Art is meant to disturb, science reassures.
Georges Braque, French Painter
IT STARTED WITH a life-and-death conversation. The doctor, faced with what was surely a terminal illness that offered at best a scant few more years of life, had another of the many intense discussions he’d enjoyed with his niece. He’d had a rich, full and complex life: had been a professional success, built a remarkable relationship with his equally successful wife, raised four girls in a beautiful home in Sydney and seen them through the ups and downs of modern life and relationships, gathered around him many friends with diverse interests. He’d also amassed a significant private collection of Australian art. A life well lived. But he and his niece and others in his family wanted more – to make new connections with people and ideas in a world increasingly focused on the individual rather than the community.
That conversation gave birth to Hawkesbury One – a small group of the man’s family and friends who agreed on a 10-year plan to put together, over the first decade of the new century, a collection of the work of Australia’s emerging artists. Each member would contribute a set amount of money each year, the artists and works would be chosen by mutual agreement, the art would circulate around the members’ homes and at the end of the 10 years, the art would provide a snapshot of what was happening in this country politically, socially and culturally over that period. It sounded simple.
THE GROUP STARTED small – the man and his wife, one of his daughters, his niece and her sister, some of their friends. Some wanted it to stay small; some wanted to make it bigger. More conversations followed, more people were asked to join, some dropped out because the group’s ideas weren’t as they expected, or for personal reasons. For some, attending a meeting or two was enough to drive them away before they even joined.
The group would meet formally about every two months at the man’s home, set in a gorgeous garden he and his wife had created over many years and surrounded by the art they had gathered through five decades.
Our early conversations were a strange combination of boundless enthusiasm and ideas about what the group could achieve over the 10 years and intense debate about the legal and administrative structure and just what the group thought it was doing.
The legal discussion took months to resolve. We looked at the structures of a couple of other art-buying groups in Australia. (The first one we knew of, named Derwent, started in Hobart. There’s a Yarra group in Melbourne. Keeping the river theme, ours was Hawkesbury One, in the perhaps over-confident expectation that other Hawkesbury groups would follow.) No other group quite fitted the structure we wanted. Resolution came when two new members joined, a couple of young lawyers who sorted it all out in very little time. That was part of the strength of the group: people brought all sorts of talents. Some, like those two, could bring legal brains to the meetings, some were experienced collectors or had extensive contacts in art circles, some had financial backgrounds, others were good at running meetings or building websites.
BUT WE ALL shared a vision and believed that as a collecting group we would get access to artists and their dealers that, individually, we would never get. And we aimed to put together a significant collection describing what was happening in Australia during the decade the group was together. What I don’t think some of us expected was that it would be a life-changing experience for many of us.
As we struggled with agreement on what an “emerging” artist was, (“She’s not emerging, she’s 60 years old” or “His stuff sells for $60,000 at auction, he’s well and truly emerged”), we also struggled to look beyond our personal tastes and decide what would work in the context of the collection. This involved getting out to galleries, public and private, researching, subscribing to every art magazine on the market, and immersing ourselves in finding out who was coming up through the system, whose work was edgy, moving and likely to last. It became almost a mania for some members of the group, with every conversation touching on this or that young artist, his or her dealer, the politics of the art world.
In a sort of evolutionary way, each member of the group focused on building relationships with particular galleries, the people who owned them and the artists they represented. We’d often organise group visits to galleries, we got on mailing lists and developed our own internal mailing lists to alert other members about artists. Early on, we recognised that it was not enough just to show a reproduction or a digital image of a piece of art and say we liked it. We had to explain why the group should consider it. In this way, individual members also added to their own collections.
We also had to get the best example of an artist’s work we could. This was not easy. Apart from the internal politics of the group, where there were often sharp differences of opinion, there was the Byzantine politics of the art world.
