What I've Learned
In his new role at Michael Reid Gallery, Head of Private Clients, Chris Mathews reveals how his previous life as a stockbroker helps with the day-to-day in the art world, but it’s his decades-long love of art and collecting that drives his passion, in and outside of his position.
Editing by Emma-Kate Wilson
My parents, who had little interest in art, had a good friend with a wonderful collection. When we visited his house, there were numerous works to enjoy, including early Dobell, Clarice Beckett and one 16th-century portrait that he had bought in Paris.
The portrait was covered in a cream paste when our friend acquired it, with only an eye showing. The paste had been applied to discourage looters during WW2. It took many months to slowly dissolve the covering, but this finally revealed a portrait of a young woman from a well to do family, dressed in finery of the day. The painting was lovely, but the story behind it has stayed with me to this day.
The collection was visually engaging, but his tales of where the works were acquired and why he was drawn to them fascinated me the most. He also had the largest private collection of Rudyard Kipling first editions in English, French, and German, collected over many years — all pre-internet.
My passion for looking at, collecting, and travelling the world to see public and private collections has been a constant throughout my adult life. I have, however, been a stockbroker for forty years and only stepped away from that twelve months ago. I approached Michael, who I have known for twenty years, and pitched an idea to him. This conversation led to a six-month internship working in the gallery part-time, where I learnt everything from wrapping and invoicing to the basics of curating a show.
My personal collection is broad in style and origin — I like to think that each has a story, represents a stage of life, or was acquired on my travels.
My background in broking made the sales part of my new role probably the most effortless piece. At the end of the six months, I pitched the idea of taking clients, contacts and friends from my old career and putting them in the gallery. On both a corporate and individual basis, but essentially, I’m dealing with HNW (high-net-worth) and UHNW (ultra-high-net-worth) clients and their organisations. It’s a broad brief, and I’m in the process of building a new client base for the gallery.
I have a role that is clearly defined and, to a certain degree, separate from other parts of the business. I have, however, always worked in collegial environments, and feel that the team at MRG is gelling — I’m pleased to be part of that.
While I haven’t yet undertaken a formal art education, I’m an avid reader of artist, history, and movement books. I also rigorously follow the major auction houses and many galleries in Australia and overseas for current contemporary art contexts.
My personal collection is broad in style and origin — I like to think that each has a story, represents a stage of life, or was acquired on my travels. I own several painted works, photographs, one stunning pin work and a large lightbox. One favourite is a 17th-century portrait of St John the Baptist I bought in a bric-à-brac shop behind the Pantheon in Rome. The story of its voyage back to Sydney and restoration makes me smile when I look at it, and I wonder what it has seen over the past three hundred years.
I lived in London for 14 years and, during this time, I started collecting Victorian Pond Yachts. I am a sailor myself and appreciated the detail and beauty of the yachts raced on Kensington Pond at the turn of the century. I have one sitting in a clear cradle and mounted in my dining room.
Travel budgets have been turned to home renovations, decoration, and new art. This may run its course, but hopefully, many will stay engaged and continue to collect.
I have vivid memories of the many public galleries visited on my travels; a number made a lasting impression and inspired me to explore further. Amongst these are my first trip to Europe, the Uffizi Gallery, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art outside Copenhagen, and the Kröller-Müller Museum in The Netherlands.
About fifteen years ago, I had an hour and a half by myself with the Edward Hopper retrospective at Tate Modern. The number of the works, the isolated figures, and the scale of the paintings was made even more extraordinary with no one else around.
I have been a “salesman” all my adult life. My career in financial markets was built on knowledge, experience and ultimately trust. And I’m able to transfer this to my new position. I have a good understanding and empathy of what people want and, importantly, how they want to be treated; it goes a long way.
It’s been a short career in the art world so far, but seeing works I’ve placed with clients in their homes has already been so exciting and satisfying. This has been especially true of the Indigenous Burial Poles and Christian Thompson photography I placed soon after starting.
While my views are coming from the point of a long-term collector who has only recently turned gallerist, the market globally has expanded substantially, and the buying power of UHNW collectors is profound. This phenomenon has meant that many works — that may have been in public institutions before — will now be locked away in private collections. This has been pronounced in Asia, the Middle East and Russia and is likely to continue.
In terms of private sales at a more modest level, the response during the pandemic has been relatively positive. Travel budgets have been turned to home renovations, decoration, and new art. This may run its course, but hopefully, many will stay engaged and continue to collect.
Social media is a huge benefit in terms of reach and access to art globally. I think there is greater willingness to purchase online, and the last 18 months have confirmed this. This is probably a permanent tilt, but in-gallery visits and sales will always continue, especially at higher price points.
After forty years in financial markets around the world, I am fairly resilient. Ultimately stay calm, stay focussed on the task at hand and “play the long game”. Be true to your aims and yourself.
Not many get the chance for a new career at 59! Many of my friends are envious; I am working in a field that I am genuinely passionate about, and I want to repay the faith of the directors.