What I've Learned - James Dorahy - Michael Reid

What I’ve Learned – James Dorahy

What I've Learned

Michael Reid Galleries’ Contemporary Art Specialist & Program Coordinator of ART SIGNIFIKANT, James Dorahy, has been around art since kindergarten, with over 20 years in the commercial art world. He shares invaluable mantras, plus the influential artworks in his life from the likes of John Firth Smith and Polixeni Papapetrou and a passion for classic cars.  

Editing by Emma-Kate Wilson

I was taken to galleries from an early age. I went to kindergarten with Daniel Lewis, whose late mother Ann was also a great friend of my parents. Ann ran Gallery A and was a legendary collector whose home in Rose Bay was filled with the most exciting contemporary art; she was the art figure who first inspired me. I am grateful for her lifelong friendship and guidance and was an usher at her funeral.

John Firth-Smith’s early abstracts from the 1970s stand out for me. I am fortunate enough to have one that I inherited, Variation 4 (1975), from one of his earliest exhibitions at Gallery A. I am still mainly drawn to abstract painting and credit this time as a ten-year-old boy to unlocking my path into art.

I began working in commercial galleries in Sydney twenty years ago. My first role was at Gitte Weise Gallery in Sydney, where I worked for five years. For some of that time, I was also a studio assistant for Rosemary Laing. Both were fantastic learning experiences providing an insight and understanding of the operations of the studio of a leading photo-based artist coupled with the education of the importance of the role of the commercial gallery within this system.

I was initially engaged for a month to help out at Michael Reid Galleries five years ago, and I’m still here. My role is Contemporary Art Specialist, and I am responsible for all exhibition installations. My role has also grown to include the Program Coordinator for Art Signifikant as I have a passion for art education.

Like my good friend Michael, I have always considered it to be TEAM REID. Individually we are all very talented with certain strengths. Together we are a dynamic team across a myriad of galleries and sales platforms. This team is at the forefront of changing old art world models and ideas.

A portrait of James painted by artist Robert Malherbe in 2020 for our online Art Signifikant lockdown education series

This team is at the forefront of changing old art world models and ideas.

My Bachelor of Design (Interiors) at the University of Technology Sydney gave me a strong understanding of the importance of quality interior design, spatial arrangements, and balance. This has influenced my career and created my reputation for my skilled presentation of contemporary art in galleries and art fairs.

I am mad about classic cars. Again, this goes back to childhood — a passion for the exotic and expensive. 

However, I have only ever owned one car. A classic 1975 Toyota Celica Fastback that had one careful lady owner and was purchased from Jack Jeffrey in Rose Bay. I am not rich enough to indulge this passion, so I conduct it on Instagram, often sharing cars I would love to own. I also organised an event for Art Signifikant, viewing a collection of twenty Porsches housed in a purpose-built facility that a friend of mine owns.

I have many favourite artworks; I love everything in my private collection for different reasons. The John Firth-Smith I mentioned is not the most valuable work but is definitely one of the most prized works in my collection. My husband and I acquire art to mark significant milestones and occasions. For our wedding, thanks to the generosity of family and friends, we acquired Polixeni Papapetrou Salt Man (2013) and Derek Henderson The Barrier (2016), so both have special significance. 

When my late father died, I acquired Regina Pilawuk Wilson Wupun (Sun Mat) (2019) to acknowledge him. In addition, we have several works by Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori — these were the first pieces my husband and I purchased together. 

‘My Fathers Country’ has a special place in our collection. My husband Anton saw this work at Tim Melville Gallery in Auckland, he called me straight away. At the time, we were purchasing a piece in memory of his beloved grandmother, who had died recently. Anton was very excited by the painting but said he was happy to wait until I could view it in a few months to make the final decision. 

I said, “trust your instinct; if you love it, this is the painting for us.” He went back in and confirmed the sale. Tim emailed me a jpeg, and low and behold, it was the same painting I had emailed to Anton to consider a few months earlier — what a coincidence and the start of our collecting journey together. If I had to nominate a favourite artwork, it would have to be this painting.

‘The barrier’, 2016, by Derek Henderson

Art gives meaning to our lives and helps us understand our world. It is an essential part of our culture. It allows us to connect with our emotions and opens us to new ideas and experiences.

I love working on Saturdays and welcoming visitors to the gallery. Discussing contemporary art is my passion and vocation. I view my role as a custodian of the artist’s practice, with a duty to share information to educate the audience and encourage engagement and enjoyment of the work. I derive equal pleasure from the fascination and delight of children to the more critical conversations with curators and collectors.

In my time in the art world, there are too many takeaway moments and some moments that I will never forget. Not all are good, but they all provided a lesson. There are many aspects of the art market that I really don’t like. However, I am grateful that my passion remains and that overall, I have not become jaded. One thing I value and will never forget is my relationships with some artists and collectors that have turned into friendships.

Galleries and museums will always prevail as nothing beats the enjoyment of engaging with a painting, photograph, or sculpture and the thrill of that experience. I have watched the international rise of Art Money and think the next generation of art buyers will use this as a vehicle to build their collections.

I was also asked about NFTs recently, and I understand that this is the latest trend. I could only guess what the next generation of art buyers’ habits will look like, but I am sure it will include NFTs — I certainly think we will see some significant changes over the next few years. COVID-19 has slowed the rise of the Art Fair, and more technology is being developed for online viewing rooms. 

The artworld is composed of all the people involved in the production, commission, preservation, promotion, criticism, and sale of art — but it’s the art that defines it for me. I am a true believer. Art gives meaning to our lives and helps us understand our world. It is an essential part of our culture. It allows us to connect with our emotions and opens us to new ideas and experiences.

One mantra I return to: grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

Honesty is the only policy. Sometimes that means remaining silent. At other times it means speaking up. I like to offer advice and guidance to help clients make intelligent decisions in this large and often opaque art market. My reputation as someone who can be trusted is my most valuable asset. My reputation as a collector also helps as it places me in a unique position to offer advice on starting or building a collection.

Confucius probably said it best when it comes to do what you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life. I am passionate about my role, but it is work, and work is part of life. I am grateful that it is creative and that I enjoy it. It is a huge part of me and probably defines me to some, but I am also aware that it is only a component. I am grateful to have other interests, friends, family, and pets that also contribute to my happiness in life.

Moving On Up

As an old Comrade, Gough Whitlam once said, It’s time.  The Sydney gallery is growing in artists, turnover, colleagues and



A look at the artworks featuring in ‘Lightyears’, a group exhibition hosted by our friends at the Basil Sellers Exhibition