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Susie Beaver, owner, Beaver Galleries, 18 July 2014

FRANCES BALDWIN: Good morning everyone. I have met many of you last month at the Landmark Women lecture so welcome to the very popular series, today featuring the fabulous Susie Beaver from Beaver Galleries. Welcome to all of the familiar faces and also to many of you that may be new, including my mother Anne who is sitting in the third row there. Welcome and thank you for coming out on a sunny but still quite cool morning.

Before I introduce Helen Kon, I just wanted to remind you of a bit of housekeeping. Those of you who come often know that this session is going to be recorded, so if you could turn your mobile phones off, if you have one. Also we will be having questions but please wait for the microphone, which I will bring to you, so that everybody can hear your questions.

Finally as a bit of promotion, for those of you who may not have had the newsletter recently, the Friends are very excited to be scheduling some programs over the winter months that will be coming up in our What’s on calendar. They include some curatorial talks through the Lag Meta Aus exhibition with Jono Lineen and also the Warlpiri exhibition in August. Have a look at your newsletters but, if you are not familiar with the dates, please give me a call and I can book you into those functions. We are also very excited about the opening of the Spirited exhibition in September and we are scheduling some events around that. Any questions just give me a call.

I will now call on our Assistant Director Helen Kon to introduce Susie today. Thank you.

HELEN KON: I would like to welcome you all here this morning to the National Museum of Australia again. We have another very special guest today - Susie Beaver - to speak to us as part of this great Landmark Women series which has of course been going for quite a few years.

Susie Beaver first developed her love and interest in the arts during her university days and started working in the arts administration area immediately after she had finished doing her degree when she went off to work in the Australia Council in arts administration. She then furthered her experience and headed overseas to work for various arts organisations in London and Europe, and then came back to Sydney, before moving to Canberra in 1992 where she began the Beaver Galleries with her husband Martin, who is also here today and who I would like to welcome, and in between raising two children.

The wonderful Beaver Galleries, I think it’s fair to say, is an institution in Canberra. Whilst we call ourselves a cultural institution, I do believe that the Beaver Galleries is one as well. It’s the largest commercial gallery in the capital and exhibits work of contemporary Australian artists in a variety of mediums including paintings, sculpture, jewellery, glassware and ceramics.

But Susie’s involvement goes beyond running the Beaver Galleries into the work that she does around the community here in the ACT. Her local community involvement is well known through her work as president and as a board member of CAPO, the Capital Arts Patrons Organisation; on the ACT committee of Musica Viva; as the ACT member of the Craft Reference Group for the Visual Arts and Crafts Board of the Australia Council, and also interestingly as a board member of Affirm which raises funds for mental health research.

I would like you to welcome Susie to the stage. I’m sure she’s going to give us a very interesting talk about her life, the work and the passion that is behind Susie Beaver. Thank you Susie. [applause].

SUSIE BEAVER: Good morning everyone. Helen, thank you so much for that very warm introduction and to Frances for inviting me today and thanks to the Friends of the National Museum of Australia for inviting me to talk. I feel delighted and somewhat overwhelmed at being included with such an interesting and diverse group of extraordinary women who have spoken previously to you as part of this series.

You travel through your life and you do things from day to day. You make choices and then, when you’re asked to talk about your life as a whole, you stop and you look back and you realise that certainly for you it’s been very interesting and that you hope you have made and continue to make the most of any opportunities that come your way.

My husband Martin - and business partner, I need to say – and I own and run Beaver Galleries in Deakin, as you know. We work with many talented and extraordinary contemporary Australian artists from Canberra and from around Australia. But I will talk more about the gallery when I get to that point of how we ended up being in Canberra 22 years ago.

Here is a potted version of my life so far, which starts with my family. My parents were both born in Adelaide. My father Murray Gordon was the only child to Irish and English parents, and his father, my grandfather, died before I was born. This left my Irish grandmother a rather sad and lonely woman who pined for Ireland all her life, even though she left there when she was just 19 years old.

