What was the Canberra art scene like 40 years ago?
The Beaver Galleries came into being in 1975, seven years before the National Gallery opened, while the National Museum of Australia, National Portrait Gallery and the Canberra Museum and Gallery were yet to be conceived as bricks-and-mortar structures. Artist-run spaces, such as ANCA and M16, were undreamt of, while the Canberra Contemporary Art Space existed as the ACT chapter of the Arts Council and was largely itinerant. The Canberra School of Art had not come into being as a separate entity and art history had not been introduced to the ANU. The population of Canberra was about 200,000.
While the institutional art scene in Canberra was embryonic, the commercial art sector was experiencing rapid expansion. The Anna Simmons Gallery operated from the 1960s, as did the Macquarie Galleries and the Australian Sculpture Gallery. In 1973, the Gallery Huntly came into being, specialising in Australian and European art. The Abraxas Gallery was set up as a dedicated gallery for contemporary art in 1974, the same year Joy Warren opened her Solander Gallery. Karen O'Clery's Narek Gallery, Craft ACT and Susan Gillespie's Fantasia Gallery also came into being in the 1970s.
Beaver Galleries were established the same year Judy Behan opened her Chapman Gallery. Beaver Galleries' first incarnation was in Investigator Street in Red Hill, run by the indefatigable Ron and Betty Beaver, then in 1984 it moved to its present location in Deakin and by 1992, the new generation of Beavers, Martin and Susie, were at its helm.
The move in location also signified a change in orientation – where the earlier emphasis had been on traditional craft media, such as ceramics, glass, wood and precious metalwork, this was now was supplemented by an expanded focus that included printmaking, painting and sculpture.
Today, the business boasts of its standing as Canberra's largest privately-owned gallery, with an extensive stable of established artists drawn from throughout Australia, as well as nationally selected emerging artists.
Of all the Canberra-based commercial art galleries listed above, only Beaver Galleries have survived. In fact, the plethora of commercial art galleries that existed in Canberra in the 1970s and 1980s can be contrasted with the paucity of such galleries today. There are now fewer commercial art galleries in Canberra than at any time over the past half-century.
Why is this the case and what have the Beaver Galleries been doing right over the past four decades while commercial art galleries are increasingly becoming an endangered species?
A simplistic answer is to say that the increase in the public art gallery sector, with many of these galleries also selling art and charging a commission, has largely mitigated the need for commercial art galleries. In other words, it is not a level playing field and publicly subsidised art galleries have an unfair advantage over those without public funding. This might be one ingredient.
Another factor is the changing patterns in the ways in which the broader community consumes art. In the 1970s and '80s, the weekly art gallery crawl was a norm with the art-consuming section of society and part of this perambulation included the purchase of art. Art still continues to draw the crowds, blockbuster exhibitions, art events and art fairs, but not all in equal numbers. Many public galleries have experienced a decline in attendance numbers, while the exhibition Melbourne Now at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2014 attracted more than 753,000 visitors. The public, claiming to be "time poor", have stopped going on a regular basis to commercial art galleries and are showing a preference for buying art in the same way as they buy many luxury items: online. While I would argue there is no substitute for seeing art in the flesh, many beg to disagree.
So, what have Beaver Galleries being doing right that sees them flourishing, while other galleries are withering? First, they have a great stable of artists with many of the leading names, locally and nationally, and there continues to be a good turnover, even after the global financial crisis.
Second, by having a well-stocked separate shop with highly-quality craft merchandise, they attract a steady stream of customers who want to buy a finely crafted, but reasonably priced gift.
Third, the popular cafe attached to the gallery brings the crowds, even on a quiet day, and boosts visitation numbers. Not every diner is a potential customer, but some are.
Finally, they have a loyal following, both physically and through their website, and have become an integral part of Canberra's cultural landscape.
The Beaver Galleries at 40 are still moving on, full steam ahead.