Posted: 18 Feb 2010 | By: Andrew Nicholls
"I did some notes some time ago and worked out that something like thirty-five galleries have opened and closed in Western Australia since we opened," Galerie Dusseldorf co-Director Douglas Sheerer stated in our recent interview. "There have been five directors of the Art Gallery of Western Australia, at least eight different arts writers at The West Australian and we've gone from four different newspapers with arts columns to one with a single column on a Friday."
His observations allude to the unique position Galerie Dusseldorf holds in Western Australia's cultural landscape, recognised as one of the state's finest commercial galleries as well as its longest running. The space celebrated its thirtieth birthday in 2006 and to date has held close to 450 exhibitions. It is an impressive legacy in a city in which the enduring gold-rush mentality can make for transient culture, and makes it one of the oldest spaces in the country still operating under its original name and directorship.
The gallery was named after the hometown of Sheerer's wife Magda, who founded the space in 1976. In keeping with its German derivation, the gallery's original curatorial agenda was to showcase European graphic art and introduce international print practice to the comparatively isolated West. The gallery held exhibitions by Miró, Moore and others during its first few years of life, as well as shows by national exhibitors such as the Victorian Printmakers Group. However, it was not long before local artists from a variety of disciplines began approaching them for exhibitions. Brian MacKay, who is still represented by them, contacted the gallery in 1977 and presented Dusseldorf's first local solo exhibition for the Festival of Perth two years later. Within four years, Douglas had joined Magda as co-Director and the gallery had outgrown its modest space in the Perth CBD and relocated to larger premises nearby, where it stayed for over a decade.
During this period, the gallery's print-focused origins gave way to a variety of media, and particularly large-scale sculpture, reflecting the buoyancy of the 1980s, a heyday for the Perth art scene during which local artists enjoyed comparatively generous funding and expansive studio spaces. In 1995, Dusseldorf moved a second time, to its current, custom-built premises in Mosman Park south of the city, opening with a Howard Taylor exhibition.
The current gallery space, designed by Western Australian architect Brett White, is one of the most attractive in the state - a large, somewhat austere rectangle equipped with a moveable wall to allow up to three exhibitions to show simultaneously. A second gallery space was converted into a stock room soon after the relocation as Dusseldorf's stable grew in size and stature. The gallery currently represents forty-three artists across a range of media, of whom more than half are Western Australian. This includes Sheerer, who himself exhibits occasionally.
Dusseldorf is distinctive, not just for the maturity of the gallery but also the length of time for which the majority of its artists have shown with it: in Brian McKay's case, more than thirty years, Douglas Chambers since 1980 and Ted Snell since 1982. Currently more than half of Dusseldorf's artists have been showing there regularly for over fifteen years. Iconic Western Australian artist Howard Taylor approached the gallery during the mid-1980s, his first solo exhibition with the gallery taking place in 1986. Taylor would go on to show with Dusseldorf until his death in 2001, with the gallery now managing his estate as well as that of sculptor David Watt, Sheerer stating that it is important that when an artist passes away their career is still properly managed posthumously. In Taylor's case, this has incorporated an ongoing series of exhibition projects showcasing his practice and previously unseen works from his studio, including the major retrospective Phenomena that showed at the MCA (2003) and Art Gallery of Western Australia (2004), for which Douglas and Magda worked closely with AGWA and MCA curators.
Although the Sheerers are proud of the long-term relationships they have been able to maintain with many of their artists, this does not mean that new exhibitors are not invited into the fold. Indeed, in 1998 they launched a collaborative scholarship with Curtin University (where Sheerer studied), awarded annually to a postgraduate student. The award consists of an invitation to undertake a solo exhibition at the gallery with the option of commercial representation (if agreed upon by everyone involved). Since 1998, the scholarship has been awarded on an almost annual basis, to ten artists so far - the most recent being Mark Parfitt in 2008 - of whom seven are still with the gallery. Issue 21 of aAR profiled the work of Kim Medlen, the latest recipient to have undertaken his scholarship exhibition at the gallery, who was awarded the prize in 2007. The scholarship recipient is selected collaboratively by Douglas and Magda, the head of the Curtin Art School and the Director of the John Curtin Gallery (where the postgraduate exhibition takes place), and allowed a lead-up time of up to two years. This ensures ample time for the artist to refine and produce enough work for an exhibition in the large gallery space. Sheerer considers the project an ongoing success in invigorating the gallery with younger practitioners on a regular basis while facilitating mentorship for a promising emerging artist. Many of the recipients have additionally won other early career accolades including Samstag Scholarships, QANTAS Awards, or being curated into Primavera.
Sheerer attributes Dusseldorf's success and longevity to the excellence of its artists and the passion of the directors. They travel regularly to appraise the art scene interstate and abroad and are confident of the strength of their own program in an international context, although remain frustrated by the challenges of promoting their artists outside of the country's most isolated state capital. "What hasn't changed for Western Australian artists is the tyranny of distance ... We in Western Australia do not get the interstate visiting curators so prevalent in the 1980s. Subsequently, and as a consequence, 'full solo exhibitions' don't get seen and West Australian artists and galleries suffer from that." Nonetheless, Dusseldorf continues to embody the vitality of artistic practice in the West.
Galerie Dusseldorf opens 2010 with Howard Taylor: A Major extensive exhibition of Sculptures, Constructions and associated Paintings and Drawings, from February-April.
Image: Bevan Honey, Rorschach I, 2008, enamel and estapol on plywood, 84 x 120 x 26cm.