Q & A with Robert Avitabile from Metropolis Gallery

Congratulations to all the team at Metropolis Gallery for the gallery’s 10th birthday this year! When Robert Avitabile and his partner Ilze started the gallery in Geelong back in 2003, many people probably wondered if they would survive. But not only have they survived, they have gone from strength to strength, moving to larger premises a few years ago and expanding the business to include picture framing. While Metropolis displays work in a range of media, the exhibitions reflect Robert’s keen curatorial eye for works on paper, drawings and prints, and more recently for Indigenous art. In this post, Robert has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his journey with Metropolis Gallery. Thanks Robert!

Congratulations on 10 years running an art gallery in Geelong. No mean feat! What did you do before becoming a gallery director?

This milestone was a complete surprise earlier this year when we realised we opened Little Malop Gallery in 2003 and here we are now in 2013 as Metropolis Gallery. But the history goes back another 10 years to 1993 with Feral Gallery in the Otway Ranges at Forrest: contemporary art with espresso coffee and cakes! I’d been a freelance illustrator, graphic designer and exhibiting artist in Melbourne since 1980 and after moving to the Otways in 1984 with a young family, I continued working for a range of clients including book publishers, private companies and government departments like Parks Victoria and Australia Post. When we moved to Geelong in 2000 I let go of the commercial work and took a position as sessional teacher in Drawing, Life Drawing and Illustration at The Gordon while getting the gallery established.

Robert Avitabile FigureOnChair
Robert Avitabile, Figure on Chair, pastel.
Robert Avitabile Nude W
Robert Avitabile, Anja, brush and ink.

What prompted the change from creating artwork to exhibiting it?

I’m an artist who also likes other artists’ work and while Metropolis Gallery has demanded a complete focus, I’m still an artist with a passion for drawing and painting. When the time’s right you’ll see more of my own work. Art never stops and there’s just so much amazing art we still want to exhibit!

While Metropolis exhibits all kinds of media, you have a strong focus on printmaking and drawing. Why is this?

Easy: I like drawing. The simple expression of marks on a surface is very satisfying. Drawing can be a beautiful evolving statement of an idea and an end in itself, but I also like it when this freshness is carried by printmakers into their work. So yes, drawing and works on paper generally are very important and good drawing is probably reflected in everything I choose to exhibit, whether it’s printmaking, painting, drawing or even sculpture.

My favourite painters draw with paint; my favourite sculptors draw with clay; my favourite writers draw with words. Drawing is still there even if it’s not visible in the final work and I like to feel its energy. If you’ve seen Lloyd Rees’ shimmering paintings from late in his brilliant life (with failing eyesight) you’ll know what I mean. A lifetime of drawing is still there.

Congratulations on having the National Museum of Australia visit and purchase work for its permanent collection. Can you tell us a little about that and your exhibitions of Indigenous art?

The National Museum of Australia (NMA), Canberra recently acquired two Indigenous paintings from our October 2012 exhibition: Tjala Arts, Tjungu Palya and Ernabella Arts.

NMA Senior Indigenous Curator Margo Neale and her assistant noticed that several works in this exhibition fitted with a project they were working on. We met at Metropolis and spent the morning discussing the artists, the songlines through their paintings and relevance to their collection. We’re very proud of this achievement.

Metropolis Gallery installation view
Installation view of the Tjala Arts, Tjungu Palya and Ernabella Arts exhibition in 2012.

How do you organise exhibitions with such vast distances between you and central Australia?

You have to be interested to curate any exhibition.

I like to deal as closely as possible with artists we exhibit, so I made it my business to learn what I could before beginning to represent the work of Aboriginal artists here in Geelong, especially about culture and ethical dealing in Indigenous art. This led me to making contact with Papunya Tula Artists, established in 1972, owned and managed by the artists and benefitting a whole community. Early phone and email contact was positive and followed by travels to central Australia, leading to another visit four months later when I made a selection of paintings for our first exhibition with PTA in early 2011. This show paved the way for subsequent exhibitions from other regions, notably the Hermannsberg watercolour artists (coinciding with the Namatjira performance by Big hART at GPAC); Tjala Arts, Tjungu Palya and Ernabella; Utopia artists and recently Printmakers from the Torres Strait Islands. Bringing exhibitions like these to Geelong will continue to be an exciting part of our exhibition calendar.

How difficult or easy has it been to run a gallery business in Geelong over the past 10 years?

Running a commercial gallery anywhere is probably one of the hardest things to do, however it’s an occupation that incorporates everything I’ve ever learnt and experienced in art, design, life, business and so on, and importantly how to work within your means without becoming burdened. Without the support of Ilze and the amazing staff in the gallery and our picture framing workshop, running Metropolis would be impossible.

