What I've Learned
Michael Reid Northern Beaches Program Director and acclaimed art book writer Amber Creswell Bell shares how to stay authentic in the art world plus a memorable Cy Twombly artwork, and handmade clay vessel that inspired her long love of ceramics.
Editing by Emma-Kate Wilson
I was brought up in an art loving household and loved visiting galleries with my mum from a young age. My parents collected both art and ceramics — I can’t help but feel that left a mark.
In my childhood home, there was a very striking modernist ceramic vessel made by my great uncle from clay he collected by hand near our home. This put artwork in the sphere of “us” — that art comes from real people, and not just rarefied and anonymous names in galleries and museums. It certainly inspired my love of ceramics.
While I hold no formal art qualifications, I realised quickly that enthusiasm, authenticity, and dogged determination sometimes take you miles further!
Instead, I undertook a psychology degree at the University of Sydney — a new and highly sought-after course at the time. I was influenced by naïve notions of prestige and the chatter of adults suggesting I not waste my good grades. I did my Honours in Political Economy, which did have the result of throwing me off course into a corporate consulting career path, which did not bring me much joy.
It took me until the age of 30 to understand that life is too short not to do what you love, so I quit my job and took a leap of faith that I could shoehorn myself into a completely different industry. However, my studies in Psychology and the corporate experience did give me good insights into dealing with humans — which has been invaluable.
Whilst in the thick of a corporate job, I was moonlighting as an arts reviewer in Melbourne for a publication called ‘State of the Arts’ in the early 2000s — this gave me the most wonderful access to art exhibitions, ballet, theatre, opera and beyond! A few years later, I ditched the corporate grind for a more art-centric life. I started by writing for a number of publications, then moved into curating exhibitions independently — later expanding into writing books on art.
It took me until the age of 30 to understand that life is too short not to do what you love
Amber’s most recent book publication ‘Still Life’, a compilation of Australian still life painters, published by Thames & Hudson.
I’ve learned in this industry how important it is to be authentic, mean what you say, stay humble, and don’t worry too much about what others are doing.
Primarily concerned with curating a program of high quality and exciting emerging art and ceramics, my role is part creative director, part curator, part talent scout, part artist mentor. I am always working across several projects and initiatives.
After working as an independent curator for several years, I joined the Michael Reid team with the intention of establishing an emerging artist and ceramics program for the gallery in early 2019. While initially an online offering, the program has since expanded dramatically — I am now Program Director for Michael Reid Northern Beaches, a new permanent gallery in the Michael Reid suite of galleries, which we opened in November 2020.
I see so much beautiful art it is almost impossible to draw on a favourite. However, there is a Cy Twombly triptych owned by the Art Gallery of NSW, Three studies from the Temeraire, that I think about all the time and have done since I first saw it.
My work life and non-work life are inextricably meshed. I can’t imagine not doing what I am doing; I love it that much.
Curating an emerging art program, I am largely dealing with artists in the early stages of their career. Potentially those outside of the art gallery world might perceive a linear progression from art student to practising career artist. But this could not be further from the truth!
Finding artists and mentoring them on the practicalities and commercial realities of the art world and watching them find their audience and grow their practice brings me unlimited amounts of joy!
When working as an independent curator, I was putting on a solo exhibition for a very emerging artist. She was not motivated by money or fame, but she did want people to front up and see her work, and so requested that sales had to be in person at the show. No presales. People lined up for two hours, waiting for the show to open to get in first, and the entire show sold out in 15 minutes.
The excitement of everyone there was palpable, and I saw at that moment the power that art has over people. This artist was relatively unknown and self-taught — but there was something in the way she painted that utterly hypnotised people. People still talk to me about that night. There is magic in that. This is what I live for!
Potentially those outside of the art gallery world might perceive a linear progression from art student to practising career artist. But this could not be further from the truth!
The art market is becoming decentralised and deconstructed, and where once art-selling was the domain of galleries, art dealers and auction houses only, art is now available via a multitude of platforms and venues. Artists are more than ever able to sell their own art, largely owing to the power of social media. This is both a blessing and a curse for the buyer and artist alike.
Buyers now need to show due diligence and do their homework to understand what they are buying if doing so without the guidance of a gallery. Similarly, artists need to navigate the commercial intricacies and selling their art and plotting their career alone. Potentially the market will become more awash with substandard work without the ‘editing’ process. This may be viewed as liberating — but it also highlights the pivotal role of good galleries in the midst of this new and bustling frontier.
There are three types of art buyer: people who buy art as an investment; people who buy art that they think they should buy because of trends; and people who buy art that they love with a racing heart. The art market caters to all three… but I love the latter the most.
In this world, pressure makes diamonds, but deep breaths can make you feel immediately better.