Meet Bree Delian, Director and Head Curator of the always-innovative Retrospect Galleries in Byron Bay, Australia

Work by Hagar Varmidon, represented by Retrospect GalleriesWork by Gabriel Moreno, represented by Retrospect GalleriesWork by Gabriel Moreno, represented by Retrospect GalleriesWork by Alberto Sanchez, represented by Retrospect GalleriesWork by Alberto Sanchez, represented by Retrospect GalleriesWork by Lisa Krannichfeld, represented by Retrospect GalleriesWork by Lisa Krannichfeld, represented by Retrospect GalleriesWork by Lisa Krannichfeld, represented by Retrospect GalleriesWork by Hagar Varmidon, represented by Retrospect Galleries

Retrospect Galleries features an eclectic array of unforgettable artwork like the embroidered, mixed-media work of Hagar Vardimon and the powerful watercolour portraits of Lisa Krannichfeld (whose work can be found in ArtMaze Issue II). Delian is consistently exhibiting a compelling visual aesthetic that supports unique, emerging artists that are certainly making their mark on the art world. With a background working in the music industry, Bree Delian brings an amalgamation of different life experiences into creating a gallery that creatively engages with its public, whether it’s in their home-base of Byron Bay or across the world in one of the many international art fairs they attend.

Participating in art fairs from London to New York to Mexico City, Delian discusses the ups and downs of this growing aspect of this business, the ever-changing flux of the current art market, and its effect on both artists and galleries alike. Believing in the importance of staying true to the artist’s voice, Delian delves deep into the life of a gallery director and the importance of trusting her gut instincts. Join us as we explore the art scene in Hong Kong, issues of the industry like the lack of funding in the arts, and the “psychic energy” found in a piece of art.

AMM: Let’s start our conversation with a little introduction from you. Tell us what brought you into the world of contemporary art? Was curating something you always wanted to do?

BD: I was always involved in arts and started out working in music promotion and publicity. I toured a few bands around the world and brought bands from overseas to Australia, and working in this industry gave me invaluable skills in management, multitasking, communication, running events and publicity. My mother and grandfather were artists, and then I met my husband who was also an artist, so I guess I had no choice! Art followed me and eventually consumed me. I approached visual arts and running a gallery differently to others around that time. Before launching our international platform, I ran artist talks and dinners, collaborating the arts with festivals like Splendour in the Grass and the Blues and Roots festival. This was where I organised themed shows that were relevant or political or obscure, like live tattoo shows. We had art that wasn’t just high art but encouraged expressions from different genres and sub genres, for example we embraced urban, pop, illustration, as well as loving realism and conventional forms of art. One of my biggest passions has always been to look out for new talent and give space to many emerging artists. Byron Bay is hard because of the mixed demographic and socio-economic audience, and as a 10,000 person town that has 1.5 million tourists passing through every year, you have to cater for different tastes.

Work by Gabriel Moreno, represented by Retrospect Galleries

AMM: How and when were Retrospect Galleries founded, and what was your initial inspiration behind this project?

BD: Twelve years ago Retrospect Galleries started as photographic space tucked down a side street of Byron Bay. After two years of people and artists asking if we would show their works, we took the next step – we found a spot in the main street of town which was a huge risk as the whole thing needed renovations but I had to start paying rent on the day we took the lease. We finished the week before Christmas and we had to open, and we thought, ‘oh my god, we need artwork and we need it now!’ It was chaos and completely on the fly but it worked and we sold art on the first night. My inspiration was always to represent contemporary culture, and what I found interesting in Byron Bay was that although it is a regional area, it wasn’t a place for a seaside-themed gallery. Instead we found that many people thought of themselves as urban individuals choosing to live in a semi-rural environment, that Byron was more like a suburb of Sydney than the nearby tourist trap of the Gold Coast, and I wanted art in the gallery to reflect that sense and mindset. It was perfect as when we opened there wasn’t really anything like us between Sydney and Brisbane, making us one of the first contemporary galleries operating outside of a major city.

