Visual Arts

Adapt or die, says art guru Susan McCulloch

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Susan McCulloch is one of the most respected writers on the visual arts in Australia. Little wonder given her father was art critic Alan McCulloch whose Encyclopedia of Australia Art was first published in 1968 and became the bible for anyone working in the visual arts.
Many of the luminaries listed in the encyclopedia were close friends of the McCullochs, who lived at Whistlewood in Shoreham on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. Susan McCulloch still lives in the original homestead which has also long doubled as her art consultancy and publishing base.
McCulloch was art critic for The Australian from 1994 to 2003 and was its national art critic until 2004 and is now a contributing writer for the Australian Financial Review and the Qantas magazine. She is also co-author and publisher of McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art, McCulloch’s Contemporary Aboriginal Art: the complete guide and other books on Australian art. Last year she was appointed Adjunct Professor, College of Design & Social Context, RMIT University.
For the last few years McCulloch has been concentrating on her art consultancy and three years ago turned the downstairs of Whistlewood into a private gallery where she holds three to four exhibitions a year.
Next week she is opening her “Summer Collectors Show 2014” on January 18 to 19 and January 25 to 27, featuring 80 works from Aboriginal art centres around the country.
Daily Review asked her about the health of the Australian art market, the challenges facing dealers, and the changing tastes of those who want to buy art, or just look at it.
Susan_McCulloch-WEBYou run an art consultancy and gallery from your house as well as being an art writer, speaker and publisher. Do art dealers have to be multi skilled to  thrive or at least survive?
No not necessarily, this is just my history. I’m fortunate to have had a long personal and professional history in writing and consultancy on Australian art and artists. So I came from those bases into curating exhibitions with both public galleries and selling exhibitions with private galleries and more recently, opening up our family home and long time business headquarters on the Mornington Peninsula more as a display space.
How do you see the market for art having changed in the last few years?
The market itself has of course had a huge downturn in Australia. Also there’s a far greater blurring of what defines ‘art’. YouTube, digital media, blogs etc. and greater links between art and design encourage the concept that anyone can be an artist. Also art’s becoming increasingly a life style/leisure activity like cafes, wineries etc. Public galleries encourage this and need to to bring in a younger audience and art fairs which do similar, are flourishing. The ways in which some galleries present themselves is also changing. The personality of the owner is often far more visible in commentary, blogs etc. and opportunities are made for clients to interact with artists at social occasions. Economic necessity has also lead to some interesting gallery partnerships. Venues for seeing art are opening up – artists are opening their studios and houses for showings and home galleries such as ours are on the rise too. It’s a case of “adapt or die”.
Can a gallery survive online only or does it need a bricks and mortar presence to give buyers  human interaction with the dealer,  and by extension the artist?
Some galleries seem to do very well online. However I suspect that for the majority of online sales, while the initial contact may be through a website, the follow through by the dealer or artist is what really clinches a sale. So there’s still an interaction between buyer and seller, even if not in physical sense. Galleries are still much needed. How are new talents going to be aired, and artistic reputations made unless through seeing the work of upcoming  artists in reality? And people will always want to see the real thing. It’s just that ways and places in which people can see art are broadening.
Why do you you think galleries are closing in Australia?
The general downturn in the whole retail sector carried art along with it. Times are changing too about how people want to experience art, as I said above. Gallery owners also may wish to move on for personal reasons. However as some galleries are closing, or transforming themselves into project-based entities, new ones are opening. How long they will last is anyone’s guess. But it does indicate a renewed faith. Certainly there’s a definite public eagerness to both explore art and buy it. However more than ever galleries need to find new ways of showing and proactively marketing their artists and their work rather waiting passively for clients to come to them. Those who crack this seem to be doing well.
Why is there an art boom in many overseas centres but not here?
If recent auctions are any indicator things are definitely looking up here, but yes a boom time is far away… Internationally the wealth is just enormous and there are whole new levels of it with  fresh wealthy, and super wealthy, buyers from Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere.  Europe, the UK, the US also have a far more integrally established cultural base that blossoms once the economy improves even slightly. Then there’s the constant search for the new, hottest art place. There’s a kind of fervour about this.  China, London, Paris, Berlin have all been hailed as the contemporary art capitals of the world in the recent past. Now it’s Brazil’s turn and maybe Colombia’s next. Art fairs like Art Basel, Art Cologne, Art Basel Miami Beach etc. all help create a buzz and position art as a ‘must have’ commodity. We’re too far away and too insular in our art and its market to be a part of this – yet.
Do you think the much criticised Royal Academy show in London “Australia” set back the progress of Australian art in being part of the global conversation about art?
Yes. Although maybe we’re the ones most wounded by the reviews and the rest of the world hasn’t noticed!? A sad enough commentary on our invisibility if so. But it certainly hasn’t encouraged the perception of Australia as one of the world’s fine or most interesting art countries and it’ll be hard to now work from a defensive base to overcome this.
Is Australian art understood outside Australia?
Not a lot, although galleries such as Michael Reid Berlin and those who show in international art fairs are making inroads. This isn’t to say either that a number of contemporary artists don’t have successful international careers. Many position themselves not as ‘Australian’ artists but those who working in a particular medium or genre. Recent shows of indigenous art in Paris, Holland and the US have helped lift the profile a bit of that art to some degree. However our art and its market is largely still quite insular. Again this doesn’t mean it’s not successful here – just that it’s still by and large a world unto itself. We need to be discovered as the next hottest art country …. if only.

