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In Hindsight: Janet Clayton

Gina Fairley

As gallerist Janet Clayton closes up shop after a decade, ArtsHub talks with her about the future of shop front galleries and the collecting landscape in Australia, and abroad.
In Hindsight: Janet Clayton

Art dealer Janet Clayton. Image supplied.

‘The way people live today is not conducive to the acquisition of things, and that has had a huge impact on the gallery landscape,’ said Sydney gallerist Janet Clayton.

Clayton opened her gallery in 2007, first at the Dank Street Gallery complex in Waterloo (now closed) before moving to the traditional gallery suburb of Paddington.

This month she closes up shop, and like many before her, will be exploring alternative ways to support artists outside of the traditional gallery space.

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What did she learn from the experience, and what is her advice for future gallerists in these changing times?

Looking back over a decade of change for the commercial gallery sector

Clayton admits she was not part of the heady gallery days of the 1980s and early 90s. ‘I opened as the GFC [Global Financial Crisis] hit, and while no one knew what that impact was to be, it did have a significant impact – one even felt today. People are no longer confident to spend discretionary funds,’ she said.

Clayton said that top end collectors are looking at the investment prospect of a purchase, so brand name is important. But post-GFC, and with changes to the way superannuation is structured, it's property rather than art that has become the darling of those wanting to increase their wealth.

She added that while we have much more aesthetically aware generations coming through, in their thirties and forties, they have transferred their discretionary spending from acquisitions to experience.

The design of contemporary homes in parallel with the apartment boom – which lack internal dividing walls, with a kitchen at one end and the TV at the other – is also not conducive to buying and living with art, she noted.

While the outlook appears bleak for the gallery sector, Clayton said there is still plenty of good art around, as well as outstanding artists. She believes that the art scene is sill strong in the public sphere with a lot of prizes and activity for artists to engage in, but recognises that exposure doesn’t always generate income for artists.

One area that Clayton sees future growth for the commercial gallery sector is in the domestic Asian market and new waves of immigration.

‘I’m intrigued by the opportunity that our new wave of immigration into Australia represents – and the work that it offers and that more galleries are showing. I think we have been a bit crude in the way we have approached that clientele, and we have underestimated the sophistication of those buyers. There is a future there.’

She told ArtsHub: ‘Over the last 15 months I have noticed a substantial increase of visitors to the gallery from an Asian background. Maybe it is because this new wave is starting to penetrate Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. I also notice when I am showing art with a delicate sensibility it has struck a chord with people who come from a culture where the single stroke and gesture is valued.’

Hindsight advice on opening a gallery

Clayton believes that success in the commercial gallery sector depends on two options and, in turn, her advice to anyone starting out depends on which pathway they choose at the beginning.

‘You need to take a big economic plunge at the beginning, and put your money and your investor’s money into the project right up front to get a space that will attract reputable artists,’ she said.

‘If you do that right – and you have a good eye and the right people – then you can manage to hit that sweet spot of attracting collectors and curators, and you are more likely to have a sustainable gallery.

‘If I had known that early on I would have done that, rather than rolling out slowly over the years under the idea that you grow these things,’ Clayton told ArtsHub.

She offered additional advice for young curators and art historians interested in getting into the art market.

‘There are great opportunities there if you maintain a network with the people who will be the next curators at the major museums – that is, the people you have been at art school with – as well as quality emerging artists. Then you can grow your business with them, but you need that network to make it work,’ she said.

She added with a laugh, ‘Neither of which I did.’

How important is a mash up of skills?

Clayton started her gallery late in her career. For many this presents a time when you have more financial backing and experience, but Clayton warns that not all that prior experience is always valuable.

Her background was a diverse reflection of the arts sector, moving from a diplomat to a cultural officer with the Australia Council working with the theatre, visual arts and music boards to develop policy, before moving into strategy and communication planning for the ABC.

She believes that it is difficult to transfer those experiences to the commercial gallery sector.

‘While I had done all of this arts related stuff, when it came down to it, I realised I had never done anything on the ground – I didn’t really know how things worked in a commercial gallery. I wanted to help artists generate income, but I carried with me a public sector mentality,’ she told ArtsHub.

‘While I’m interested in really great art and you as an artist, I didn’t know how to create a market for your art,’ she added.

Clayton speaks of the experience of many who want to work in an art gallery – passionate about working with artists and getting their stuff on those white walls – but who may lack the personality or skills to sell.

She continued: ‘You also have people come in to the gallery sector from very commercially driven area and, equally, that can’t succeed because they don’t relate to the artists. You need a very judicious mix to be a gallery director.’

Clayton said that when she interviewed candidates wanting to work for her over the years she would ask: ‘What are the 10 things you need to do to connect with a buyer?'

She added: ‘You have to remember that you working in a retail area, and it is very hard to adapt that to what the artists need. On the one hand you need to have artists that curators are interested in, which is largely non-commercial, and on the other deal with this need to see art – so it is a constant financial and emotional juggle.’

And the future…is there still life in the commercial gallery?

Clayton believes that the future for the Australian market lies in looking outward.

‘There is not the expansion in the local collector based in line with the number of artists being trained by art schools,’ said Clayton.

‘We are a very parochial market here and we don’t understand just how much an impact that has on growing our market. For example, if I visit France and go to a number of galleries, only two out of the 10 shows would be by French artists.

‘Obviously the art fair model has thrown up new opportunities for artists, and the expansion of some gallerists into overseas market is a good thing. But Australian artists are still extremely undervalued in a world context. International collectors are amazed at how low the prices are here, especially mid-career artists.’

She added flatly: ‘Speaking in crass commercial terms – we have a price point crisis – and this is what we need to work on to sustain the future of the Australian art market.’

Clayton said that while she had taken a couple of exhibitions to China, the Asian market remains difficult to penetrate.

‘I have dipped my toe in the art fair market, but it is so tough – it is so, so tough. We have great expectations heading up to Hong Kong but few have come back with those expectations met. We are all very good at rationalising it as best we can.’

Her advice was to look at some of the smaller secondary fairs.

Clayton also cautioned that we need to be careful in the balance of stories we have promoted internationally.

‘It is very hard for people in New York, for example, to come at purchasing art works by Australian artists unless it is Aboriginal art as we still haven’t established what that narrative is outside the Aboriginal narrative,’ she told ArtsHub. ‘The world’s attention has been taken by Australian Indigenous Art – and rightly so – but it has eaten up the space to think about Australian art.’

Clayton believes that the best way is to build that international visibility is to be included in exhibitions in a group way, with local artists there.

Janet Clayton gallery closes 24 June 2018. For archived programming visit the Janet Clayton gallery website.

About the author

Gina Fairley covers the Visual Arts nationally for ArtsHub. Based in Sydney you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.

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