AMM: We love that even though the gallery is based in Australia, you manage to participate in numerous international art fairs and travel the world. It’s very inspiring how you put yourself out there! Could you share the experience with us: what was the first art fair your gallery was involved with and what is your outlook on the art scenes in different countries and cultures?

BD: Our first show was a disaster! I had no idea about different cultural expectations about art and different art fairs, though I always had an accurate gut instinct that has remarkably helped me navigate the early days of the art fair labyrinth. I had a wonderful French assistant working for me at the time and our first show was the Singapore Affordable Art Fair (AAF), where we had a really successful show and were spurred on to do more! We decided to do a more extensive program the next year and booked a string of shows all in a row – Shanghai Contemporary, Korean International Art Fair (KIA), the Mexico City AAF, Art Toronto, finally to the New York AAF and then back home. The schedule made sense as by the time the work leaves Australia, we overcome jet lag, and the shipping crates arrive, it is worth our while to do a collection of shows and bunny hop around the continents. We quickly learnt about the corruption of shipping industry in this time. Our artworks were withheld in China, Korea and Mexico, with each place refusing to release the artworks unless we paid thousands more dollars even after we had paid the original bill. We learnt this amidst booking accommodation and last minute flights with only days between shows. We lost so much money but we had so much wonderful feedback from curators and the public at the shows, and sales were good enough to encourage and enable us to continue. In the last few years we have honed our skills although logistics are a continual negotiation and battle. Even when you think you have it covered at the last minute there is always a surprise.

You need a flexible mind to be in this industry and you need to be able to handle stress and pressure well, and to work to a tight deadline. Coming from Australia, this island so far from everywhere else, has many challenges but as you said it’s part of our appeal and many of our artists are so well received as they offer a point of difference. Our colours are often bold and bright and even how we communicate sets us apart from many other galleries in these exhibitions. We always greet with a smile and do extensive marketing campaigns, and we offer the clients a bridge between an artistic experience and the real world. It’s this communication that is vital because you only have a short time to engage at art fairs. They’re changing the way we sell. How do you establish a relationship in such a short time? How do you keep people engaged after you go home? In the past when you purchased art, you formed a relationship with a favoured gallery and chose works from their selection. These art fairs encourage faster sales, as clients need to make decisions before the fair ends but they love seeing the ranging choice of the world’s art in a more condensed way. It’s exciting and you can put your artists and collections in front of thousands of people in a short space of time.

The art scene in China is difficult although I haven’t been back since Shanghai because of the disaster of the logistics. Hong Kong however has become one of the important artistic hubs where you need to show your art. I love being in Hong Kong as it’s one of the most vibrant cities and is such a mixed community — everyone is coming there to work and meet and it’s an epicentre of business and communications. When I first was there, the kind of art that they revered was what the western world would see as tacky or too colourful or featured too much happiness. It is a place where superstition reigns and objects such as birds in certain formations or too many faces or references to the spirit world are off-putting. Portraiture was especially hard to sell. Colourful abstracts were very popular with Asian collectors and this remains unchanged. We are lucky because we always get a great ex-pat clientele, so we always bring work that we want to introduce to our diverse collectors but we also don’t want to marginalise local populations and seek to communicate well with them too. I’ve always hired translators and local talent to help wherever we are.

We have spent much time developing our European clientele. Northern European areas like Germany and Scandinavia have a much more serious inclination towards art, tending to favour moody and deep paintings and photography, whereas we found that the UK and New York love bright, popping colours and illustration. It’s amazing how different each country is and it’s exciting to keep learning about these trends and points of difference.

Although it’s important to work within your assumption of what each market wants, it’s important as a curator to uphold your vision for work you love and artists that you admire and cherish. For me selling art is about my love for that art and how I can authentically share that with our collectors. It has been an absolute privilege to work with our group of artists especially as they believed and invested in their future with us. For many of them their investment is paying off and they have broken into markets that were before unreachable to them. Developing your art isn’t an instant buck but a long term vision and a relationship, so I’m so thankful I can provide the platform for my talented artists to reach all over the world.

