Sydney gallerist Brenda May is in many ways the epitome of the adage ‘one door closes and another opens’. Having represented contemporary Australian artists for almost 40 years, this journey has been a series of reinvented chapters rather than a seamless build-up.
It’s a story of resilience required in any gallery business and agility to respond to changing trends – and we’re not just talking about trends in aesthetics or art. The landscape of commercial galleries has changed dramatically in these forty years.
May traces this shift, from a bespoke signature space focused on emerging artists, to a storage space in the boom of destination thinking for art venues, to promoting black-box projects with the rise of video collecting, and finally to online-only -Relocation.
So what has been learned during this time, and why are the doors closing?
‘Jesus I could do that’
It was 1985 when Brenda May opened her first gallery in Sydney, in a space attached to her partner’s architectural practice. She ran Access Contemporary Art Gallery for 16 years (1985-2001).
“I think I was looking for something that had substance. My background was in fashion advertising and it was blah blah blah… I knew a lot of artists – and as they say, “Architecture is the mother of art”. Robert has moved his practice from Brisbane and we were comfortably set up.’
May continued: “You always hear complaints [about gallery relationships] and I thought, “Jesus, I could do that.” Robert said, “Do what you can; Do what you know.” And that’s how I started with Australian contemporary artists. I named it Access for a reason – I wanted it to be accessible. We saw every artist that came our way; I had an open door policy.”
The mid-1980s was a very different time for galleries. But May said whether the economy is going up or down, you always focus on the same thing.
“When you work in the industry, you’re so busy trying to make ends meet and paying the artists. I’m a commercial gallery — I have to take care of them,” she told ArtsHub.
“The art scene in Australia is very small and not that well supported [publicly with funding]. Even privately, we all share the same good people who buy and understand the game – and that’s not enough to support the industry,” May said.
May has traveled extensively to international biennials and fairs over the years, and her observation was that “our art rivals the best in the world, but our prices are so low it’s ridiculous. We don’t have an art buying audience large enough to support the artists. That’s why I started the gallery – I felt like I had something to offer. I’m a businessman and I’m from a different place. And there weren’t many galleries supporting emerging artists.”
May’s passion for emerging artists continued into the gallery’s next iteration, throughout its history.
Warehouse galleries boom
Access Contemporary Art Gallery closed in May due to books getting too small. “It was always a bit difficult financially not to be independently wealthy and by 2001 we were at the point where we could get away with paying everyone – again it was about doing this with integrity.
“I had no intention of reopening when I closed Access after trying my best for so many years and then Danks Street happened and I was offered a place,” May said.
Danks Street Waterloo was an arts and design complex conceived for arts patron Leo Christie and designed by May’s husband Robert May of May+Swan Architects. It was the beginning of the next 16-year chapter as the Brenda May Gallery.
About the name change, May said she met with her artists and asked, “Are you coming with me?” They did, but wanted the name change. “It was her choice. I was a bit fragile and wondered if I could do this again. But Danks turned out to be fabulous for selling art.
‘The hardest [as a gallery] puts people through the door — Daanks Street was a target,” May said. “But everything only works for so long, and you have to keep reinventing it.”
Read: The art exhibitions that will define 2022
At this point, with the closure of Danks Street, May changed the gallery name again, this time to May Space. “A gallery often changes over time – the name was just one of my weird things – but you change as you learn over the years, and I thought May Space fitted what I had in mind at the time.”
May Space remained in Waterloo and was operational for four years (2017 – December 2020) when, in the midst of the pandemic, May decided to once again recalibrate the gallery’s format to an entirely new digital platform, May Space Online, which will launch in early 2021 started.
Regarding the many “whys,” May said the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) she experienced during her Danks Street tenure had an entirely different impact on the COVID pandemic.
“During the GFC, the phone stopped ringing; it was so bad We got through it, the dot-com crash, and there were many times where newspaper headlines said, “The worst is yet to come” — as far as we’re concerned — but the pandemic has improved business. People were forced to shop online.”
May said it wasn’t a postponement in pandemic spending that led to her decision to close the store, but rather the reopening in these post-pandemic days.
“The main reason I decided to close with the world opening and the joy of going back into galleries was because I didn’t want to hold my artists back by not having a physical space. I think online sales will continue, but I think people want both,” May said.
After the business closed, May and her husband move to Hobart.
The pressure on galleries to reinvent themselves
May believes that there is no direct pressure to change, rather that the world around you is constantly changing and that responding to it is a natural evolution.
One of these changes, which marked the gallery, was the introduction of Black Box Projects on the Danks Street spaces – one of the first commercial gallery spaces dedicated to the exhibition of moving image artworks in Australia.
“The idea of Black Box was to try to promote the kind of art that I saw abroad, and that was digital art that was made here but not shown here. I bought the largest 100 inch screen I could find and some projection equipment and I called out the artists. It was quite successful in comparison,” May said, adding that she thought it helped to package the artwork with the gear so collectors could “just take it home.”
“A lot of people didn’t know how to live with digital art,” May added. “It was good enough to continue financially and people were blown away by the quality of work we showed.”
Read: Did the 2022 Sydney Biennale deliver?
Much like Access, May chose to break with form by dedicating up to 50% of her program and artist collection to sculpture.
“I chose the room for Access on Boronia Street because it was 10 meters high, which I could drive a crane into. I was 35% sculpture at this point when a lot of sculpture wasn’t being shown in commercial galleries
“Artists move on and you take on new artists, it keeps it fresh; You don’t have to reinvent yourself,” May said. “I was a little uncertain at first, but every time – with every next step – I had a little bit more confidence to do things.”
“There’s a huge level of trust, at all levels from the artist to the gallery to the client, and that works best in person, so art fairs are useful for that. They’re a great way to build your contacts. And Danks Street did that as a kind of mini fair.”
Finally, take the helicopter up
The best advice May gave to a starting artist with dreams of being in a gallery was: “Do your homework – seriously, get into the galleries; go through the door; Check out the other artists exhibiting there – talk to them. Never approach a gallery without visiting it first.’
It is important for the gallery owner to know that you want to be with him Them.
Brenda May, gallery owner
May said the gap is widening between galleries with multiple venues and well-funded supporters and dealers who are passionate about their artists and just trying to survive.
“If you look at the really good, passionate people, they don’t have galleries anymore; that speaks for itself. But that’s just the way of the world,” May told ArtsHub. “Everyone who has survived the past few decades deserves it; They’ve worked hard for their artists and obviously have a good stable to survive on.’
“We have conducted our business with integrity and our artists are paid. One of the things we are known for is straight shooters. This is an industry where you have to be direct.’
Continuing her advice to hopeful aspiring gallery owners, May added: “If you don’t have enough money, you won’t survive. Not every show will sell, and hopefully the shows you believe in will have an audience. It also doesn’t mean you’ll reach an audience right away. You have to have enough money to get through the lean times.”
However, her main piece of advice was: “Take on an artist, not the work – it’s the artist you take on. Believe in the artist because it’s also about what they will produce in 10 years’ time, not now.” She added that it takes a whole village to run a gallery – the artists, your staff and your collectors. “It’s a family.”
And: “Have a dog or a cat – it helps to feel comfortable in the gallery; it breaks the ice.’
May concluded, “I’ve never had a day that I wasn’t really like, ‘Oh god, today is work.’ I’ve loved for the last 40 years so it’s a bittersweet decision but you have to think outside the box.”