The politics within the group led to smaller groups caucusing, to people dropping out, to a little amount of rudeness, a lot of arguing and a lot of laughing. Outside the group, it was a matter of getting inside dealers’ circles and spheres of influence, to be taken seriously as buyers. We began to understand the way dealers manipulate the market – for instance, slowly releasing the works of some artists or encouraging mass production by others. We’ve been on a fast learning path about editions of photographic or sculptural work and about artists releasing large and smaller versions of their work; we’ve engaged with the near-hysteria surrounding indigenous art and tried to come to terms with the cultural chasms between black and white Australians; we’ve wrestled with notions of authorship and authenticity, proof and truth, and of being told one thing by one “expert”, the opposite by another; we’ve tried to conceptualise where conceptual art is coming from and going to and to understand the place of video and installation art.
We’ve also come to know the artists themselves – to try to understand the processes they go through to create their work and to appreciate what drives them. This has been one of the most revelatory aspects of Hawkesbury One – while the art world can sometimes be a hotbed of pretension, the artists themselves often turn out to be completely connected with reality, the least pretentious people imaginable. They might have the most intense vision, a lyrical way of looking at the world and revealing it in surprising ways, but one of the things that excites and drives them often seems to be people’s reaction to their work.
THIS PROCESS HAS also revealed to the members of the group a deeper understanding of each other. Some members had never met each other before, so there was everything to learn about the other members. Others had known each other all or most of their lives. For me, for instance, the one person I encouraged to join was my best friend from school. We’d known each other since we were 12 and had remained very close through our lives. But the journey of discovery though Australia’s emerging art in the first decade of the new millennium has added even greater depth, a new excitement to our relationship, a far richer understanding of each other. Through art we are discovering more about life. Another member I had known for more than 20 years and we had remained on the interested periphery of each other’s lives. But she has turned out to be one of my closest friends and confidants. We have begun to see, together, so much through a prism of art and what it teaches us about life.
Hawkesbury has been self-revealing. I’d been looking at art in some ways for most of my life and I’d been buying art for 20 years. I didn’t much understand it, in fact. Of all the arts, the visual was the one I least understood and connected with. But the first two years of Hawkesbury gave me new eyes and new ways of responding to the visual arts because of the conversations I’ve had and the people I’ve connected with. Where once I would choose a piece of art because it would look nice and fit a space on a wall that is no longer enough. Now it has to scare me or make my spirit soar or make me laugh or cry or make me want to sing: art has to surprise me.
My mother died in 2003 after a long and very painful illness. Over the previous Christmas period, I stayed in Newcastle so I could look after her in the hospice to give my sister a holiday with her family. While I was there I would take her nighties home every day and wash them and bring them back the next day; looking after her the way she looked after us as children, a sad but privileged experience. When she died I was with her and she was wearing one of the nighties I had had someone make for her – with no back but just ribbons tied behind her, to make it easier for the nursing staff to change her, because she was paralysed. Two days after she died, I bought what I figured was a just tribute to her from a small part of the money she left me: a ghostly X-rayed child’s nightie by the Australian artist Anne Ferran, whom I discovered in my gallery expeditions with Hawkesbury. It is spooky and makes me sad when I see it. But it also connects me, via the artist, with my mother. Of course, I could never forget my mother but Anne Ferran helps remind me every day about something very valuable to me, one of the most important relationships in my life. My mother shaped me and taught me how to connect with others.
The doctor also died in 2003. He fought a parallel battle with my mother and I shared the grief of his family as I grieved myself. He often said how much he got out of Hawkesbury. We found this a bit surprising considering he had been collecting all his life. But he told us that the way we looked at things made him look at things in a different way. Not long before he died, when none of the cancer treatments seemed to be working, a few of us met at a gallery in Sydney, run by a dealer the doctor had introduced us to. The work on display was terrific: very confronting and edgy and different from a lot of stuff we had seen. It was by a young artist named David Griggs. And there was one painting that the doctor and I both loved, perhaps knowing we were about to face death, his and my mother’s, both from cancer. David Griggs called it I have killed innocent women and children and now I have cancer. It moved us; it made us laugh and it reminded us we were alive.