Australian and New Zealand Galleries Persevere with Impressive Fair despite Last-Minute Lockdowns
With just over 20 percent of its population vaccinated and a worsening outbreak of the Delta variant of COVID-19, parts of Australia entered into their sixth lockdown last week. The timing couldn’t have been worse for the Spring1883 art fair, which had already postponed its seventh edition the year prior. “It was originally due to happen in February 2020,” explained one of the fair’s co-founders, Kate Barber (who is also the co-director of Melbourne gallery Sarah Scout Presents).
Traditionally presented in rooms at Melbourne’s Hotel Windsor, due to a shift in restrictions, the fair and its 29 participating galleries from across Australia and New Zealand were forced to quickly pivot to an alternative exhibition model less than two weeks before opening. Hotels had been recently reclassified as residences and the newest wave of lockdowns meant that visitors were not allowed in such spaces.
As a result, holding the fair at the hotel became impossible practically overnight. But despite an astonishingly nimble shift to a decentered format with local galleries mounting their booths in their brick-and-mortar spaces, just two days after its opening, the reinvented Spring1883 was forced to shutter the entirety of its in-person programming as lockdowns took effect across Australia and New Zealand. The contemporary art fair is now online only, and has been extended to run for a little over three weeks on Artsy. “We had two really great days,” said Barber. “We opened the satellite fair on Wednesday. By Thursday, rumors started flying about entering another imminent soft lockdown, which by 8 p.m. that day became true.”
“It feels akin to walking underwater,” said gallerist Steven Stewart of Melbourne gallery FUTURES. “Nothing is landing quite the way you want it to.” He and his gallery partner Zara Sigglekow opened their project space in the middle of the pandemic; Spring1883 was meant to be their big in-person debut. “I can count the number of hours we’ve been open to the public on my fingers and toes,” said Stewart, lamenting the seemingly endless waves of lockdowns in Melbourne (the current one is the city’s sixth).
Discordia is another recently established Melbourne gallery that suffered a similarly stifled debut. It opened its doors in February 2020, mere weeks before the pandemic first took hold in the region. “I had one show and then we locked down,” said gallerist Elizabeth McInnes. “It felt like one devastating failure and stress after another. You make plans and within a very brief period of time they all fall on themselves.”
“I really feel the fatigue setting in this week,” said Barber. “There’s been incredible resilience up until now. Galleries especially have kept on pivoting; that’s caused a kind of dizziness.” While the current lockdown was originally supposed to lift this coming Thursday, it was recently extended through September 2nd. “We’ve been working on this fair since October 2019. There’s been so much energy and work put into this fair, and to see it get thwarted twice is pretty demoralizing.”
Despite these setbacks, the online iteration of the fair has offered some critical relief for a number of galleries. For FUTURES, online sales have allowed the gallery to cover costs and continue to operate. “We’re getting by,” said Stewart, adding that the gallery was fortunate, in that the main focus of its presentation—a series of vibrant, sculptural, abstract paintings by the emerging artist Matthew Harris—translated well online. The gallery’s booth also includes a number of haunting canvases by Tim Bučković, minimalist sculptures by Eric Demetriou, and a number of works by Nathan Beard exploring the artist’s Australian Thai heritage.
For McInnes of Discordia, being online has allowed her gallery to expand beyond its usual regional client base. “In a weird way, I’ve had a lot of contact with international collectors whom I’ve never dealt with before,” she explained. “I think a lot of them are finding me online through Instagram and the like.” Still, her gallery had a more difficult time adjusting to the myriad shifts at this year’s fair. Its booth’s program, featuring surrealistic canvases and ceramic masks by Nick Modrzewski, shape-shifting figurative paintings by Julia Trybala, culinary compositions by Lauren Dunn, and more works by Bučković, was conceived of in relation to its intended setting at the Hotel Windsor.
“It’s a very Melbourne thing to go there with your grandmother on a Saturday and have high tea, and so it’s fun to put very modern artworks in there because they create an interesting juxtaposition,” said McInnes. “We planned all these things months in advance and then suddenly had to reinstall it in a satellite space where the rationale goes out the window; I felt my booth lost a lot of the narrative that went into it.”
While smaller, emerging galleries have been dealt pretty serious blows by the postponements and shifts online, a number of more established galleries have been able to weather the pandemic relatively well. “It’s certainly far from being better than ever,” said Kati Rule of Sutton Gallery. Founded nearly 30 years ago by Irene Sutton, the veteran Melbourne gallery is presenting a cornucopia of works for Spring1883, including a sold-out series of verdant canvases by Brett Colquhoun, nature-inspired paintings by Gian Manik, and disorienting photorealistic compositions by Ann Debono, among many others.
“Nothing will replace that face-to-face interaction with the artists and the artworks, but it’s been pretty good for us, generally,” Rule continued. “People have been supportive and we’ve made some sales. It’s been a good injection of energy going into lockdown.”
The enthusiastic support from collectors and among gallerists has been integral in keeping the local arts ecosystem going throughout the past 18 months. According to Barber, that was clear in the two days that Spring1883 was able to hold its in-person satellite exhibitions. “It was amazing for that brief window where you really did feel a buzz,” she said. “Even though it was spread across disparate localities, people really got behind it and visited in droves, and sales were good. It felt really good for a moment before we all had to go home again.”
“The art scene here is regional, it’s small, and it’s loyal,” added Stewart. Despite the string of hurdles and disappointments, the art communities in Australia and New Zealand remain hopeful, if exhausted, and strengthened by their shared resilience.
“For us, it’s really highlighted that working collegiately and collaboratively is better for all of us,” Barber remarked. “Hopefully we’ll see those relationships that were forged during the pandemic continue.”