My mother Anne Berry was one of three girls born into a significant South Australian family whose forebears had been on the first ship with Colonel Light arriving in Adelaide in 1836. They were a family of pioneers who worked hard developing the first transport systems in their new state. They were the patrons of explorers into outback Australia and they made a significant contribution to the development of South Australia for several generations.

My mother’s father was a prominent architect in Adelaide, and my grandmother was involved in community charities and social events. As children, my two sisters and I were brought up hearing stories from our proud grandparents about the value of family and the rich history of our forebears. My mother’s side of the family was full of inspiring women. My great-grandmother was one of 16 children born in a very small town in outback South Australia, and her mother, having already borne these 16 children, decided to adopt another four parentless children in the town.

My great-aunt, who I was lucky enough to know for many years and who was a very special person in my life, was a colonel in the British Army in charge of women troops in the Middle East. Also of course there was my grandmother and my mother too. So when I think of landmark women I have many inspiring women to live up to.

My parents met when they were both 17. My father played the organ at the Adelaide Cathedral and my mother and her family were heavily involved in the activities of the church. Our parents were in love with each other their whole lives, and their relationship and devotion to each other was just extraordinary. My father was shy, gentle, intelligent and sensitive and was swept up by my mother’s warmth, her sense of humour, her large family, her laughter and her care. My father gained degrees in music, english and the law, and my mother trained as a typist.

After marrying and having their first child (my eldest sister Penny), Mum and Dad decided they had outgrown Adelaide and they moved to Melbourne where I was born. There my father started his career working for the ABC. Not long after I was born we moved to Sydney, and some years later my younger sister Prue was born. Our little family was now complete.

So I was brought up in Sydney, but we regularly travelled in our Ford Falcon station-wagon back to Adelaide and Melbourne playing ‘I spy’ and other games to make these long road journeys go faster. My school days were very happy ones and both my parents worked hard, with my mother also working to allow us to have as good an education as they could afford, often sacrificing things to educate their three daughters.

We were blessed with warm and loving parents, plenty of family and friends. Of course growing up in a family of women had its drawbacks too, especially for my Dad. There were plenty of family feuds, curfews that had to be ignored and broken, and much attempt at discipline. My parents also brought to our lives an interest in contemporary architecture and Australian art - and they bought the odd piece when they could – books, bottling their own wine in their garage, theatre and music.

When I was ten my Dad was offered a two-year contract working for the ABC in Singapore, and this was the start of my interest in and love of travel. Asia in 1969 was a wonderful place, and I still remember the first wave of heat as we descended the aircraft steps on arrival and the vibrant and often overwhelming smells of the Singapore streets.

It was from my parents that I learnt the rewards of hard work, the value of a good education, the joy and enrichment of the arts, the growth one experiences through travel, the belief that you can do anything you set your mind to and that your life is what you make of it.

By 1979 I had finished both school and an arts degree at university and decided that I would travel for at least a year before deciding what to do with my life. So off to Europe I headed. I was young, I was very naive, I was a little bit scared and searching for adventure and excitement - exactly the phase where our kids are at the moment, I have to say.

Twelve months later and with no money left, I returned home and spent every Saturday getting up early and trawling through the Sydney Morning Herald jobs pages trying to find something that would interest me and that I could apply for. I was lucky enough at the age of 22 to get a job at the Australia Council in Sydney, as Helen mentioned. It was my first job and the Australia Council is the federal funding body for the arts. As a project officer with music, visual and community arts boards, I was involved in meeting artists and arts organisations, assisting them in applying for government funds and working with the board of amazing professional artists and business people in assessing applications for funding.

It wasn’t always as glamorous as it sounds, because tea and coffee making were also on my job brief. It was, however, a fantastic first full-time job which again allowed me to travel - this time throughout Australia - and to meet and assist a wide range of artists working in many disciplines.

I spent six to seven years working on and off with the Australia Council learning about arts and artists. Regularly I would take periods of leave without pay to travel back to Europe where I worked in arts festivals in London and Edinburgh. During one of these visits to London I met my future husband Martin, never realising that we would be married, have children and run an art gallery in Canberra many years later. So I guess one way or the other my life fell into the arts, and from there I have lived it and loved it ever since.

