Book Review: In a World of Galleries

Written by: Emeritus Professor Christopher Wallace-Crabbe

Christopher Heathcote, Inside the Art Market: Australia’s Galleries, a History: 1956-1976, Thames & Hudson.

Plenty enough of the books about visual arts, art histories move forward painter by painter. It is something different and welcome to read how our art has galloped ahead, gallery by gallery. In this new book Christopher Heathcote handles the later post-War period, 1956-1976, in this way.
Heathcote’s history is meticulously end-noted, chapter by chapter, but it is above all a damn good read. Those galleries had people in them, and these could be colourful or opaque characters. Thus we glimpse a chilly John Reed “daintily eating a bunch of grapes off a bone china plate, using a silver knife and fork to do so” or Rose Skinner in Perth, “with the air of a Biblical matron by Titian”.
After a brief opening flurry, chapters two and three establish the book’s tone with surveys of Melbourne and Sydney in the late 1950’s. Accordingly, we focus on the two Purveses in their brand-new Australian Galleries, and then on Macquarie Galleries, “ the cornerstone of Sydney society”. Each of these two chapters drives forward from there, taking individual artists on board. For example, Williams and Brack in the former, then the “Charm School” painters in chapter three. Charm is not one of the major virtues, after all.
The immensely readable history then fares forward through art’s seasons of “a second wave”, quickening, pausing and turbulence, in its tactic of putting frames around our history. The book has its painter heroes – all of them male – from Dobell and Nolan through to Olsen. The age was like that, it must be confessed, but Anne Purves comes up as the prime gallerist, if that’s a consolation. And Marianne Baillieu “excelled at the thin hang”.
Further, there’s a later chapter that records the feminist reaction to the so-called Fred, Len and Rudy gang. Oh yes, no women painters gained gold star quality back then. Another book will talk about this, of course. But Arthur Boyd remains pretty much the innocent boy, I’m glad to say.
Heathcote’s clever narrative bounds through those bright galleries of the time, skewering odd creatures as it goes. Or dramatizing them, vividly: I think of Frank Watters saying, “You either run around trying to nick artists from other galleries or not, we chose not to”; or Nolan wanting ”to exhibit works which he had sold privately, and was borrowing back for the show”; yet again, I like the executive who eagerly purchased a canvas, having turned it down for a lower price, previously.
History steams along through the seventies’ boom time, as busy as the text was in earlier chapters, until Inside the Art Market closes finally, with the cryptic utterance, “But not art dealers.”
Why not? Ah well, you should go out, buy this seductive book and find out.