Work by Lisa Krannichfeld, represented by Retrospect Galleries

AMM: Planning a distinctive and coherent display that lasts for a few days in a foreign country sounds like a challenge. How do you prepare for your international art trips and what does it involve? And how difficult is it to prepare for a show coming straight from another show as you did going from London straight to New York this spring?

BD: Intense. Nobody really has an idea of how difficult it is working behind the scenes at an art gallery doing these exhibitions. So many people ask for jobs thinking they get to look at art all day, but I’ve never actually worked harder in my whole life. I’m lucky to have a small team of really great staff that helps with logistics and coordination. The first step is obviously to select art and have it approved by selection committees at the art shows, which is done months in advance. After that, there’s financial planning, the logistics and coordinating shipments from artists and the extensive admin involved in organising the artwork – uploading to our website and stock management systems, email campaigns, post cards, press releases, artist CVs, then we have our invitations to our collectors. This step can feel impossible at times as artists always work to the last minute, and we want the images of that work circulating before the clients even arrive to the show. For example, last year a client might have loved a work but chose not to purchase, so we let them know we have a new series of works by the same artists. Sometimes we ship unsold work from one show to the other and then have these artists ship more work directly to the show as a top up. Sometimes artists send entire collections to two different fairs on opposite sides of the planet when the fairs are just days apart. Ultimately it means I’m on the road for about 6 months of every year, as it makes sense to work remotely in a location more central to the next show rather than returning to Australia. I have a 1 year old daughter who travels with me which is a whole other challenge in itself but it allows me to attempt to balance my family life. The beauty of working in this industry is that it is your life, and there is no actual separation.

AMM: Is there more pressure on artists these days to make saleable works – for fairs, for example?

BD: Yes, artists need to make a living. The challenge is to balance saleable work with an integral artist vision. We have found that some artists we represent started out really true to their voice and sold well, but after realising certain configurations sell better, they have suddenly tried to replicate works over and over and in that process have lost something true to the piece. I’ve seen it happen overnight – sometimes an artist can stop selling for no apparent reason, but I believe this reason is that art transcends what is actually on the canvas, it’s the psychic energy that artists infuse into their work and people can sense that even if they don’t know exactly what it is. Of course there is the ability and composition, balance and originality etc., but it’s this energy that makes something that is truly special. As a gallery you also have to believe in the artist and his/her vision, and your collectors that feel the same will also promote the artist to their groups of friends as well which is how an organic groundswell begins. So many of our collectors have brought back friends who have then invested after hearing their friends speak so passionately about the work. I think the pressure on artists is overwhelming at times and in a commercial world we are all faced with those challenges not just in arts, so no matter what job you do you are confronted with how you live this reality and how true you are being to yourself, your community and the planet. We can all be consumed by rampant commercialism and some people can make lots of money but we must ask: are they really successful? I do believe that artists have more responsibility within the world as they are the eyes and voice of expression particularly in these politically trying times, and this voice is needed more than ever.

AMM: Are there presently too many art fairs?

BD: I think at the moment I am getting more emails from new art fairs each day than from artists! Some markets are sadly becoming oversaturated and are losing their appeal to some clients. Art fair organisations have become big business and some have quite low quality in their curation and are accepting self-represented artists to fill spaces. As galleries are closing over the world, art fairs are definitely taking over because to remain relevant as a gallery you need to be involved in some kind of art fairs to play on the world stage. I guess with any burgeoning movement there will be periods of flux; I’m hoping that it will find its natural order over time and doesn’t burn out and oversaturate this amazing platform for galleries and their artists.

AMM: What do you think currently influences buyers’ taste most?

BD: Social media has changed the way buyers view art. Trends are becoming fads led by peer review rather than by skill and achievement. Instead of following their own gut instinct and what they like within themselves, sometimes buyers are being defined by these trends. A good example is matching certain colours to go with the curtain fabric. I always cringe when I see people going around with their interior designers and swatches of colour samples. I tell clients to buy the art they love first and then buy a couch or curtain to go with that piece. Purchasing art should be driven by your subconscious to reflect who you are as an individual. Art publications and media are now more important than ever before to counter popular views and give audiences an educated vision of what art is, its place in the world and the inspiration behind artists’ visions, rather than just pretty colours.