Looking back on this, I think you realise how unexpected life can be. You make choices not realising that one particular path will end up shaping your future. So that is the first 30 years of my life, and then comes Canberra.

At this point I am going to cue Frances because I think you might need some visual distraction. We have put together a selection of some of the diverse art work made by some of the wonderful artists we are lucky enough to work with at our gallery. So if you want to tune out, you can simply enjoy the creativity of the artists’ work being shown behind me.

Having met and lived in London for a while, Martin and I decided to move back to Australia to start our family. This was a big thing for Martin, as he had lived in Europe and America for over ten years. He has degrees in both law and commerce and also a love and interest in the arts, which we share obviously.

Beaver Galleries was actually started in 1975 by Martin’s parents and when they decided to sell the gallery in 1992 we were living in Sydney and had just had our first beautiful child Lucy. We had an idealistic view that, if we could spend six months travelling together before we married - and we did - combine Martin’s legal and business background, my arts administration background and both our love of the arts, then we could certainly buy and run a business together and raise children too.

Consequently, we moved to Canberra with a three-month-old child, having bought a business we really knew nothing about. How naive we were then but I guess if you were not so naive then we may not have embarked on this journey. Looking back now it was much harder than we thought. For the first 15 months in Canberra, I pretty much cried most days, sad to have left friends and family in Sydney and, like many of us, thinking we would not stay in Canberra for very long. Not only were we learning how to run our business we were also learning how to be parents. When Lucy was seven months old I was pregnant with our second child, which probably also contributed to the crying every day.

Our baby was due during the doctors’ strike in Canberra, which you may remember in late 1993. After attending the opening of our Christmas exhibition on 26 November that year, I rather stupidly flew to Sydney with my Mum and Lucy and went into labour a few hours after arriving in Sydney. The plane trip worked. We were going to have that baby. Our gorgeous son Sam arrived that day.

Now on to what a commercial gallery like ours does. Well, our job is obviously to represent the artists whom we like, admire and want to exhibit. This comes down to a very subjective view about how Martin and I want our gallery to be. We have a personal philosophy behind most things we do, and of course this has evolved over time. Martin’s parents’ vision for their gallery was different to ours and if anyone has it after us it will be different then too. Business such as our gallery cannot stand still and needs always to be able to change.

Ultimately for us it’s about the quality of the work of the artists we choose to show, and the diversity of the range of materials and mediums. As you can see from these beautiful images, we exhibit paintings, prints, sculpture, ceramics, glass and jewellery. It’s about creating an experience for people visiting the gallery. It’s about educating and sharing information. We also extend our reach beyond Canberra by exhibiting our artists’ work at contemporary art fairs in Sydney, Melbourne and Chicago.

We need to be professional in everything we do. We need to provide great service and we try to share with our clients the passion we have for all our artists and their work. Behind all this though, we have to run efficiently as a business so that our gallery will survive and, in turn, our artists will continue to be supported.

I could talk much to you about the complexity of running an art gallery. I often think of that lovely analogy of the duck gliding over the pond with the feet flapping frantically below the surface. I imagine that applies to so many of us in our daily lives.

One needs for this particular job, and in no particular order: a good vision of the art that you want to show; the ability to identify and find good art; business acumen; dedicated and educated staff; a flexible light-filled building; a good work ethic - you would know that we are open six days a week; fantastic artists to work with; patience; selling skills; listening skills - we have to counsel people sometimes because we’re there and they want to talk to us; social media skills; wrapping skills; tea and coffee making skills; and, most of all, flat shoes.

You need to know how to communicate with people. You need to like people. You need to know how to give wise counsel and how to market your business. You also need logistics experience. You need to be able to pack fragile items to be sent around the world. You need to have the ability to efficiently move through piles and piles of administration and emails. You need to know how to clean the toilets and the floors. You need empathy - and so much more. Most importantly though, I think you really need a belief in what you are doing and a passion for the work of the artists you are representing and hopefully selling.

