Yuill Crowley Gallery: The Wow Factor - Art Collector

Issue 29 July-September 2004

During her entire 21-year career as a leading Sydney art dealer Kerry Crowley has never granted an interview. That is until she spoke to Andrew Frost for Australian Art Collector.

Located on the fifth floor of a low rise office building in Sydney’s Surry Hills, next to designer furniture showrooms, advertising agencies, chic restaurants, sandwich bars and run down pubs, is Yuill/Crowley (Y/C). It’s the only gallery in the area and with an inconspicuous sign, there’s no passing traffic. If you’re at Y/C it’s because you meant to be.

This is the fifth location for the gallery and its director, Kerry Crowley, is alone in the gallery’s big white space. With its maze like walls, low ceilings and rooftop views the gallery feels endless. Crowley has just finished placing a floor sculpture by John Barbour in one section of the room. She looks satisfied with the sculpture’s location, stands and laughs nervously as she ushers me to a long wooden table on the far side of the gallery. As we chat pre-interview, Crowley says that she couldn’t sleep the night before. She says she hates interviews and in the entire 21-year history of her career as a gallerist, she has never given one.

Her nervousness is surprising. Crowley is a strong character – a well-known figure in the contemporary art scene unafraid of speaking her mind. Her artists talk of her loyalty and her commitment to contemporary conceptual art, and everything you know and hear about Crowley describes a woman who is supremely determined. As the interview progresses, it becomes obvious that her reticence is about being understood – she chooses her words carefully and speaks directly to the question.

Crowley’s first foray into the arts was as a clothing designer, graduating from the National Art School in the 1960s. But it was only through a chance meeting with James Mollison, then thedirector-designate of the Australian National Gallery (ANG – now the National Gallery of Australia), that Crowley became aware of what was really happening in visual art. “James would come to Sydney most weekends and we’d do the galleries and studios,” she recalls. “That was when the ANG had an art purchase program and before they had an actual gallery. He was in charge of the acquisitions.”

And what sort of artists was she looking at? “There were people like Ken Whisson, Aleks Danko and Joan Grounds showing at Watters,” says Crowley. “At Gallery A, there was Andrew Nott, John Firth-Smith, Richard Dunn, Rosalie Gascoigne and Janet Dawson. At Coventry there were people like Dick Watkins and John Lethbridge.”

Working at Central Street Gallery was Nola Yule. A former Secretary of the Contemporary Art Society and, later, a member of the Australia Council and the Visual Arts Board, Yule worked with the gallery’s director Chandler Coventry. It was then that Yule and Crowley first met. “It was the late 1960s and an exciting time to be there,” remembers Yule. “People like Christo, Gunter Christmann and Michael Johnson were showing and Channie was running it.”

Although Yule and Crowley became friends, opening a gallery together was still a decade away. In the early 1970s, travelling to Europe and the U.S. with Mollison, Crowley met leading art world figures. “I was meeting people, interesting artists and dealers who were around at the time,” she recalls. “We went to Willem De Kooning’s studio and met Naum Gabo. I also met Leo Castelli who said to me, ‘you’re going to have a really interesting life in the art world’. That was news to me! I had nothing to do with the art world as such at the time. He said, ‘I want you to always remember something; any dealer who tells you they have more than one serious collector at any given time, you be careful of them!’” And has that turned out to be true? “Absolutely,”says Crowley.

Back in Sydney, Crowley worked at Chandler Coventry’s Paddington gallery for three years. After a stint as Nick Waterlow’s assistant on the 1979 Sydney Biennale, Crowley spent a year in Paris in 1980. She returned to Australia for good in 1981 after being short-listed for the directorship of Artspace. That appointment ultimately went to Judy Annear but events were to keep Crowley in Australia. Chandler Coventry had closed his gallery temporarily after a heart attack and his artists were without representation. Meanwhile, Nola Yule had retired.

After being urged by friends to start a gallery, Crowley mentioned the idea to Yule and, as Nola Yule puts it: “There seemed to be a need, an opportunity to do something, to make something happen.” Opening in Pyrmont, the pair chose the name Yuill/Crowley, partly because the name worked better that way around, partly because the name began and ended in a Y, but also because the acronym Y/C was a pun – “why see”.

