Joy Warren, who died in the early hours of Saturday, January 3, 2015, was one of the towering figures in the Canberra art scene for over four decades.
She established her Solander Gallery in 1974, at a time when the visual arts in Canberra were experiencing a major explosion of interest. Joy Warren rode on the crest of this wave with her gallery exhibiting some finest Australian art nationally as well as being supportive of emerging artists from the Canberra region.
In the same year as she established the Solander Gallery, the Abraxas Gallery, an important venue for contemporary art, was established, Gallery Huntly a year earlier, Beaver Galleries in 1975 and Chapman Gallery the following year. The ACT chapter of the Arts Council was staging many innovative shows and the future National Gallery, under the visionary leadership of James Mollison, had commenced buying art aggressively for a building which was only to open in 1982.
Joy Warren had several careers before establishing a commercial art gallery in Canberra. In Melbourne, she performed as an actress with the National Theatre and following her arrival in Canberra in 1955, with her architect husband, Robert Warren (who died in 2002), she spent about fifteen years on stage with Canberra Repertory Society. She also played the role of a public-service wife in a film targeting cadet diplomats encouraging them to move to Canberra. At the same time she worked as a B-grade journalist (Warreb's term) and in 1963 set up her own public relations business, Joy Warren Promotions. After travelling abroad widely with her husband, who was then employed as a housing consultant with the United Nations, the Warrens permanently settled in Canberra in the early 1970s, when they were aged in their 50s. When Joy Warren opened her Solander Gallery in Yarralumla, together with a broad mix of some of the best contemporary Australian non-Indigenous artists, she also held exhibitions of Aboriginal, Papua New Guinean, Indonesian, African, Eskimo, Turkish, Mexican Peruvian, Indian and Japanese art. These were some of the earliest exhibitions of such art to be held in the nation's capital.
Over the subsequent decades the cultural landscape in the nation's capital changed significantly as the institutional art sector seemed to grow, as if on steroids, while the commercial art gallery scene, after a period of rapid expansion, started to contract and in fact is smaller now than it was in the late 1970s. The Solander Gallery powered ahead and established a loyal following, not only from some of the country's most famous artists, who included Robert Juniper, John Coburn, Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Andrew Sibley, John Firth-Smith, Robert Jacks, Imants Tillers, David Boyd, Frank Hodgkinson, Roy Churcher, Margaret Woodward, Alun Leach-Jones, Garry Shead, Mandy Martin, Robert Boynes, David Larwill, Michael Taylor and Judy Cassab, but with the Canberra art buying public. Solander became one of the very few galleries in Australia where it was possible to see some of the most accomplished and expensive art in the country and the only place in Canberra where it was possible to find buyers for this art.
Solander Gallery remained a main player in the Canberra art scene until the last few years with the indefatigable Warren at its helm. She became a cultural icon with a flair for publicity, possibly stemming from her background in public relations. In the early days, the Solander Gallery became the main venue for a lot of high quality emerging Australian art and it is a tribute to Warren that she entered into a personal relationship with many of the artists so that they remained loyal to her, frequently to the end of their lives. To attend Joy Warren's openings was to be part of a continuous party with one of the most engaging hostesses imaginable. She was a 'people magnet' with a lust for life, laughter and the art world. When I saw her last, in 2014, she called after me as I was leaving "don't make it such a long time between drinks next time, I can't hang around forever". Somehow I find it difficult to imagine Canberra, without Joy Warren hanging around forever.
Warren presented a rare combination of a drama queen and an inspirational art entrepreneur, she was vivacious and with a strong dose of joie de vivre, and for over four decades she made a significant contribution to the cultural life of the nation's capital. Her passing marks an end of an era for the visual arts in Canberra.