Two Decades of the James Makin Gallery

Recently, on a busy Saturday afternoon of Melbourne gallery openings, I visited James Makin Gallery in Collingwood.

The place was packed. Artist Godwin Bradbeer, as part of his current exhibition, was giving a public demonstration of his very personal method of making drawings that are almost paintings, and paintings that are almost drawings. “All these artworks are drawn in what was once called freehand, in graphite and waxed chinagraph pencil,” he told the crowd. “At different stages, the drawings have been burnished with the sort of spoons you would find in any old cutlery drawer . . .”

Gallery Director Jessica Velasquez came across to me, standing at the back of the throng, and whispered “We’ve got over seventy people here, we’ve had to close the doors!”

The punters were fascinated! I don’t know why galleries and museums don’t do this more often.

Later, knowing the gallery’s twenty-year anniversary was approaching, I caught up with James Makin in the gallery’s spacious viewing room, and asked him to reflect on the first two decades of his operation. What were the highs and lows? “There have been many ups and downs. Surviving the Global Financial Crisis certainly brought both extremes. Some of the highs have been the many sell-out exhibitions over the years. This goes back to my first space in the early 2000’s when the market was crazy with artists such as Alice Byrne, Luke Sciberras, Ian Parry – who I showed in my first Armadale Gallery – through to more recent times, including Michael Vale’s sell-out at MAF [Melbourne Art Fair] last year.”

Tell me, I asked, about the different gallery spaces you have had over the years, and what makes this one special? “The first one was in Armadale from 2003 to 2009. It was more-or-less a shopfront, a place to get started and gain exposure. My parents have been there the whole journey. Opening a commercial art gallery when you’re twenty-four years old, with no business background, is not the most sensible move, but they supported me, and still do. The first gallery in Collingwood, from 2009 to 2020, was a huge expansion, post GFC, and a risky move. But looking back, it helped me to develop my stable, and gain more experience with larger exhibitions. We now show a diverse stable of figurative, landscape, and abstract artists, across painting, sculpture, photography, and ceramics. The current space, in Islington Street, Collingwood, was designed in collaboration with Tristan Wong, former director of SJB architects. It was a huge outlay. But as I see it, investing in my gallery is the best way I can support my stable of artists, provide them with a world-class exhibition venue in which to expose their work, and support their career growth. The new space has two adjoining exhibition galleries, a large stockroom, a private client viewing room – where we’re sitting now – and back-of-house offices. Its footprint is over 375sqm, with 5m ceilings, and polished concrete floors.”

Looking ahead, the future is bright, and he’s supported by a great team. “We regularly attend national art fairs. Both Melbourne and Sydney always bring with them a certain amount of excitement. I presented a solo exhibition of Kristin McIver, a neon and installation artist, at Art Stage Singapore around 2013. The booth was voted in the Top 5 by Billionaire Magazine. That felt good. We’re now representing several Kiwis, such as Telly Tu’u, Toby Raine and Rebecca Wallis. This trans-Tasman artistic representation is of great interest to me, especially since my mother is Kiwi.” And his father is, of course, the landscape painter Jeff Makin.

“One of the greatest honours you can have in this game is to exhibit and represent your father, as Tim Olsen, Sam Dickerson, and historically Pierre Matisse have done.”
In today’s febrile marketplace, having to contend with everything from AI to online sales and auctions, and social media, it’s sensible for any gallery to diversify. I asked him about what went on outside the walls of the physical gallery? “The separate ‘branch’ of the gallery is James Makin Advisory, or JMA. It’s growing in a very satisfying way. We provide collection, management, and curatorial services to some of Australia’s top companies. These include BHP, Medibank, and ANZ. I also helped design ANZ’s own gallery. We now run an exhibition program there. We are also expanding the ANZ collection for new and diverse artists across the Asia Pacific. It’s very exciting.”

Behind his calm demeanour, there is a restlessness about this dealer – who trained as an artist himself. I sense it is to do with the way the art world currently operates – not just the bricks and mortar real estate, but the state of newspaper reviewing, art schools, and consignment-based operations in an increasingly digital age. “A solo show every year or two, and inclusion in the odd art fair is not enough to support the livelihoods of most artists. How do we promote and generate more revenue for the artists? It’s incredibly difficult from a business perspective when the gallery’s only source of income is sales-based. How are galleries as a business better structured so that they survive the tough times? I’ve seen countless galleries come and go over the years and the question of longevity in this game is one that I feel continuously needs to be readdressed.”

And in the week when The New Yorker magazine devoted upwards of 10,000 words to the uber-dealer Larry Gagosian and his nineteen galleries with impeccable stable of blue chip artists, Makin’s view of the Australian press is gloomy. “When I started James Makin Gallery twenty years ago there was an actual ‘arts section’ in the paper, now you can hardly find an art critic – let alone a whole page dedicated to art alone. I mean real criticism, not just a ‘review’.”

But his personal view for the next two decades of his gallery is much brighter. “I’d like to bring more international art to Australia, and to take Australian art offshore.”

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, issue 64 

Celebrating 20 Years: Group Exhibition 
14 – 29 October 2023 
James Makin Gallery, Melbourne  

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