Exit interview: gallery owner Brenda May

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In many ways, Sydney gallerist Brenda May is the epitome of the saying “One door closes and another opens”. Having represented contemporary Australian artists for nearly 40 years, this journey feels more like a series of reimagined chapters than a seamless construct.

It’s a story of the resilience needed in any gallery business and the agility to respond to changing trends – and we’re not just talking about aesthetic or artistic trends. The landscape of commercial galleries has changed dramatically during this forty-year period.

May cards changing from a bespoke signature space focused on emerging artists to a warehouse space in the boom of destination art venues thinking, to encourage black box projects with l boom in video collecting and eventually moving exclusively online.

So what about learning during this period, and why close the doors?

‘Jesus, I could do it’

It was in 1985 that Brenda May opened her first gallery in Sydney, in a space attached to her partners’ architecture studio. She directed Access Contemporary Art Gallery for 16 years (1985 – 2001).

“I think I was looking for something that had substance. My background was in fashion advertising, and it was “blah, blah, blah…” I knew a lot of artists – and as they say “architecture is the mother of art”. Robert moved his practice from Brisbane and we were comfortably settled.

May continued: “You always hear complaints [about gallery relationships] and I thought, “Jesus, I could do it.” Robert said, “Do what you can; do what you know. And so I started with contemporary Australian artists. I called it Access for a reason – I wanted it to be accessible. We saw all the artists who approached us; I had an open door policy.

The mid-1980s was a very different time for galleries. But May said, whether the economy is up or down, you’re still focused on the same thing.

“When you’re in the industry, you’re so busy trying to make ends meet and keep artists paid. I am a commercial gallery – I have to support them,” she told ArtsHub.

“The arts community in Australia is very small and not as supported [publicly with funding]. Even privately, we all share the same good people who buy and understand gaming – and that’s not enough to sustain the industry,” May said.

May has traveled extensively to biennials and international fairs over the years and her observation has been that “our art is among the best in the world, but our prices are so low it’s ridiculous. We don’t have a large enough audience of art buyers to support artists. That’s why I started the gallery – I felt I had something to offer. I am a businessman and I come from a different place. And there weren’t many galleries supporting emerging artists.

This passion for emerging artists stayed with May into the next iteration of the gallery, and indeed throughout its history.

The boom of the gallery-warehouse

May closed Access Contemporary Art Gallery because the books were too tight. “It was always a bit difficult financially, not to be rich independently, and by 2001 we were at the point where we could walk away with everyone paid – again, it was about doing it with integrity. .

“I had no intention of reopening when I closed Access, after doing my best for so many years, and then Danks Street came along and I was offered a place,” May said.

Danks Street Waterloo was an art and design complex designed for arts patron Leo Christie and designed by May’s husband, Robert May of May+Swan Architects. It was the start of the next chapter of 16 years as Brenda May Gallery.

About the name change, May said she met her artists and asked, “Do you want to come with me?” They did but wanted the name changed. “It was their choice. I was a little fragile wondering if I could start over. But Danks turned out to be fabulous at selling art.

‘The hardest thing [as a gallery] gets people through the door – Daanks Street was a destination,” May said. “But everything only works for so long, and you have to reinvent again.”

Read: The art exhibitions that will define 2022

At this point, with Danks Street closing, May changed the name of the gallery again, this time to May Space. “A gallery often changes over time – the name was just one of my weird things – but you change as you learn over the years and I thought May Space was what I had leading at the time.”

Remaining in Waterloo, May Space operated for four years (2017 – December 2020), when in the midst of the pandemic May opted to recalibrate the gallery format again, to a brand new digital platform May Space Online , which will start in early 2021.

Reflecting on the many “whys”, May said the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) experienced during his tenure at Danks Street had had an entirely different impact on the COVID pandemic.

“During the GFC, the phone stopped ringing; it was so bad. We survived it, the dot com crash, and there were many times when the headlines said “the worst is yet to come” – which affects us – but the pandemic has improved business. People were forced to buy online.

May said it was not a change in pandemic-related spending that led to her decision to close shop, but rather reopening, in these post-pandemic days.

‘The main reason I decided to close, with the world opening up and the joy of going to galleries again, was that I didn’t want to hold back my artists by not having space physical. I think online sales will continue, but I think people want both,” May explained.

After the company was liquidated, May and her husband moved to Hobart.

Art dealer Brenda May with gallery dog ​​Pepper. instagram picture

Pressure on galleries to reinvent themselves

May believes there is no direct pressure to change, but the world is constantly changing around you and being responsive is a natural progression.

One such change that shaped the gallery was the introduction of Black Box Projects to the Danks Street space – one of the first commercial gallery spaces dedicated to exhibiting moving artwork in Australia.

“The idea for Black Box was to try to promote the kind of art that I was seeing overseas, and it was digital art made here, but not shown here. I bought the biggest 100 inch screen I could find and projection equipment and put out the call for artists. It was relatively successful,” May said, adding that she found it by packaging the artwork with the equipment so collectors could “just take it home.”

“A lot of people didn’t know how to live with digital art,” May added. “It was good enough to continue financially and people were amazed at the quality of work we were showing.”

Read: Has the Biennale of Sydney 2022 kept its promises?

Similar to Access, May chose to break the mould, devoting up to 50% of its program and stable of artists to sculpting.

“In Boronia Street I chose the space for Access because it had a height of 10 meters that I could drive a crane into. not exhibited in commercial galleries.

“Artists move on and you hire new artists, which keeps the set fresh; you don’t have to reinvent yourself,” May said. “I was a little insecure at first, but each time – with each subsequent step – I had a little more confidence to take things on.”

“There’s huge trust, at all levels, from artist to gallery to client, and it works best in person, so art fairs are helpful in that regard. They’re a great way to develop your contacts.And Danks Street also did this as a kind of mini-fair.

Progression, Access Contemporary Art Gallery, Mullens St Balmain and Boronia St Redfern // Brenda May Gallery, Danks St Waterloo // May Space, George St Waterloo. Image courtesy of May Space.

Take the helicopter to conclude

The best advice May offered to a budding artist dreaming of gallery representation was to “do your homework – seriously, shop around; walk through the door; look at the other artists exhibited there – talk to them. Never approach a gallery without visiting it first.

It is important that the gallery owner knows that you want to be with their.

Brenda May, gallery owner

May said the gap between multi-location galleries with deep-pocketed backers and dealers who are passionate about their artists and just trying to survive is widening.

“If you look at the really good ones, the passionate ones, they no longer have galleries; it speaks for itself. But that’s just the way of the world,’ May told ArtsHub. “Anyone who has survived the past decades deserves it; they have worked hard for their artists and clearly have a good stable to survive.

“We have run our business with integrity and our artists are paid. One of the things we’re known for is being straight shooters. It’s an industry in which you have to be direct.

Continuing her advice to hopeful emerging gallerists, May added, “If you don’t have enough money, you won’t survive.” Not all shows will sell, and hopefully the shows you believe in will have an audience. It also doesn’t mean you’ll reach an audience immediately. You have to have enough money to get through the lean times.

His strongest advice, however, was: “Hire an artist, not the work – you hire the artist. Believe in the artist, because it is also about what he will produce in ten years, and not just now. She added that it takes a whole village to run a gallery – the artists, your staff and your collectors. “It’s a family.”

And: “Having a dog or a cat – it helps people feel comfortable in the gallery; it breaks the ice.

May concluded: “I’ve never had a day where I didn’t actually think ‘oh damn it’s work today’. I’ve loved the last 40 years – that’s why it’s a bittersweet decision, but you have to think beyond yourself.

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