AMM: What is the main advantage of being a commercial gallery?

BD: I think commercial galleries are the backbone of the art movement. We don’t get any or very little funding. As a result, we can show whatever we like – we can show the work that we believe in and curate it with an individual style and vision.

AMM: Have the demands on the curator changed since you first started out? How has your approach evolved over time?

BD: I think there are always demands on curators to find their own voice. I’ve learnt to trust my gut instinct more. I would say my personal demands on myself are always the hardest. I am always tough on what I do and can already see ways I can improve and get better for the next show.

AMM: How do you establish links with artists you represent? Where do you find them and what qualities are you looking for in the work itself?

BD: It’s an exciting time for us finding artists. When I graduated from school I wasn’t even using emails and now the internet has made the world so much smaller and at the same time opened up incredible oportunities for communication. We have a lot of artists applying to our gallery on an almost daily basis, but I also read heaps of art journals and publications as well as blogs by critics and artists alike to find new talent. Sometimes I’m looking for a particular style and sometimes I meet an artist by chance. There’s no formula for this, sometimes it’s just pot luck. Communication between artists and galleries is always a work in progress and requires constant maintenance. Sometimes it’s really hard when we’re so busy especially as we are such a small team. It’s definitely something that I can improve on but thankfully the artists we work with understand how hard we are working and also give us the energy we need to keep going. Sometimes a little email thanking us for the hard work is better than the best coffee you’ll ever drink. To ensure communication is really flowing I’ve employed a new assistant who travels with me to work with artist relations and recruitment which means our artists can have real time updates about the result of exhibitions.

Work by Hagar Varmidon, represented by Retrospect Galleries

AMM: What do you think is the best way for a young artist to approach a gallery or a curator to show his/her work?

BD: Not to send us a link to their Facebook, Instagram or Flikr account! Artists should treat it like a job interview and show us how professional and serious they are. I always look for the full CV as well as examples of their work. If I have to download huge files or access drop boxes… I don’t have the spare time to spend on this. Artists should send a small selection of their work, showing their talent and originality, as well as a full CV including awards, education, exhibitions, artist statement as well as an introductory letter. The files should be web sized and cropped properly – you’d be surprised at the amount of work displayed in iPhone photos with a clashing background or with part of an easel creeping into the photo. How professional and presentable an application is indicates to us how easy it would be to work with an artist in a digital age. It shows us the artist can rename files, photograph an artwork properly, that they have an original way of presenting themselves and that they can write and communicate about their artwork because we are working all over the world we need to be able to exist in this paradigm.

AMM: What advice would you give anyone thinking about working as a curator?

BD: So many people graduate from curatorial courses and wish to follow the status quo. You have to remember to find your own voice just as an artist has to. Believe in yourself. The world is so big – there is room for every type of expression, and a lot of artists need help to exhibit their work. Art reflects who we are and projects where we are heading and questions the nature of our very existence. This world needs curators to weave these threads together. Art is a necessity for the survival and growth of our species.

AMM: What do you think the art world lacks these days?

BD: Funding!!! The cost of the USA bombs on Syria last month was their entire annual budget for the arts. So many institutions and galleries are closing around the world. What I think the problem is that in the past so many artists have tried to undercut galleries and galleries have exploited artists. We need to find a way to work together more to promote each other. Together we are so much more powerful and can help artists reach new heights! Especially because galleries work with institutions because they introduce new talent that institutions otherwise wouldn’t know of. Everything has its place and I hope with this new digital world that people don’t choose to remain isolated from the help that surrounds them, so that hopefully we can go back to becoming a collective. Digital platforms might have an incredible voice, but they aren’t enough because art needs to be seen in the flesh. With the support of the government galleries can help artists more, reinvigorating the flow of talent and beautifying this relationship between galleries, artists and institutions.

Find out more about the gallery:

Introduction text by Christina Nafziger, interview conducted by Maria Zemtsova for ArtMaze Mag.

Work by Alberto Sanchez, represented by Retrospect Galleries


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