as well,” he says. But then, when it comes to William Mora, this comes as no surprise.

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