But it is also about our responsibility, and it’s a big one, to the artists that we work with. Each artist is effectively their own micro-business, so every commercial gallery like ours supports many small businesses. We actually help our artists stay afloat. This is, of course, depending on the assumption that the gallery sells the work for the artist. If they do, the artist in turn supports their own practice and their families, and so it goes on. Not only do we delight for the client when we see their pleasure in purchasing a piece of art, but we also know we will be helping an artist with their business whilst covering some of our costs too. It’s a great feeling, and nothing is better than telling an artist that their work connected with a buyer and that you have made another sale for them.

Our gallery represents many fantastic artists and I think one of the reasons we still do what we do is that we are continually inspired by the artists that we work with. This morning I would like to share a few of their journeys very briefly with you.

Christina Cordero is a print maker, and you have probably seen some of her images as we go by, and she has shown with our gallery for many years. She was born in Chile but she had to flee that country with her child in 1963 during the Pinochet regime. Christina was trained as an academic and she was a sociologist and both she and her husband were academics at the University of Santiago. The story of her literally fleeing in the night with her son to join her husband who was waiting for her in Australia is an absolutely chilling one. It still gives me goosebumps actually, and one that Christina did not tell me until many years after we met.

When Christina arrived in Australia, she decided to study painting and print making, and in 1990 she received her diploma of fine arts from the National Art School in Sydney. Christina’s work is characterised by the free association of ideas and interwoven narratives and often features small boats with women on board. Her work at times suggests the romance of antique maps and folk-loric illustration and is underscored by the reality of dual histories. She’s an artist with great humility whose life is her art.

Lucienne Rickard is a young Tasmanian artist who has only shown with us for a few years. Her extraordinary work is marked by a sharp eye for detail, zealous imagination and a fastidious almost obsessive mode of execution. Lucienne draws using graphite lead pencil on drafting film. Her images are often large and hauntingly beautiful in both execution and composition.

Her story with us is a really lovely one. Martin went to Hobart some years ago and went to a few little-known student art shows. He saw the exquisite works that Lucienne had done and tracked her down to the café where she worked as a waitress.

We first showed her drawings at a group show at our gallery and sold all her works. Then we gave her a solo show and again sales were great. And last year we took her work to the inaugural Sydney Contemporary Art Fair where all four of her large works - and we only had four - sold in the first day of the fair. That fair involved 80 of the best galleries from Australia and around the world, so it was stiff competition indeed.

This year Lucienne has been invited to exhibit in Primavera at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. This is a curated exhibition showcasing the work of just 14 young emerging Australian artists in the early stages of their career - an honour indeed for Lucienne and a great excitement for us. It is worth mentioning that she no longer works as a waitress and she works full time as an artist.

Thornton Walker is one of my very favourite artists, though of course we don’t have favourites in our business. Thornton has painted for many years and he continues to challenge himself as an artist while still creating the most beautiful paintings. They are filled with strength yet at the same time they are still. They are often meditative but they are also full of movement. As a gallery, we have complete faith in the work that he makes. It never disappoints us and it always engages the viewer.

GW Bot is a wonderful Canberra icon and also an extraordinary artist, who many of you may know. She is equally skilled in moving from prints to paintings to drawings and through to sculpture. Her works are strong in meaning and show, through exquisite mark making, her close and very personal relationship to the land.

And, finally, who could not fail to be inspired by Canberra sculptor and legend Jan Brown. She is simply an amazing woman and, even at the age of 92, she works most days. Jan says of her work that it is ‘incidental to a lifetime journey seeing, learning, knowing and making’.

The last 22 years have been a learning and fulfilling journey. Not only have I gained much through my job but also I have enjoyed being involved with other areas of numerous volunteer boards. As Helen mentioned, I was involved in CAPO, also the Canberra Museum and Gallery and Tourism ACT, which was an interesting experience. I learnt much from the great challenges of mental health when working with the Affirm and the Centre for Mental Health Research at ANU.

Our wonderful children have grown up and left Canberra to pursue their own lives. Our gallery continues to survive. Martin and I, after all this, continue to be married. We continue to love living in Canberra and doing what we think we do best. Now that I am an interstate mother, there is more time to put into our gallery and to think about where our gallery will go from here.