“The whole idea of opening in Pyrmont was that we wanted to take the gallery out of the 1970s chrome and leather world of Paddington,” says Crowley. “If it was really good, people would come to you.” And people did. With a stable drawn from Coventry’s painters and emerging talent, artists included Christmann, Lethbridge, Imants Tillers, Adrian Hall, Robert MacPherson, Robert Hunter, Richard Dunn, John Young and Peter Tyndall. The gallery expanded to a second floor in the building and was joined in Pyrmont by the Painters Gallery, Milburn Arte and Union Street Gallery. With art critics Terence Maloon and Elwyn Lynn faithfully reviewing shows, it was a time where a bona fide scene had developed seemingly from nowhere. What were the highlights of those early years? “The real highlight was that most of those artists had been working as well as having an art practice,” she says. “They were able to live from their work. It’s what we’d set out to do.”

After two years, Nola Yule retired for a second time. “During that first year of the gallery there was no way that I would have been able to keep it running myself,” recalls Crowley. “Once Nola retired, I decided to keep the name as a homage to her and her support, a support that has been constant over 21 years.”

The gallery had been commercially successful and Crowley purchased a new space on Devonshire Street in Surry Hills in 1988. With highly successful shows by, among others, Tillers, Watkins, Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley, the gallery was the epitome of cool contemporary art. With a move in 1993 to larger premises in Boronia Street, Redfern, the gallery was riding a wave.

The end of the early 90s art boom saw a major fallout in the art world – galleries closed, artists moved on, would-be collectors melted away. For Crowley it was a doubly painful period. Former Y/C gallery assistant Sarah Cottier departed with two gallery artists, Matthys Gerber and ADS Donaldson, to set up her own space. “It was a difficult time,” admits Crowley. “But I never lost sight of the fact that I believed in the work I was representing. That was why we survived. There were a lot of greedy artists and dealers. When [the market] slowly recovered, a lot of those buyers never came back into the art market.”

While other galleries had closed, Y/C remained open, eventually moving to more modest accommodation in the Dymocks Building in the centre of Sydney in 1996. “At the time, it was what was needed. Big spaces were over,” remembers Crowley. “If I hadn’t been in the city and the success that came from that, I wouldn’t be here now. The city and its containment made these years viable.” Building from the success of two of Crowley’s most prominent artists – Robert MacPherson and Adam Cullen – Y/C was on the move again. The gallerist attributes the success to a dedicated collector following. “There was also a group of people who had decided to collect different artists in depth,” she explains. “They weren’t just buying a single work, they were looking at groups of work and how they hung together as a collection. That happened over an 18 month period where the hard work you had done for five years all came together.” Twenty years after opening her first space, Crowley upped stakes and moved to her current location in Foster Street, Surry Hills.

Crowley has no grand theory of how she’s managed to survive for so long. Things just happened – and usually for the best. MacPherson, who has been friends with Crowley since 1972 and been represented by her since 1982, is fulsome in his praise. “She’s singly dedicated to art,” he says. “You get the distinct feeling that for others, they’re actually not that interested in art. She is … she’s dedicated. I only have manifold praise for Kerry and what she’s done. I know I’ll probably get a slap for saying that from some quarters, but that’s what I think.”

Bronwyn Clark-Coolee, an artist who has been with the gallery since 1993, says Crowley’s dedication is to both the artists and their ideas. “She’s there for the long haul,” says Clark-Coolee. “It’s not just about this show, it’s about the future, about a body of work. As an artist, that’s good to know, because she’s holding a whole knowledge of the work and can talk to people about it. You have to admire her. She has kept it going. It’s not done with bells and whistles. She goes about her business.”

Crowley can be tough. She’s virtually alone in the contemporary art scene in insisting on exclusive representation of her artists. The gallery rarely advertises and mail outs are modest. But you get the distinct impression that no matter what her managerial idiosyncrasies might be she’s absolutely dedicated to art. Is that the fuel that keeps her going? “Yes and the belief in the people you’re representing,” she says without hesitation. “That’s a major component for me. It’s that belief in what [the artists] are doing. You can put something up in the gallery and get excited about it. You are constantly surprised and rewarded by what is delivered to you. You have a consistency of what comes in, but sometimes when an artist brings you a piece you just go … wow.”

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