Thursday, March 10th, 2016

Luisa Catanzaro – on why running a billion dollar entity is easier than running a commercial gallery

What is your earliest memory of art?

My earliest memory of art, which struck a cord with me, would be seeing Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and Pieta sculpture at St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. As an impressionable nine year old at the time, both of these works just stuck with me for life. It was all so grandiose and spectacular and so beautifully executed…

Why did you decide to open an art gallery? When did you first have the idea?

The easiest way to answer this question is to say that I didn’t want to die wondering about whether I should have opened a gallery! I have been collecting art since the early 1990’s and I have a number of friends who were artists and I guess I have always had an interest in various forms of art and culture. As well as that though I have a finance background. So it seemed like a natural segue for me to want to open a gallery. The idea first formed in my mind in the late 1990’s and my executive coach at that time helped me to realise that I could continue doing what I loved in the corporate world at the same time as opening a gallery. In other words I realised it was possible for me to have the best of both worlds and to have it all. Up until then I had been stuck in a mindset that it would have to be one or the other. With that in mind I bought what used to be the old Rozelle fire station in the year 2000, specifically to set up a gallery close to one of Sydney’s top art schools, Sydney College of the Arts.

How did Artereal Gallery end up here, in Rozelle, in this building?

Well, I initially spent considerable time looking at difference spaces in different areas of Sydney to see if I could find the right building to establish the gallery. Areas I looked at included Paddington and Surry Hills. Despite that, ideally one of the areas at the top of our wish list was Rozelle. From my perspective I did not necessarily want to be in a gallery strip or precinct, as I wanted the gallery to be a destination point.

I say ‘we’ as a very good artist friend of mine, Noula Diamantopoulos (now one of our represented artists and Artereal’s Managing Director) was looking for space to set-up her studio and art school as her existing Blackwattle space was being shut down for conversion and re-development into apartments. This was happening at the same time that I was looking for a space to open the gallery, so we decided to join forces. Fortuitously, Sydney College of the Arts is also just down the road and that was a bonus which we quite liked.

The truth is that the building that the gallery is in was not on the market for sale, but a real estate agent I was dealing with called me out of nowhere one day to say that he thought this building might become available if we approached the owner, as in fact he had sold this building to him initially and thought it may be the perfect time for the owner to move his publishing business to other premises.

Once the real estate agent mentioned to me the building was once the Rozelle fire station (sister building to the Balmain fire station) I knew exactly which building he was referring to and did not hesitate to ask him to approach the owner. I will never forget getting a building inspector in and the moment when he first climbed into the roof cavity and found the amazing iron trusses which support the buildings roof structure, and which had the been hidden behind a false ceiling. From there it was a matter of restoring the gallery as much as possible to its original layout, in a way which is respectful of its history and in keeping with the needs of a contemporary art gallery


What has been one of the most rewarding elements of owning and running a gallery?

For me, Artereal Gallery has always been about giving back to both our local community and the greater arts community. So that in and of itself is very rewarding. Additionally, being able to see how our artists have grown and developed as the gallery has grown is also very rewarding. As is the annual mentorship programme where we pick an Honours graduate from Sydney College of the Arts and mentor them for a year whilst providing them with a solo exhibition at the end of the twelve month period.

Do you have some highlights from the last ten years which you would like to share?

Well of course I am not allowed to have favourites! Nonetheless, there have been many highlights which resonate. For instance in terms of exhibitions, Ken + Julia Yonetani’s exhibition ‘Still Life: The Food Bowl’ at Artereal Gallery in 2011 was insane. We had close to 4,000 people in the gallery to see that show that month, some of whom had never been in a commercial or institutional gallery before. The average length that each visitor stayed in the gallery space was roughly half an hour – which is just extraordinary for visitors to a commercial gallery. People simply could not believe all the work on display was made of Murray Darling salt and seemed to really respond to the environmental message underpinning the work!

Other highlights include the extraordinary response received from the general public for the artists we showcased at our first art fair, Sydney Contemporary in 2013. From Stevie Fieldsend to Anna Carey and Michael Staniak, it was an exceptional response for our ‘first time’ at an art fair and one which was really rewarding for all involved.

I am also continually encouraged by our gallery model, which has allowed us over the years to take greater calculated risks. This, in and of itself, has allowed us to devote considerable time to performance artists such as Liam Benson, Noula Diamantopoulos and Sylvia Schwenk amongst others. Seeing their careers and practices develop over the years has been another highlight for me. But really I could just keep listing my highlights here…

What has running Artereal taught you?