Claude Carter, Limestone Ridge at Goonboorooru, 2013
Claude Carter, Limestone Ridge at Goonboorooru, 2013

Do you show only Aboriginal art?
At the moment yes, but we have a non indigenous show planned and will be working with galleries to show other contemporary and modern art.
Is the market for indigenous work the same as for non-indigenous work?
Sort of, in that a number of galleries show the work of both indigenous and non indigenous artists and their clients for both may be the same, although of course there are always those who prefer just one genre or the other. Buyers are at about the same level of knowledge – ranging from extremely well informed to those just starting out.
Which work sells best for you?
Our shows are a bit like an exhibition version of our book Contemporary Aboriginal Art that documents the work of 80 plus arts centres from around Australia. We’re showing, for example, more than 70 works from around Australia for this summer show. This variety of styles and range of prices works well for us. The stunning colour paintings of leading and emerging artists of the APY Lands, barks from Arnhem Land, ochres from the Kimberley, Eastern Desert art from the Utopia and the Bagu firemaker figures from Queensland all do well for us  – also some of the new talents we spot when out and about up north.  Provenance ought matter when selling or buying any art – our name and history definitely helps.
Do you sell work to overseas collectors? How do you market to them?
A bit. We work in partnership with some overseas galleries and occasionally sell direct to individuals through our website and those who sign up to our email newsletter.  Also we get quite a few international visitors here.
Is next week’s exhibition a case of going where the money is? The Mornington Peninsula is where many art collectors have holiday homes and farms – are these your buyers?
To some degree. However it’s definitely not a case of us ‘going where the “money” is. We’ve been here for 63 years. For about 45 of those years this area was largely sheep and orchard country. My parents, the author art critic, Alan McCulloch, founding director of the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, and my mother, Ellen McCulloch an actress and writer came to live on the Peninsula with me as a baby in 1951.
They were both Australians but had lived in the US, Paris, Positano and London for some years. I grew up hearing that one day this area would be what Long Island is to New York, Provence is to Paris and Tuscany is to Rome. They could see the potential. Our small cottage Whistlewood, built in the 1870s by one of the early white settler families, was much visited by now famous artists such as Brack, French, Tucker, Blackman, Godfrey Miller and many others, as well as writers, publishers, theatre people, musicians and international arts friends such as Clement Greenberg, Oscar Hammerstein, Friedrich Hundertwasser and many others.
My dad’s studio (which we still work in) was designed and built entirely by him and Arthur Boyd in 1951. We have a ‘McCulloch room’ that shows a lot of that memorabilia. Our clients to date are largely local permanent or part time residents with a few established collectors and consultants, although we have quite a few Melbourne and interstate clients too. Within a few kilometres of us are some of the current biggest art collectors in the country, but they probably haven’t heard of us in this context yet, and/or have their art buying sorted in other ways. We’d love to show them some of the early history of the artists whose works they’re paying millions of dollars for though!
Will the artists be in attendance?
We’re showing the work of more than 100 artists from many different regions, so they won’t all be! Five per cent of all sales of this show go to the workshop programme of our Mornington Peninsula Indigenous arts centre Baluk Arts whose works we’re also showing. Baluk is one of only two Indigenous arts centres in Victoria and represents Indigenous artists both from the Peninsula and those from elsewhere living here.  One of their artists is represented in Melbourne Now at the NGV and they also work with other artists such as stencil artist as Regan Tamanui (Ha Ha) in ochre stencils on paper and other contemporary work. Baluk artists, directors and the arts centre manager will be opening the show for us.
What are your long term plans for Whistlewood?
Art consultancy and exhibitions are obviously the focus, but there’s always been involvement of all the arts here – writing, literature, design, music, dance, theatre, which we’ll be building on through a program of talks, conversations, lunches and other events. We’ve also always had artists and writers making art here so an artist or writer in residency programme’s a distinct possibility.
[box]The Summer Collector’s Show 2014
Sat & Sun Jan 18 & 19 | Sat -Mon Jan 25-27. 11am–5 pm
Opening celebrations: Friday January 17, 5.30 pm
Curators floor talk: Saturday January 25, 3 pm
642 Tucks Road, Shoreham, 3916
T: 03 59 898282. M: 0419 896473
More information is available at
Featured image: Maringka  Baker, Minyma Kutjarra, 2013, acrylic on linen, 150 x 200 cm. [/box]

13 responses to “Adapt or die, says art guru Susan McCulloch

  1. My limited experience reflects all of those comments – But with one addition – when I was in France and introduced as an Artist I was instantly greeted with enthusiasm – the fact that I didn’t speak French didn’t matter a jot. Where as here in Australia when I am introduced as an artist people seem to ask what’s your real job? before inquiring about my art. Its a cultural chasm of appreciation of art and music in general that sets Australia apart from the rest of the world!

