Guy Abrahams: an art dealer's epiphany

Growing up I was lucky to be surrounded by beauty and mystery in the artworks that my mother, then starting her career as a gallery director, brought home. The homages to sail and salt of John Firth Smith, the vibrant, impasto of Michael Johnson’s – straight from the tube evocations of land and sea, Deborah Halpern’s ceramic figures of joy and delight… all these created an environment of inspiration.

Art provided a place where my imagination could run free with possibility, and my father’s love of beach and bush gave me the taste for immersion in nature. Art, nature and I became vital and inseparable companions.

After a brief stint as a commercial lawyer I found “temporary” haven in my mother’s art gallery. Christine Abrahams Gallery had established itself as a vital and respected destination on Melbourne’s gallery circuit. The lean early 80s were beginning to open up.

I stayed 22 years (the last 14 after Christine’s death) and came to understand the depth of commitment and purpose that artists have. The gallery was a medium through which the energy and contemplation of the artist could be given over for the psychological and aesthetic nourishment of the viewer.

Then in 2006 I saw Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and I realised that I had reached another transition. The release of An Inconvenient Truth made me re-assess what I wanted to do with the next part of my working life.

In 2008 I closed the gallery and returned to university to study climate science, politics and policy. I spent an inspirational weekend with Mr Gore being trained in communicating climate science. I listened to eminent scientists bemoaning the lack of action on climate change and I started to think about how my experience in the arts could help move society towards taking meaningful action on climate change.

Approaching the end of my climate studies I was approached by Fiona Armstrong (CAHA: Climate and Health Alliance) and Deborah Hart (LIVE: Locals Into Victoria’s Environment) with a proposal to set up an arts/environment advocacy body. Several meetings later, CLIMARTE: Arts for Safe Climate was born.

In The Power of Art, Simon Schama says art can “grab you in a headlock, rough up your composure and then proceed in short order to rearrange your sense of reality”. The question for CLIMARTE is: can art “rearrange our sense of reality” about the state of our planet, sustainability and climate change?

Throughout history the arts have played a major role in recording and reflecting the state of human society, and the natural world of which society is but a part. At certain times, the arts have also been a catalyst for change, a call to action, a pricking of our collective conscience.

In Australia, there are Aboriginal rock paintings of animal motifs that may be 40,000 years old. These works clearly indicate the importance of the natural world to the people who created them. We have early Eurocentric visions of landscape by John Glover and Fred Williams’ revolutionary evocation of our unique bush. Now Mandy Martin’s bleak coal mine pocked landscapes, Fiona Hall’s tapa cloth depictions of our over exploited oceans, and Janet Laurence’s mystical and mysterious flora and fauna, allow us to see and feel the reality of this new human dominated age – the anthropocene.

My first encounter with an artwork specifically dealing with climate change was by Ash Keating. The John Mockridge Fountain in Melbourne’s City Square had been boarded up for over ten years – it couldn’t be used because of the “drought”. In late 2009 the plywood hoarding covering the fountain became the canvas for an artwork that evolved daily. In the early hours of the morning Ash Keating began painting the panels, leaving the unfinished work for city commuters to see the next day. Over the course of several days an image of a flowing river appeared, only to be transformed into a dry, cracked riverbed. Letters spelling out “COPENHAGEN?” appeared randomly over the dry riverbed in the final days before the the Climate Conference in Copenhagen.

Climate3-WEB
Ash Keating, Copenhagen? 2009 Photo: Andrew Noble

This work engaged Melburnian’s with the local issue of water scarcity linking that directly with climate change and the outcome of the Climate Conference. As we know, the Copenhagen conference failed to achieve strong climate action and once again the hopes of moving towards a safe climate future were been dashed, if not completely trashed.

Experiencing art by Keating, Martin, Hall or Laurence is important because the sort of knowledge that we gain from these personal, unique, aesthetic responses allow us to engage at deeper levels of emotional and psychological understanding than merely looking at a graph or reading statistics. And we need to experience both rational and emotional information to be motivated to act.

CLIMARTE is developing a major festival of climate and culture: Arts+Climate=Change 2015.  With the collaboration of participants such as Carbon Arts, The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Heide Museum of Art and Tarrawarra Museum of Art and the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Arts+Climate=Change 2015 will engage the arts community and its wide diversity of audiences. We hope this and other projects will help make climate change register in people’s hearts and minds, make them demand the sort of action that we need if we are to avoid the worst case scenarios of climate change.

We are all hoping for a less than +2 degrees world but we’re racing towards a +4 degree world. Director of the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research, Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, has said that the difference between two degrees of global warming and four is human civilisation. I’d add, and the survival of most other species.

Growing up I was lucky to be surrounded by beauty and mystery in artworks and in nature. I want the same for my children and for theirs in turn. I know that climate change is happening. I want urgent social, economic and technological responses and yet this isn’t happening. I hope that art might be one way to make people think. I might be wrong, but opposite my desk hangs an artwork by Los Angeles based street artist Ian Morely. It says “If you’re reading this, there’s still time.”

Fiona Hall 2012  Photo: Natalie Roberston
Fiona Hall 2012 Photo: Natalie Roberston
CLIMARTE is independent not for profit organisation that aims to harness the creative power of the arts to inform, engage and inspire action on climate change.

Featured image: Mandy Martin, Vivitur Ex Rapto (for Bulga) 2014  Photo: Alexander Boynes

Art Climate Ethics: What role for the arts?; 6.00-7.30pm (free entry from 5:30pm) Saturday 15 February, 2014; Deakin Edge, Federation Square, Melbourne; http://www.climarte.org

4 responses to “Guy Abrahams: an art dealer's epiphany

  1. Unfortunately the photo of Fiona Hall looks like someone who’s just clobbered a bird to death. Not exactly the pic for article proposing awareness of nature, climate change and the fragility of species!
    Got anything more appropriate? Or does Ms Hall just need the promo?

  2. Imagine if an old man who controlled much of the world’s media had an epiphany…..would politicians start wearing green ties, would we stop flying to Greece for a friends 50th, would holden start making mopeds?
    Or would we just tell him to piph- off ….. .?

    Good article…its hard but keep trying.

  3. Thank you for this article Guy Abraham
    You have spoken for me and how I regard the purpose of my practice an artist in this article. I really want to be part of this Art+Climate=Change 2015
    I have a large project to propose which is tailored for this purposed exhibition
    I would love to hear from you

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