Barry Keldoulis is an uncommonly busy man. When we speak, he is almost out of breath, having been run off his feet sourcing panel speakers for the 2015 iteration of Sydney Contemporary, the international art fair.
Regardless, he is gracious in both his time and his answers, and impresses with his almost encyclopaedic memory for the names of all involved.
This is quite a feat when taking into consideration the fair’s participants – a staggering 90-plus galleries from almost a dozen countries, as well as performers, musicians, video artists, printmakers and more. The sheer scope of the festival is all in keeping with Keldoulis’ aspirations for Sydney as the cultural centre of the entire Pacific.
“We’re looking at Sydney Contemporary being a celebration, not just of the marketplace that Sydney is for contemporary art, but also as a generator of contemporary art – so, looking at making people aware that Sydney has a very vibrant cultural life.”
As a man whose career revolves around international communications, Keldoulis is acutely aware of what the world as a whole thinks of our little city. “You know, our international advertising focus on Australia as a nation [is] basically on beaches and leisure activities – beaches and furry animals, if you will,” he says. “We’re looking at ways of showing off the depth and breadth of Sydney’s cultural life, not just its physical beauty.”
Our cultural capital is, of course, reliant on its global context. Keldoulis sees this as a great strength, and the fair reflects this by placing contemporary Australian works alongside those of our geographical neighbours.
“There’s a lot of interesting work going on around the Pacific Rim, and quite diverse,” he says. “But also there’s this disconnection to the traditional capitals of art (or contemporary art, if you will) in the Western mindset of London, New York and Paris.
“It creates an interesting dialogue between all of those places around the Rim, and I think an interesting set of connections and parallels as well as distinctions.”
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Aiming itself at both the general public and more affluent trendsetters, Sydney Contemporary places an emphasis on its relationship with art collectors. Keldoulis is emphatic that giving these potential buyers access to international works engages them with that vital element of collecting: the aura of authenticity.
“One of the interesting aspects to collecting in our country is that we are a very young country, obviously that is also home of the oldest continuous culture on earth,” he says. “The choices that young collectors make help to create what we will, in the future, call our culture.
“Although you can see art from all around the world at the click of a mouse, you usually really need to see it in the flesh. Collectors can see the work of our artists in context with work that’s going on around the world, and that I think helps to lead to a maturity of judgement and more contextual information for collectors to start to build the confidence in their own eye about what’s good and what’s engaging the contemporary culture.”
While we’re speaking of context, I ask Keldoulis for his thoughts on the recent announcement of the National Program for Excellence in the Arts established by Senator George Brandis, and how it affects our cultural landscape.
“I’m also the chair of the National Association for the Visual Arts, and I do have concerns,” he says. “Mainly that the recent announcement seems to emphasise one particular section of the arts over another section that is actually integral to those majors maintaining their excellence over time.
“It’s not clear yet what the ramifications and implications of the recent announcement are, but certainly the worry is that the generators of a lot of the creativity that ultimately ends up in the majors are going to be starved of fuel. And that’s a big worry, and it should be a big worry for the majors as well.
“Yes, we want to celebrate excellence, but we want to maintain an environment in which excellence can be homegrown, and so that’s my personal worry. But I do appreciate also that any system over time needs regeneration, and any system over time can grow stale … I think that the biggest problem is the lack of consultation in this particular instance.”
Getting back to the festival, Keldoulis makes clear there is “a very healthy representation of indigenous work this time around” – including at Waterloo gallery Utopia – after concluding that 2013’s fair was lacking. He’s effusive in his praise of host venue Carriageworks and its director Lisa Havilah, this year’s Video Contemporary curators from the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, and every other contributor he can name.
He’s also extremely proud of the music and performance lineups curated by Emma Price and Connie Anthes of Redfern’s Bearded Tit – so much so that he calls me a second time to list his favourites in one stream-of-consciousness.
“We’ve got Sarsha Simone who’s a soul singer and DJ, a chap called Jake Meadows who’s a male harpist … the Alaska Orchestra, they’re all very accomplished classical musicians from the Con but they create and play experimental music … Jessica Lavelle, a young DJ, and at the afterparties at Arcadia they have Snail performing, which is a female duo that combine beat-boxing and folk music, and at The Dock there’s a chap called Nick Meredith who does a kind of improvised drum and synth tunes,” he says.
“There’ll be a little teaser on the preview day but the big explosion of creative expression will be on the opening night, leading up to the Trailblazers trail of performance through the streets of Redfern to the nightspots – including Bearded Tit, of course – and 107 Projects on Redfern Street.”
It’s a lineup that Keldoulis is sure will help Sydneysiders and beyond “reawaken their senses after the hibernation of winter to all the fantastic cultural life that we actually have here on tap in Sydney”.
Sydney Contemporary 2015 takes place Thursday September 10 – Sunday September 13 at Carriageworks and various Redfern venues, including The Bearded Tit. For the full program, visit sydneycontemporary.com.au.