An insider’s guide to buying your very first work of art

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An insider’s guide to buying your very first work of art

I first met Sebastian Goldspink in the basement of the Kings Cross car park. It was hot and smelly, but he ran the most spectacular ARI (artist-run initiative), Alaska Projects, in the dungeon. This is where he works for Ramesh Nithiyendran (now with Sullivan and Strumpf), Sarah Contos and Tom Polo (both now with Roslyn Oxley), Reko Rennie (Station Gallery), Jonny Niesche (now with Sarah Cottier), Kylie Banyard (Nicholas Thompson Gallery) showed and many others.

Now he runs Redleaf in Woollahra, where the ventilation is better. Goldspink is a supporter of emerging artists – even when curating the 2022 Adelaide Biennale, he selected icons such as Julie Rrap and Shaun Gladwell alongside newer artists, such as Min Wong, James Tylor and Rebecca Selleck. Later he manned the first National Art School stall at Sydney Contemporary.

ARIs are where you’ll find creators right at the start of their careers. Their work may have previously been in a student show (if you want real bargains, visit annual graduate shows at Sydney College of the Arts, National Art School and UNSW Art & Design).

But very often young artists will have their first serious exhibitions, perhaps their first work, as opposed to one or two pieces, at an ARI. Penelope Benton, new executive director of the National Association for Visual Arts, says ARIs are hotbeds of experimental art practice, important spaces for artists at all stages of their careers. Don’t be scared by the word experimental! This may have led you to Sarah Contos’ body parts at the long gone and much lamented MOP.

Sydney has some glorious and surprising ARIs and sometimes young artists (and even older ones) will hang around, answering questions, looking nervous and secretly hoping, “Pick me! Pick me!” You can have your first discussions with the makers, usually quite nervous. Will they tell you what the job is about? Certainly. You can see if it matches what you think.

The grandparent of all Sydney ARIs is Firstdraft, born in 1986, residing in Woollomooloo. Now it’s more mainstream, has employees, gets government grants – but the vibe is still emerging artists. You can’t buy directly from them – JD Reforma, development manager at First Draft, says Firstdraft encourages buying directly from the artist.

“We bring artists their first events and their first audiences,” says Reforma. Every year in November it holds a magnificent auction to raise funds and the artists are not only beginners but also stars such as Tracey Moffatt and Noel McKenna.

Try Airspace, a deceptively large space at 10 Junction Street, Marrickville, which is high on the experimental, including the dramatic felt body part sculptures made by Kirsten Drewes earlier this year. They were affordable and arrestable. Think fluffy Louise Bourgeois.

Elevator ARI deserves attention because it lost its Lismore site not once but twice to the floods and survived. The water broke the ceiling of the second floor, says co-founder Betty Russ. They have just reopened “by the skin of our teeth”. Russ says it’s the only creative arts space open in the area. They sell on the spot. New shows start next week.

Rebecca Gallo is one of 12 directors of Pari, the only ARI in western Sydney, she says. It’s a side hustle for this artist and curators, but “we love it and we care about it”. Exhibitions are always group shows, with artists whose work connects in some way. Artists often hang around the shows so you can talk to them and buy work from them. Pari also holds events and lectures.

Boomalli is a cooperative for First Nations artists from NSW. It showcases around 60 artists, a mix of emerging and established and is directed by Bronwyn Bancroft (not only an amazing artist but also the author of Australia’s best baby books). The next show, Umbarra (Black Duck) takes flight! is a collaboration with Umbarra Aboriginal Cultural Center (Wallaga Lake NSW), representing emerging artists from the NSW south coast.

LÆRK is a bit of a cross between ARI and new commercial gallery. The aim is to showcase local, queer, cross-cultural work and it is named after its director, Annie Lark. 163 Wilson St Newtown

Other ARIs include:

Our Neon Foe, 411 Parramatta Rd, Leichhardt

Puzzle Gallery, 21 – 23 Wellington Street, Chippendale

Tiles at Lewishamd Chris Burton who represents the new gallery says it will showcase artists from the inner west and from Canberra, a natural extension. Works from $300.

Frontyard is a building, a creative residency program, a library, a garden among others, mostly located at 228 Illawarra Rd, Marrickville NSW 2204.

Disclaimer: I have been visiting art galleries with my spouse for 40 years. We took our children when they were small enough to be taken – and then later, even when we had to drag them there. They give up complaining after a while. Now I have been to most of the places mentioned here, bought from many of them and even had some of those spicy emails and phone calls when the addiction overtook the lived reality of an existence. I bought a small Bangala bass painting from Myer (yes, it had a gallery) in 1983. It was about $100. I still love it. Art fairs are the closest you’ll ever get to a visual arts mall. Go yourself.

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