35 years and counting: Utopia Art Sydney

“I ended up running a gallery by accident,” Christopher Hodges admits as he takes in the sunshine in the courtyard of Utopia Art Sydney. The red-brick building in the once-industrial area of Waterloo is the third address the gallery has operated from in a history that now spans thirty-five years.

Utopia Art will present a selection of work by their artists at Sydney Contemporary, 7-10 September 2023.

The anniversary of Utopia Art Sydney is a moment to reflect for the founding director who was, in the early days, one of many young artists in Sydney working multiple part-time jobs to support their exhibiting career.

“In the late eighties I saw artists who needed a hand” he explains, with the same purposeful succinctness he gives to all the topics we discuss. “The first artist’s work I ever sold was John R Walker, who was showing at a gallery and had been owed money for a long time. I just put some of his work in a folder and sold it to friends and collectors who I knew.”

“I was helping a mate,” he continues. “I didn’t intend to have a gallery, but I bumped into somebody from Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association who represented the Utopia community. They’d had an exhibition in Canberra where nothing was sold. So I said: I think I can probably sell some of this. I was one of the few people who actually paid the artists. So I came into the fold and that’s really how I came to be exhibiting art on behalf of others.”

Early in 1988 Hodges registered Utopia Art as a business and established a gallery space upstairs at 50 Parramatta Road, Stanmore, well away from the established, Paddington art scene. The name Utopia referred not only to the string of Northern Territory communities whose artists he was now exhibiting and facilitating for, which would come to include Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Gloria Petyarre and Ada Bird Petyarre. It encapsulated the optimism of a venture commenced without any financial safety net.

While Utopia Art Sydney has sometimes been mistaken as dealing exclusively in Indigenous art, from its inception it was an early exemplar of the same committed representation being offered to artists from remote, Indigenous communities and to non-indigenous artists. Utopia Art Sydney brought Kngwarreye and the Petyarres to an international public at the same time that it was building the profiles of Liz Coats, John R Walker, and Peter Maloney. In 2012 Makinti Napanangka, and David Aspden, both Utopia Art artists, would be included in the Sydney Biennale, appearing on an equal footing that would have been hard to imagine in the 1980s. In Utopia Art’s early years, convincing the nation’s cultural institutions to see works by Indigenous artists as part of an evolving dialogue, rather than as time-bound ethnographic artefacts, required persistence.

“We started showing Aboriginal art in a contemporary way” Hodges says. “We didn’t talk about the Aboriginality of it, we just talked about it as great art in the beginning and we dealt with contemporary collectors. I was trying to make people see how good the paintings were. Over the years it changed because we’ve heightened the awareness of Indigenous art to a point where people do want to look at the back-story, and understand the fine detail. But in the beginning it was really, really difficult.”

The importance of the task was such that today, when asked about Utopia Art Sydney’s achievements, Braidwood-based landscape painter John R Walker cites not his own moments of success with the gallery, but “the breakthrough day in the early nineties when Edmond Capon came up the dusty flight of stairs to view a large Emily Kame Kngwarreye painting (Untitled, Alkalhere, 1992), and said – the AGNSW will have that painting.” Hodges cites Gloria Petyarre’s success in the Wynne Prize for Landscape Painting in 1999 as a similarly important moment: an Atnangkere woman celebrated as an important and original contemporary artist.

“If you talk to Mantua Nangala, who will have a solo show with us later this year,” Hodges says, “you will get a very cogent talk about the history and stories but she also says: ‘Very neat. I like the dots very neat. Not too many colours. Maybe one, two, three, four colours, and very, very careful. No mess.’ That’s the words of a painter plotting their vision.” Although there is great diversity of intention amongst Utopia Art’s artists, clarity of image and articulacy of touch are qualities they all seem to cultivate, regardless of cultural background.

Asked what the future holds Hodges points out that it has never been his aim for the gallery to become a dominant market force, but rather to maintain his artists’ connection to an engaged and steadily growing audience. In 2023 Utopia Art’s staff embody a history of Sydney’s gallery scene, employing Bryan Hooper (long associated with Coventry Gallery) and Brett Stone (ex-Rex Irwin gallery) and bolstered by the support of Hodges’s partner Helen Eager, an artist once represented by Watters Gallery. Utopia’s artists tend to stay with the gallery for a long time, a loyalty explained well by one of the youngest, Kylie Stillman. “My first solo exhibition was with Utopia Art Sydney in 2005,” Stillman says. “When Christopher said ‘you have only used one wall’ I was adamant: one line of works was my vision for the exhibition. He answered as he always does, ‘whatever the artist says goes.’”

For all of the success the gallery has had finding buyers and institutional recognition for its artists, and the part it has played in the slow evolution of Australia’s recognition of its Indigenous cultures, Hodges is not entirely satisfied with the local visual arts culture. “In America the vitality that you see in the art market is a different sort of vitality than we have here,” he observes. “They have people keenly interested in artists who are coming through. I’d like to see a bit more of that enthusiasm – just to look, not necessarily to buy. In Australia it seems like we’re all very content with things the way they are.”

Having just witnessed an Australian Prime Minister speaking to the media about the country’s soul, while standing beside Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles and the Aboriginal Memorial, Hodges is hopeful that we may be coming into more propitious times. “The culture of a nation is important, and it needs to be championed and preserved,” he asserts, which for him means one thing above all others: fostering actual, physical encounters with works of art. “There are curators who I know well on the phone or from the internet who have never stood in front of the paintings I talk to them about, and when they do, they get a good shock.”

“So, what I do – in the nicest possible way – is to pester people, encourage people, try anything I can to get people to stand in front of a work of art and pay attention to it. Our culture is vital and living and to be present in that moment is terrific.”

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 63

7 – 10 September 2023
Sydney Contemporary (Utopia Art Booth C01) 
Carriageworks, Sydney

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