What I've Learned
Unsurprisingly, Director and Chairman of Michael Reid Galleries, Michael Reid OAM, is brimming with things he’s learned — but offers essential reminders of taking time out of the art world for other interests but always staying available to clients.
Editing by Emma-Kate Wilson
I am a visual historian. Although, as a contemporary art dealer, I predominantly live in the now, personally, I have always been interested in the past. I studied history at school and university, and frankly, many people have in the past have led and had far more interesting lives than one could ever concoct in fiction. Read “A Scandalous Life: The Biography of Jane Digby” — she rocked.
For me, the field of art is another lens through which to view then and now. I came to the art world, my chosen profession — and still view art — through the tool of art history. Professionally I combined art history with selling art. It works for me.
I distinctly remember sitting in the incredibly fashionable, early 1970’s “breakfast nook”, just off the kitchen in Wagga Wagga (the place of many crows). I must have been 8 or 9 years old, and we had a white boxed framed Albert Namatjira print in the kitchen, next to the metallic sunburst Wall Clock. I looked at the print every morning. I liked the colours; they were exotic. I’ve been a colourist all my life.
When asked for advice, give it generously. When a collector, artist or colleague asks you for advice, give it serious thought, then give it generously. They’ll come back again and again. In this way, you’ll become an opinion former.
As the Chairman and Director of Michael Reid Galleries, day by day, I have less nuts-and-bolts involvement with the operational sides of the gallery, which in turn frees me up to undertake the business development side of our growth. The galleries are expanding at a great rate – possibly 50% year on year growth. This growth beast requires training, directing and feeding.
Michael Reid OAM with his team of Directors; Toby Meagher, Amber Creswell Bell & Daniel Soma at Michael Reid Sydney’s new Chippendale premises
Deferring my studies in Law at the University of Sydney, I flew to London in the mid-1980s, where — with absolutely no references and little idea — I secured a position with Shroder Securities as a researcher into the Norwegian Cod market. Walking past the rather grand entrance to Christie’s every day to catch the underground tube to my rather befuddling workplace, I eventually summoned the nerve to enter. Within seconds I knew that art was to be my life. After all, it looked glamorously languid, with everyone seemingly standing around the most astonishingly beautiful artworks.
My blunt application letter sent in — again without references — went in part exactly like this: “I have been in London now for quite some time, and I have on the whole been rather bored by the employment opportunities on offer. If I do not obtain an interesting position soon, I will return to Australia”.
I suspect, as part of an anthropological experiment undertaken to actually see the type of specimen that would indeed write such a demand, Christie’s interviewed me. At the employment inspection, wedged between a Tribal art and Porcelain specialist, I vividly recall only one question, laid on me by the baby-blue linen, three-piece suit-wearing, gold fob chain dangling, goatee adorned porcelain person. He, she, it or whatever asked me if “the University of Sydney was anything like the University of Bombay” (the city was still called Bombay). That simple question was my realisation that the world knew little to nothing of Australia, and why should they.
At the opening of the third annual collaborative exhibition between Michael Reid Murrurundi & Country Style Magazine. With The Hon Ben Franklin MLC, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, The Arts & Regional Youth and Mr Dave Layzell MP, Member for Upper Hunter. March 2022.
Get a foot in the door. Do internships with a wide variety of organisations, such as an art gallery, an art shipper, an auction house.
Employing people is expensive in Australia. Decoupling from a colleague within the business, is often a prolonged and costly exercise. That’s why almost every single position that is advertised, has already been filled by a particular candidate. No government organisation or private sector firm can risk employing someone on spec. So help a prospective employer mitigate this risk by working with them – and showcasing your talents – in a manner that isn’t costly or risky for them – internships work.
If you want to work in a commercial gallery, you need to identify the galleries whose artists and exhibitions resonate with you. Then go and see ALL their exhibitions, and if possible, attend all their openings, artists’ talks. Gallery owners and their staff are immensely proud of the exhibitions they stage. Even though the digital world has expanded audiences for galleries, there is still nothing artists appreciate more than art enthusiasts making the effort to turn up and view an exhibition in person. Over time, you’ll become familiar with, and eventually meet, people from the art world within the gallery environment. The arts community isn’t huge, but it’s very committed and dedicated. Contacts are key in breaking into the art world.
Once you have established yourself professionally, avoid the overheated social hothouse of the art scene. Don’t go to the opening of an envelope. Your attendance should send the message that an event is noteworthy. Absence, when noticed, can be a very strong presence. Attend only what you need to attend to further your career. Socialise with your real friends.
Don’t climb ladders after age 50. It’s statistically more dangerous to climb a ladder, even a stepladder, once you’ve reached the half-century mark. Delegate that job to younger, more agile colleagues.
The arts community isn’t huge, but it’s very committed and dedicated. Contacts are key in breaking into the art world.
The gardens surrounding Michael Reid Murrurundi & Bobadil House where Michael now lives
I discovered gardening as an art form. Like much contemporary living, the garden is intended to be an extension of the house. Above all, I want the garden to complement the art gallery. I want the beauty within the four walls of the gallery buildings to be echoed within the garden.
I am not one for colour schemes, preferring a jolly good sprinkling of self-sowns. Self-sown flowers are a bit like self-made people; in the end, you reap a vigorous mixed bunch that do not always play well together in the sandbox — their fission, however, is most stimulating.
I like trees. I think in another life, I was an Edwardian tree-hugger. Hopefully, a wealthy, privileged, landed and wearing-of-tweed one, but a tree-hugger, nonetheless. So, the garden is largely one of trees, with one significant garden bed — populated in summer predominantly by Hollyhocks and foxgloves.
Gardens, I have discovered, are moveable beasts capable of being settled only when they are successful. Possibly the most fun boys’ toy ever invented, a bobcat is like a highly manoeuvrable toy Tonka tractor on steroids. If you plant a tree and then want to move the whole thing elsewhere, then a bobcat is for you. With said bobcat, some care and skill, you can almost do anything.
I am increasingly interested in the intersection between art and the built environment and have just finished my Assistant Agent course at the Real Estate Institute of NSW — I learn, and then step forward.
Travel and accommodate yourself in some style. You don’t meet prospective clients, or indeed your intended professional peer group, in economy class.
As Aristotle Onassis once said: ‘The greatest asset any businessman can have is a suntan… To be happy, make sure you are tanned, live in expensive buildings, even if you have to stay in the cellar, go out to expensive restaurants, even if you can only afford one drink, and if you have to borrow, borrow a lot.’ Remember: Position yourself physically within the social environment of your clients.
Choose carefully who you work with. Be as selective about who you work with as you are about the job you want to do. Create or seize opportunities to work with someone you can learn from. ‘A prudent man should always follow the path trodden by great men and imitate those who are most excellent’ — Niccolò Machiavelli.
Build your professional profile in the art world, but don’t let the art world consume your personal life. Be seen, build your profile, and then be selective.
Everyone is a butler to someone. The arts are a competitive service industry. Any number of other people could perform the tasks or supply the products you’ve been hired to perform or provide. What will set you apart is the quality of your service.
ALWAYS be available. Always put yourself in the curator or the collector’s shoes; there is no downtime. Answer the phone from clients on Easter Sunday morning with a smile in your voice.
With success comes unhelpful criticism — ignore it. There’s a Turkish saying: ‘The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.’ You need to be sure that you set the ‘dogs’ barking, indicating that you’re doing something extraordinary and attracting attention. Make it the soundtrack to your professional life. I have.
Always be — or at least try to be — polite and diplomatic. But if a situation calls for something more forceful, don’t hold back. Lay waste to whatever stands between you and the outcome you believe is right.