‘Difficult Pleasures’ in Berlin

February 10, 2017
Installation view. Photo: Matthias Kolb, Courtesy Contemporary Fine Arts Berlin
Installation view. Photo: Matthias Kolb, Courtesy Contemporary Fine Arts Berlin

Am Kupfergraben 10 is a modern four-storey building in the historic heart of Berlin. An imposing structure in reinforced concrete and glass, designed by British architect David Chipperfield, it looks out across the River Spree to the Museum Island and the Lustgarten. With high ceilings, gleaming white walls and large windows with adjustable light levels, it fulfils all the requirements of a contemporary art museum.

This model museum turns out to be the headquarters of Contemporary Fine Arts (CFA), a leading commercial gallery. On a chilly Saturday evening, with the city dusted by snow, the second floor of the gallery played host to a diverse crowd of Australians and Germans gathered for the opening of Difficult Pleasures: Cressida Campbell and Tim Storrier.

The guests included political commentator, Andrew Bolt; architect, Espie Dods; barrister, Braddon Hughes, fresh from defending Eddie Obeid in court; art dealer, Philip Bacon, who represents both Campbell and Storrier in Brisbane; Andy Gomez, manager of the Michael Reid Gallery, which has been showing Australian art in Berlin for the past five years; and Australian artist, Simone Mangos, who has lived in the city since the late 1980s.

Storrier is probably the most successful painter in Australia, while Campbell has a tremendously loyal following, but neither name meant much to German collectors that associate CFA with international stars such as Georg Baselitz, Peter Doig, Chris Ofili, Cecily Brown and Daniel Richter.

The exhibition was born from a “crazy idea” by Sydney entrepreneur, Steven Nasteski, who has made his money buying and selling prestige cars. It comes as a surprise – a disturbing one for many established gallerists – that Nasteski also happens to be Australia’s leading dealer in international contemporary art.

Having spent a serious amount of money at CFA over the years, Nasteski approached dealers Bruno Brunet and Nicole Hackert, to see if they would consider hosting an Australian exhibition. They claimed to know nothing about Australian art, but eventually agreed to fly out and take a look. The original idea was to show Brett Whiteley (Nasteski’s favourite Australian artist), but Wendy Whiteley was unconvinced.

The next plan was to show three well-established artists, but Michael Johnson and Nasteski couldn’t agree over the choice of work. That left Campbell and Storrier, two painters with impeccable blue chip credentials but virtually nothing else in common, apart from a broad, popular appeal.

On the surface it seemed an unlikely combination, but the nature of the scheme was to take two successful Australians, transplant them into the environment of a major European gallery, and see what happened.

I went over as a kind of diplomatic observer, not as a reviewer. Although I was already familiar with the works it was amazing to see them transformed by this new setting. By agreement with the gallery Storrier concentrated on two themes: paintings of the ocean, and large pictures of paper planes. Gone were the gold frames used to signify value to Storrier’s Australian clients. His works have probably never looked better.

Installation view. Photo: Matthias Kolb, Courtesy Contemporary Fine Arts Berlin

Installation view. Photo: Matthias Kolb, Courtesy Contemporary Fine Arts Berlin

Campbell was an even bigger revelation, as her pictures are usually seen in private homes and more intimate gallery spaces. On the walls of CFA her watercolours took on a different dimension. They no longer belonged to the drawing room, but to the museum. One large image, of a cat on a staircase, felt like a late descendent of German romanticism. If a collector might pay a vast sum for a still life by Lucian Freud or David Hockney, why not (eventually) for a Cressida Campbell?

The point had been made that Australian artists can look as good as anyone else in such a setting, but it’s a more complicated question as to whether there is a market for their work. By last reports most of Campbell’s contributions had sold, but Storrier was proving to be trickier, presumably because the high prices of his paintings were an obstacle for new audiences. Collectors that might spend a fortune on a work by a wellknown European artist will hesitate to spend up on an artist they have never previously encountered. It might also be the case that Europeans are less easily dazzled by this painter’s sheer technical virtuosity.

The CFA experiment is at best a qualified success. If the show leads to Campbell or Storrier being represented by a major overseas gallery that would be a truly impressive outcome, because very few Australians have ever made it onto the books of the über-galleries that routinely sell works for hundreds of thousands, and even millions of dollars. It’s not that Australian art is inferior, it’s simply not on the radar screen.

Installation view. Photo: Matthias Kolb, Courtesy Contemporary Fine Arts Berlin

Installation view. Photo: Matthias Kolb, Courtesy Contemporary Fine Arts Berlin

Even in this age of globalisation Australia is too far away from the commercial art centres to provoke much interest. With distance comes a huge discrepancy in prices. Allowing for exceptions such as Storrier, William Robinson or John Olsen, it’s depressing to compare the price of a work at a reputable Australian gallery with what a similar piece might command at a gallery in Berlin, New York or London. A young artist having a first show in Sydney or Melbourne might expect to start selling works for $1-2,000, but in the big international galleries the starting price of a work by a young, relatively unknown artist would be more like $40,000.

The big-time collectors are not interested in bargains, but in status. They might buy a piece for as little as $40,000 if they believe the artist has star potential. In Australia it’s possible for an artist to never sell a work for as much as $20,000 during their entire life.

In Australia one can wander in off the street, pick up a price list, buy a work, and watch a red dot go up on the wall. In the elite international galleries there are no price lists, no red dots, and virtually no opportunities to buy unless you’re an approved customer.

The gap between the leading galleries and the many aspiring ones, is vast. The smaller galleries work hard to cultivate a consistent group of collectors, but the big galleries create an exclusive club, often refusing to sell a work to someone who arrives without a recommendation. The only reliable way to acquire a piece by a famous artist is to be allowed into an inner circle, where you join a queue of wealthy clients. The only way to remain in the club is to keep spending large sums of money. Steven Nasteski is in the club, but he’s a small player alongside another Sydney collector, Danny Goldberg. In all of Australia there are no more than a half a dozen collectors who deal on this level.

When the economy is strong, top-end contemporary art is a game that can’t be lost. Even if some clients fall by the wayside there are always new candidates from China, Russia and the Middle East. The actual quality of the work is hardly an issue, as would-be collectors will eagerly buy whatever the dealer nominates as important. Never has there been a time when monetary value had so little to do with aesthetic value. Never have so many collections been put together by consultants and curators, with minimal input from the collector.

As there are always more collectors than available works, the dealers keep their clients on-side with lavish dinners and functions, packed with celebrities. In the upper echelons of the contemporary market it’s not critical insights that drive sales, but glamour and prestige.

If ever a city was made for this sort of scene, it’s brash, vulgar, money-hungry Sydney, but Australian galleries and artists are completely marginal to the international art market. In Europe and America contemporary art is a multi-billion dollar business but in Australia – as shown by the superannuation requirements of successive governments – art dealing is hardly considered a business at all.

It’s not a question as to whether Australia wants to be part of the game, it’s whether we have the slightest chance of ever getting a foot in the door. The Berlin experiment showed that two Australian artists can fit smoothly into a top German gallery, but one exhibition doesn’t translate into a global reputation. There needs to be a fullscale rethinking of our attitudes towards art if ever Australia is to be invited to the party.

 

Difficult Pleasures: Cressida Campbell & Tim Storrier
Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin, until 4 March.
John McDonald flew to Germany with assistance from Steven Nasteski

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 11th February, 2017.