Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery (established in 1981) is a two-block stroll from Bondi Beach along Lamrock Avenue, and the gallery thrives rather than starves in its low-traffic location. It stretches spaciously across two floors and has many storerooms to house its expansive stock. Away from the traditional hubs of Sydney’s fine art establishments, Coo-ee relies on long-standing customers and repeat visitors rather than off-the-street patronage. It is a place where interior designers and art consultants can bring their clients, and according to the gallery, low overheads mean less pressure to sell inferior work and the ability to price work competitively at current market values.
For twenty-five years, director Adrian Newstead ran the gallery at its former premises on Oxford Street, describing the experience as ‘relentless’. He tried to outrun the recession of the early 1990s and was selling a lot of art, but just not enough.
These days, Newstead has time to pursue different projects and Coo-ee has become the nexus of his activities as an art market commentator, art consultant, gallery director, online entrepreneur and curator and exporter of Aboriginal Art.
Earlier this year, the gallery shipped two complete exhibitions to private galleries in Paris and another to a commercial gallery in Seattle. The latter will feed off interest in Seattle Art Museum’s exhibition of the collection of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi; early customers of Coo-ee Gallery who bought their first work back in the 1980s.
With a New York consultant on board, Coo-ee has a mainline into the North American market and has penned in a first show for autumn in a commercial gallery in Central Park West. Even as the value of annual Aboriginal art sales at auction has decreased in Australia for the fourth consecutive year, from around $26 million at the market’s peak in 2007 to just $8 million last year, Coo-ee is tapping into the international market’s thirst for more desert art.
Domestically, the gallery has also been well positioned to make the most of the recent slump; with the global financial crisis stifling an inchoate secondary Aboriginal art market and opportunities to sell at auction at a high level drying up, Coo-ee has seen an increasing number of serious collectors consigning works for resale.
The gallery’s perennial presence and Newstead’s credentials – he ran the Aboriginal Art department at Lawson-Menzies during the industry’s halcyon period between 2003 and 2007 – make it a safe port of call for investors in uncertain times.
Newstead is confident works from his gallery have a higher chance of being accepted into major auction houses, and while he concedes that any collector’s market is an elitist construct, he believes the value that a work gains from Coo-ee’s imprimatur are well deserved. For Newstead, what some esoterically term ‘having the eye’ is the inevitable outcome of a lifetime spent dedicated to a specialist area: ‘You know which are good paintings by a certain artist… and which are grist to the mill’.
Years working directly with artists, including heavyweights like Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Rover Thomas, has also give Coo-ee’s director an intimate knowledge of Aboriginal culture (at the time of interview, Newstead had just returned from a trip to Lajamanu, 1000km south of Darwin, with Guy Maestri and Luke Sciberras) and it is these factors that Newstead would argue set the gallery apart in an industry that sees galleries, not to mention carpetbaggers, come and go with the wind.
For potential investors looking to cut corners at the other end of the market, Newstead warns that the attempt to subvert or avoid the market dynamics is utter naivety: ‘There are very, very compelling reasons why certain artworks, handled by certain peoples, are highly collectible’.
Coo-ee represents a select few contemporary practising Aboriginal artists, among them Rosella Namok, Abie Loy Kemarre, Kathleen Petyarre and the Lockhart River artists, and supplements solo shows from these artists with curated exhibitions sourced from around the country, and the Director’s Pick shows, which draw out stockroom highlights.
With a full-time gallery manager employed, this schedule allows Newstead time to pursue some significant side projects: the Australian Indigenous Art Market Top 100 website, for example, uses data from the Australian Art Sales Digest to track secondary market sales of Aboriginal artwork and rank the top one hundred Indigenous artists accordingly. Newstead has also completed work on a history of the Aboriginal art movement, due to be published early 2013.
Despite the market’s downturn, Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery has carved out a diverse niche in the market that revolves around an ethos of quality over quantity. While there is a glut of Aboriginal art, Newstead is optimistic about the movement he has championed for the past three decades: ‘Ever since I’ve been involved, people have been saying that Aboriginal art will be buried under an avalanche of airport art. Nothing could be further from the truth’. Newstead estimates that over five million paintings have been painted since 1970 by Aboriginal artists, and of those, ‘100,000 are Aboriginal Australia’s great legacy to art history’.
-Ben Garrard, Australian Art Review Jul-Aug 2012