Surviving or Thriving? In the World of Art


By Sunari Sooriaarratchi

Having worked in the capacity of Curator/Managing Director (partner) of a small private art gallery in North Melbourne for the past two years, I have had varied experiences. I have had the joy and privilege of working alongside some lovely, very dedicated and talented artists who were very humble people. I’ve also seen the ugly side of haggling, conceit and general dog-eat-dog-ness.

You have to have a thick skin to survive, let alone thrive, in this arena. If you don’t have one, or an interest in developing one, then perhaps this is not the world for you. I must say, being ‘in’ the industry has made it both more enjoyable as well as less so, and that’s not just as a result of the above. It is also because, having now removed myself from the more managerial aspects of the business and having handed these over to my partner, while remaining an advisor, I am currently much happier. It is freeing to envision going to an ‘opening’ simply to enjoy the work and the night/afternoon and not having to scout talent at the same time. It may not appear to be ‘work’ but it fills you with a tension and a seriousness which I now see, has oftentimes killed the light mood of exhibition openings for me. While I still enjoy creating and curating, the ‘dealing’ side of things is one I am happy to leave behind.

It is human nature in situations where money is exchanged for services (the insinuation is not lost on me) that the party in the position of the buyer tends to want to get more bang for their buck. Perhaps when you are a small-made South Asian woman, this can seem to be slightly more in your face. It is my belief that this attitude to the business tends to be directed less towards my white male counterpart than it is to me –be it as it may be, that my opinion is based on my perception, and that the truth of this perception may never be truly known, even to me. In reality, we have both been affronted, to our faces while standing side by side. Sometimes though, the affronts have taken place in the absence of my partner. Whether that be by design or by coincidence remains a mystery.

The only way to remove this ugly aspect of the situation would be to remove the monetary factor – or to make the model work by means of external funding and a standard commission – or so you would think. People always try to push boundaries and bend the rules, and the fact that there essentially are none makes every other venture a reference point for your practice and a veritable chip in the hand of an aggressive client. In a museological context as far as I can see, this is not an issue, because sales, if they take place, are not open to the public but institutionally and sometimes diplomatically managed affairs.

I am now involved in setting up art courses for the Australian Centre of Performance and Art, recently renamed to accommodate what I bring to the picture. This is a sphere where I have so far had largely positive work experiences. I am more at home as a creator, teacher, mentor and artist than anything else, and I used to channel these skills in my work in galleries with artists. I have found managing studios ok, and managing residencies a bit like being a landlord, which is fine if you can handle that. There are many areas where one can ‘fit’ into the art world. At the end of the day, it may be more beneficial to try a few things to see what really ‘fits’ you. 

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