My husband, my children, my sisters and special friends remain very important to me and the support that we all give each other. There will also be time as one gets older to think about other things that we may want to do.

Our gallery has been built up and shaped by Martin and me, bringing our different skills and personalities together and creating a gallery that we feel really proud of. It would be foolish to say that it has all been easy. It hasn’t at all. Life is never that simple, nor would we want it to be. We have had to work really hard and we will continue to do so. It’s what we love.

I think I am an optimist and I always try to look at the positive things in life. One of the most valuable things I learnt from my parents, and in particular my Mum, was the value of a generosity of spirit. If I can live my life like that, both personally and professionally, I will be very content. Thanks for listening today. [applause]

FRANCES BALDWIN: Thank you very much, Susie, that was wonderful and very inspiring. Beaver Galleries and yourself are landmark institutions in Canberra. I hope you enjoyed that, ladies and gentlemen. We will take questions now, if anybody has questions for Susie before we go down for morning tea.

QUESTION: Thank you, Susie, I enjoyed that hugely. Do you seek out artists; do they seek out you; or both?

SUSIE BEAVER: It’s a bit of both. I think artists are in the unfortunate position that there are many more artists that need galleries than galleries needing artists. We know when we know what we see an artist’s work if we want that person. But many, many approach us. Of the people who approach us, we probably take less than five per cent of what we are offered. It’s a really big job sifting through information and emails from artists but it’s a job we try to do. We don’t always do it as efficiently as we should.

And then serendipitously you get approached by artists that you think will give your gallery something that you haven’t got. It’s a very subjective thing. We try to choose artists that are giving us something that another artist that we already have in our group isn’t giving us. We don’t want to compete within the group with each other but we want it to be a diverse and interesting range of artists.

QUESTION: Thank you, Susie, that was fascinating. Can you tell us a little bit about the challenges that you might be faced promoting Australian artists overseas, and that’s assuming that I think you do promote our artists overseas, and how successful you are with that?

SUSIE BEAVER: Thank you. For the last 14 years we have taken work to an art fair in Chicago. It’s a three-dimensional fair called SOFA. As you know, the gallery has a really strong reputation in glass and ceramics as well as other mediums, but Australian glass in particular is very much at the forefront in the international glass-making market. Martin has been taking work to this art fair in Chicago for a long, long time.

It is a challenge. It’s hugely expensive. All these fairs are great risk-taking events. If you cover your costs you’re lucky and if you make a bit more on top you’re really lucky. It’s a punt. You really hope that you choose the right work.

One of the most challenging ones for us was a fair that started four days after 9/11, and by then our art work was already on the plane. Everyone was committed to that fair in Chicago. It was a really challenging time. Nobody wanted to spend money over there at that time.

But the American market is such a big one that we really think this is a great way of promoting those artists in particular. It’s a challenge; it’s a good one. It’s really important that we get our business out of Canberra. That’s why the Sydney and Melbourne fairs are really important to us - we have clients in those places. When they come to Canberra it’s great. They are always surprised at how big our gallery is, because galleries in Sydney and Melbourne don’t always have the opportunity of being as physically large as ours. So the fairs are important - they are risk taking but it’s something we feel we need to do.

QUESTION: I come from a background of textile art, mixed media and that type of thing. Do you ever consider that type of art work?

SUSIE BEAVER: That’s a tricky question. We do sell textiles. In fact, I have a Jennifer Robertson woven scarf on today, who is a Canberra textile artist. We probably don’t exhibit much of textile work though. Again we don’t exhibit much photography either. There comes to a point where you actually say, ‘How many mediums can you effective cover?’ And then we are asked things like: ‘Will you show overseas artists?’ We say ‘No, it’s only Australian artists.’ Despite the fact that’s a really fascinating area, I am not convinced that we will move into other areas. We probably will stick to the areas that we know about and we want to deal with at this time.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. I just wanted to know whether you have ever been tempted to indulge yourself in making art work - or your children.