The biggest lesson Artereal Gallery has taught and reinforced for me is the importance of authenticity, relationships and the team you have. As a gallery you are only as good as the artists you are able to work with and the team of staff you have to support and foster the strategy and the vision. I am indebted to all the artists who have signed up to be part of our programme over the years, and of course, to my incredible gallery team. At the end of the day, I have discovered that it is really about the relationships we build with our artists and our collectors.

Jokingly, I also say it is far easier to run a billion dollar entity than to run a commercial gallery!! And that’s because running a commercial gallery is highly personal and involves so much emotion and passion. Which is a very good thing in many ways and another reason I opened Artereal Gallery  – it acts as a balancing influence to my ‘other life’ and day time role as a Chief Financial Officer! That way I am cultivating both the left and right sides of my brain…

Where did the name Artereal come from?

The name ‘Artereal’ was conceived in a brainstorming session amongst a group of my friends. They had managed to whittle the potential list to about three names and Artereal resonated immediately with me when they showed me the list. In fact, initially, they had spelt Artereal traditionally as ‘Arterial’. However Noula Diamantopoulos, (one of our artists and Managing Director), suggested a spin on the lettering to change it to Artereal. I loved the suggestion, as did our branding experts Precinct Design, and so I decided to run with that. For me, Artereal has several connotations including; where two main roads intercept or a juncture, or; where lifeforce occurs via oxygen pumping through your bloodstream. Apart from these associations, I loved that the name was a symbolic nod to my Italian roots with the play on ‘Arte’ and ‘Real’… So it is a name that means many things to me…

Additionally, given our gallery model, which has been built around the fact that I was never going to play the role of the traditional Gallery Director / Owner, and given that my team were always going to be very prominent and integral to the gallery’s model, I had no intention of ever naming the gallery after me. So the name Artereal Gallery was selected for many, many reasons.

How did the model for Artereal Gallery develop?

Right from the start it was really important that the way in which Artereal Gallery was set up and structured worked in harmony with the reality of my ‘day job’  as a Chief Financial Officer. I had no interest in being in the gallery every day and fulfilling the role people traditionally associate with that of the Gallery Owner and Director. Perhaps because of my background in the corporate world, I have always been a big believer in finding the right people for each role and empowering them to then make that role their own. With this in mind, I have always placed enormous trust and belief in my team and have left them to get on with the day to day running of the gallery. This model, whilst a little unsual, works perfectly for us. Over the years the roles within the gallery have shifted and changed, but we have always managed to find the right balance and in fact I think there have been a number of really positive strengths that have arisen from our choice to run the gallery in this manner. For example, we have a number of curatorial voices present within the gallery from Barbara Dowse – our Senior Curator who has been with us since the very early days, to Rhianna Walcott  – our Gallery Manager and Curator. Having always had a number of voices and opinions present, we end up with a much more diverse range of artists showing in the space – something which keeps the gallery program fresh and exciting.

Additionally, I believe our model has been very agile and nimble and allowed us to take many more considered risks. This has meant we have worked or partnered with other entities such as Parramatta Artists Studios or Paradise Hills Gallery in Melbourne, to present cutting edge exhibitions and projects. For a short period we also had an invited Curatorial Advisory Board – which acted like a think-tank for us over a one year period and led to the development of a series of independently curated exhibitions at Artereal Gallery.

What are some of the funnier moments in the history of Artereal Gallery?

One of the funniest moments in Artereal’s history involved the installation of Ken + Julia Yonetani’s large 50kg (or so) salt chandelier in the gallery’s main window. The installation involved an abseiler hoisting himself and the salt chandelier up and over our 115 year old fire station iron trusses and roof beams! You can imagine how hilarious that would have looked to passersby as they looked through our front window!

What about Artereal Gallery are you most proud of?

There are many things about Artereal Gallery that I am proud of, including reaching our 10 year anniversary! That’s not an easy thing to achieve in this market and in the context of the Australian art world.

But mostly, outside of our artists, I am very proud that we have always been authentic to our model – and by this I mean we take calculated risks. We have continuously stretched ourselves to introduce change which was right for us at the time so that we are not just standing still. We have also always aimed to be authentic in all we do and in our relationships with our artists and the greater local community around us


What does the next decade for Artereal Gallery look like?

Over the next ten years I am excited to see Artereal expand its reach internationally and move to increasingly introduce our artists to international audiences. We are still working on exactly what this will look like and how it will come to pass, but we have some exciting ideas that we plan to explore…

In addition, the next ten years will be about continuing to stay true to our own identity as ‘Artereal Gallery’ whilst making sure we never lose sight of the fearless experimentation that defined the early years and the first decade of the gallery’s existence. It is important to all of us here at Artereal that we keep following our instincts and doing what feels right for the gallery – taking calculated risks and always being open to new opportunities and trying new things…