Nothing you care about doing is always easy, but the best times are when you just know it’s working and you can build on that. Most of my time’s spent thinking of the future and staying one step ahead of what’s happening while I’m keeping my feet firmly on the ground in the present. It’s what I do now and it feels right: the drawing beneath all this is constantly changing and that’s how I like it.

Metropolis from the outsideView from outside the gallery of the recent Printmakers from the Torres Strait Islands exhibition.

Has the Geelong art scene changed much during this time?

We saw an opportunity to open a gallery here in 2003 because we couldn’t find a mainstream, commercial gallery in Geelong at the time. We exhibited some terrific artists in the Otways, but there was nowhere for people to pick up some of the great contemporary art or beautiful hand-blown glass or jewellery that we’d made available there.

Running a gallery is more than a full-time occupation so while I’m always aware of some great events happening around town, it’s rare that I can get out and enjoy them all. But it’s great to know we’re not alone and that the public have diverse opportunities to experience a variety of art on all levels.

With the rise of online art sales, some people think art galleries are becoming obsolete. Is the influx of online art sales a positive or negative influence for galleries? How do you see the future of art galleries?

There are many other forces at work that galleries need to face daily and online activity is small compared with the rest. If we worried about any perceived doom and gloom we’d miss the opportunity to do things we know are working.

Art galleries have been around since cavemen painted images on their walls and they haven’t lost that power to excite, tell stories and bring people together. I’ve never fallen in love with art when I’m on the net. Nor do I ever leave a site thinking the world has changed, like I do when I see a great exhibition.

People that aren’t interested in art or what galleries do don’t visit galleries. Simple as that. There’s online clothing, online books, online fridges and TVs – we sell original art. Our website, e-newsletter, Facebook and mailing lists keep people in touch with Metropolis and generate sales, but in the end those who support what we do are looking for a concrete art experience that includes stories, ideas and interaction, not just a ‘product’ impulsively sourced online to fill a space.

In the end I’m happy to see people looking at art online and everywhere else for that matter, as this increases interest and sales at a local level. I believe that smart buyers see the internet as an introduction to the world… and not the world.

What advice do you have for people who are thinking about buying a work of art?

People have different reasons for buying art so there’s obviously different advice for different purposes. If this question is generally about developing ‘a good eye for art’ then you have to be interested. Look at as much art as possible. Follow history and stories through art. Visit galleries, attend opening nights and if you can, meet the artists whose work you like. Talk to other art buyers. Talk to gallery curators and staff.

Buy art that moves you. The rest follows.

Metropolis Invitations
A wall in the gallery displays 10 years of exhibition invitations.

Do you have any advice for artists thinking about exhibiting their work?

Exhibiting art is complex. Advice depends on the artist and experience.

Put your best work forward when you’re ready. A series of related works is usually better than bits and pieces.

Look at places that exhibit work by artists on a level that you recognize as your own, then progress. Find art spaces that excite you and where you feel comfortable that the people running them are doing their job and that the venue will give you good exposure and potential sales. My first exhibitions were in my Dad’s garage!

Exhibiting your work with a gallery is a partnership and mutual respect and communication is important. The rest follows.

Of all the exhibitions at Metropolis, do any stand out and if so, why?

It’s difficult to name favourite shows. I like all the exhibitions we hang and I enjoy a diverse approach to curating shows.

I’m proud of shows like Marco Luccio: Images of the City (2009); David Newbury: A Retrospective (2010); Papunya Tula Artists: Paintings from the Western Desert (2011); Namatjira: Regeneration (2011) and Tjala Arts, Tjungu Palya and Ernabella Arts (2012). I enjoy the stories that run through complex exhibitions and some of these landmark shows have been a real achievement for Metropolis Gallery. But I also relish the chance to balance things with exquisite small shows that just seem to work so naturally.

M Luccio Artist Talk 14_580
Printmaker Marco Luccio gives a talk at Metropolis Gallery in 2011.

What is coming up at Metropolis this year?

A couple of classic shows are coming up: 9 – 24 August 2013 KENNETH JACK: Classic and Rare Works, paintings, drawings and prints from the Jack Family Collection. And LUDMILLA MEILERTS: Flowers from 7 – 21 September 2013.

For more info about these exhibitions and what’s happening in October and November 2013 and into the future, go to www.metropolisgallery.com.au where you can subscribe to receive Exhibition Invitations and our monthly eNewsletter, which is also archived on the site. You can also follow us on www.facebook.com/metropolisgallerygeelong


You can see Robert chat about Metropolis in this recently released video, created by Geelong Business TV.

Conjuring the spirit of place – Anita Iacovella
Marco Luccio finds new artistic direction in New York
Paintings of the Western Desert
Robert Holcombe and Bruce Earles
‘Coastal’ by Adrian Lockhart


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