Gallerist profile: Stuart Purves

Written by: Fiona Gruber
When Stuart Purves was a child, he’d help carry Arthur Boyd’s paintings and pass the time of day with Sidney Nolan, John Perceval and Albert Tucker.
Home was the Australian Galleries, founded by his parents Anne and Tam in 1956. Stuart was ten when it opened and that’s when his real education began, he says.
‘School didn’t make sense,’ he explains, ‘but I got all the information I needed sitting and listening under the kitchen table.’
Purves, a flamboyant and influential figure in the contemporary art world, is 73 and has been in the business for 53 years.
After his father’s death in 1968 he ran the gallery with his mother until her death in 1999.
There are now two galleries in Derby Street, Collingwood, and a third in Sydney’s Paddington. There’s also a private sculpture park, at Porcupine Ridge near Daylesford.
Earlier this year, the gallery published the first part of a planned two-volume history.

Australian Galleries, the Purves Family Business: The First Four Decades, 1956-1999 has been written by art historian Caroline Field. It’s an impressively researched work, but when it comes to archives, Australian Galleries is renowned for its meticulous record keeping. This is definitely not a paperless office.

‘We’ve kept every catalogue, all correspondence, we print out and file every email and text,’ explains Purves.
There’s also a record of every painting or sculpture that has passed through the doors since 1966, even if it wasn’t purchased.
These, plus media scrapbooks and a mountain of carefully catalogued photographs are all in the galleries’ archive, which is run by Caroline Purves, Stuart’s sister. She’s has worked in the business, on and off, since the 1960s.
Victoria and Tamsin Purves, Stuart Purves’ daughters, are also involved.
‘So if I kick the bucket, they can keep it going,’ he says cheerfully.
It’s hard to imagine a world without commercial art galleries, he says, but when Anne and Tam opened Australian Galleries, they were pioneers.
It was the year of the Melbourne Olympics and that, says Purves, contributed hugely to its early success.
‘The Olympics lifted people up,’ he says, ‘and people began to buy Australian artists.’
The greatest names in post-war Australian art have shown here but it was, he reminisces, a struggle to keep going in the early years. And, despite the fillip of international attention in 1956, Australian attitudes were parochial.
‘If you were an artist there was something wrong with you. It was an uncultured time,’ he says.
The gallery’s artists today number more than 130 and include John Wolseley, Jenny Bell, William Robinson and Tim Storrier, alongside the estates of luminaries including Jeffrey Smart and Inge King. 
His life has been an incredibly privileged one, he adds, because alongside the artists they’re have been and continue to be, some remarkable collectors.
Artists are the scouts of society, he adds; ‘they foresee things that are happening and create moments that have altered people’s thinking. They teach you to see the world differently, and it’s good that they’re noisy, he says,’ because they’re all highly intelligent and many are ego-maniacs.’
His career might seem almost predetermined, but, he insists, he has never wanted another.
‘I love artists and I love the life.’