SUSIE BEAVER: I am not that clever, I have to say - no, never ever. I really admire people who do it. Lots of people say, ‘Oh you run a gallery, are you an artist too?’ We think we’re better at organising artists rather than doing it. Martin is much more likely to do drawing and things like that. I have never had much of an artistic bone in my body at all. I think I am better organising them and visually putting things together rather than doing it.

I have actually thought about doing print making at some point because I would love to know about the complexities of print making, the hands-on thing, but I am not convinced I would do it very well.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for that very interesting insight into running a gallery. How well is Australian art accepted overseas? Is it sought out or are we still breaking into the market?

SUSIE BEAVER: In terms of three-dimensional work and in particular glass, we are really sought out. Because glass making is a new area - new as in 20 or 30 years old - the reputation is well deserved, very highly regarded and well sought out and, pardon the expression, very good bang for buck. Australian glass art even though it seems extraordinarily expensive on the world market, it’s good value.

In terms of contemporary paintings and prints, it’s not an area we get involved in. We don’t compete with international markets in that area. There will, of course, be some artists that have big international reputations on an individual basis rather than anything else. We don’t take two-dimensional work to international art fairs - paintings, prints. There will certainly be Australian artists that will have international reputations.

A lot of people that come from overseas and come to visit our gallery, we have visitors from all over world, actually think that the quality of what they see in the contemporary art market is fantastic. We certainly hold our own.

QUESTION: What sort of interest do you get from national institutions and the Australian government in the exhibitions you have?

SUSIE BEAVER: Good question. We are kind of fortunate to be in Canberra, I have to say. One of the really valuable things about here is that it does give curators the opportunity to come. If they’re really interested, they can jump in their car and be with you in 10 minutes.

We do sell to the National Gallery. We have actually had quite a good year this year. We must have been showing really good things this year. There is a couple of things pending, which I won’t jinx by talking about them. We do get interest and support from mostly the National Gallery.

One of the interesting things too, that’s a bit of a segue to that, is that artists often think that Canberra is a little bit too small a place to consider showing. And then when they show here, they actually realise their work is exposed to a lot of people that would never get to see their work if they were in a big city.

In fact, one of our artists whom I talked about today said that we sell more in our gallery for him than a really significant Paddington gallery ever sold for him. I think it’s really interesting that they can come to a place that the population seems small but their reach is actually much bigger. Part of that is the fact that curators from the National Gallery amongst others can come to see what we are showing. So that’s a really valuable thing.

We don’t tend to sell a lot to the other state galleries. I think they tend to be supporting the galleries around them. The Parliament House art collection has supported our artists quite a lot over the years too. It’s a good place to be from that point of view.

For five years we had a contract with the Federal Government to provide all the gifts for Prime Minister and Cabinet. It was a pretty extraordinarily interesting five years. It was a lot of hard work. We were asked to be terribly creative at times. There is a very funny story where Martin was working on a Saturday and the Prime Minister’s office rang and said, ‘Quick, Diana has just had a baby,’ as if we didn’t know that was going to happen for nine months. It was Princess Diana, wasn’t it? Sorry, it was Princess Mary - wrong generation. They said, ‘We need to give a gift. Have you got some ideas?’ We didn’t just source artists’ work, we actually went outside our boundaries and we were sorting a lot of different gifts out from all over the place.

Martin quickly came up with an idea of first edition book of Snuggle Pot and Cuddle Pie and sourced around for first editions. The Prime Minister’s office forgot to tell us actually that they had chosen one of those. They announced it before we had the book and by that time all the first editions had actually ten minutes afterwards been snapped up by other people because they thought that was a really lovely idea. So we had to fly one in from New Zealand that we found. That was an interesting story.

We did sell a lot of Australian artists’ works to the Federal Government through that gift program, but it’s a tendered program so an organisation gets to tender for that job. But we do have ministers’ assistants rush in saying, ‘He’s going at 10 o’clock tomorrow or she’s off at three this afternoon, what do you have?’ We have provided a lot of gifts in those areas - more the shop things than the gallery things, I should say.

FRANCES BALDWIN: Will you join me again in thanking Susie very warmly for coming in today and appearing at Landmark Women. Thank you, Susie, and thank you for coming. [applause]

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Date published: 01 January 2018

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