    1. the french love art, that is why.
      you d get the same reaction in aussie as in britain or the usa.
      anglophones don t value art unless the artist gets rich from it. wait until that happens before you introduce yourself as an artist here.

  2. Well argued. As long as Australia insists on following the transatlantic art world, we will seem like a pale imitation. We could do worse that to cultivate stronger links with the creative energies closer to hand, particularly in southern Africa and America.

    1. I so agree, Kevin. There is no consciousness of the Pacific community and the interconnections between indigenous and migrant (Asian + European) peoples in each location. Instead a continuing nostalgia for recognition from Britain, where royalist and patronizing colonial attitudes persist. A Pacific-centered vision opens up huge opportunities for mutual learning. Just developing ‘N-S Pacific Cultural Landscapes: Preserve – Interpret – Design – Transform.’ Join us?

  3. Australian art remains parochial as we need to discuss and flaunt our Australian-ness, not run away from it. Aboriginal art is a beginning to this end but it is not our only Unique Selling Position. C’mon Aussie we’re Strayan, We love the cultural hegemony and myth of the country boy, the political football of boat people and the peak leadership of the cultural landscape of mateship stemming from the Diggers. Like any good psychologist knows embrace who you are, follow and understand your values and a true person or culture will emerge. We still dont know and until we get serious about cultures around us and within us we will hardly be respected nor be seen to be serious. MATE…us colonialists need to rejoice in cultures surrounding us. Not trying to win an interview for a job where one side of the desk knows already that you wont get the job and the other remains hopeful. Embrace and understand ourselves…our Asian neighbours and stop this relentless hopefulness at an interview trying to get acceptance.
    At one time the US said bugger you to the Europeans and look at what happened.
    In Australia we have value, stop pretending otherwise because others are telling you so. Do it on your own terms and the hub will attract the consumer and art lover. It will be a real Humdinger mate! @jancleveringa

  4. is she supposed to be the sunday reed of mornington peninsula?
    is buying art like buying a suitcase or a new car? you start off with a couple of extra shoes to pack and no ideas and come back with a vuitton or something?
    she is part of the problem.
    art wants a patron and it wants ideas to inform the works of artists. all the rest belongs at spotlight in the discount bins. which perhaps is what she means.

    1. Sunday Reed – LOL. That group were so pretentious – a group of lost souls from the middle class aping European ‘sets’. Nothing much has changed in the scene they call the fine arts in this country. The artist who felt so welcome in France is really pretentious too, honestly!!!!
      Don’t know about patrons though – in the end they are controlling – like volunteer boards members living out their dreams, culminating in another so called ‘set’.
      Too may artists get caught up in this ‘express yourself’ bullshit and think other people should think it is 1. interesting and 2. pay money for it.
      At the end of the day people just want something meaningful to hang on the walls – we are so sick of statements.

  5. No mention of the art, besides indigenous art, that was not criticised in the RA show; the Heidelberg School. The circle of Boyd and mcCulloch was rightly criticised. Boyd and McCulloch were nepotistic sycophants that did much to degrade great artists of their time (Ramsey, Dargie, and Bell) and artist of the past (the Heidelberg School) and have finally had their comeuppance. Yay!

    1. Guess you’ve never heard of The Golden Age of Australian Painting: Impressionism and the Heidelberg School by Alan McCulloch…

  6. Interesting perspective Susan and have thoroughly enjoyed various comments in response.
    I am from a technical background, however use art to inspire our every day…..and it does. Many works initially only entered our collection because the artist’s background could be found in ‘McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art’. As such, our art appreciation developed and other criteria now also impact upon our collecting.
    We have collected art since our university days almost 40 years ago and enjoy every piece we have purchased (over 250!) from a wonderful range of sources and prices including charity (fine art) exhibitions, artists’ studios, commercial galleries, art auctions, ‘opp’ shops and broccantes (flea markets) in France, developing countries….to name a few.
    The style of exhibition Susan refers to, certainly meets the needs of one market ….‘fine art’ for a particular social/financial sector, however a sustainable broader base is important.
    Perhaps we need a patron as Zuben suggested, to champion a full spectrum of opportunities and venues where art inspiration and collecting can be fostered.
    Two questions I ask (sub-consciously!) when purchasing, are: will we keep coming back to ‘this artwork’ for inspiration, and, could this artist’s skill and development have earned them a place in McCulloch’s Encyclopedia!
    Returning from her recent travel to New York, my daughter presented me with a tee-shirt sloganed “Do I Really Need to Buy More Art”. I say, “Buy more art”!
    (ps. love the Maringka Baker accompanying the interview- Maringka’s work inspires our days!)

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