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June 14, 2016
Commerce

Fair play

At the tender age of 25, Hugo Michell did what few others would dare - he opened an art gallery. Eight years later he’s firmly established nationally and is helping local artists catapult from the leafy streets of Beulah Park to the world stage.

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  • Words: Emma Waterman
  • Pictures: Jessica Clark

Hugo Michell grew up with art. As a kid he was dragged along to exhibitions with his mum, an avid art collector. Then, as a teen, he helped out at Greenaway Art Gallery. In spite of this, however, a career in art was never an obvious path.

“I think he [Paul Greenaway] was trying to keep me busy more than anything, he was a great friend of my mum and he thought ‘this kid needs a bit of direction’,” says Hugo.

And direction he gave.

“An international collector buying an artist’s work won’t make them famous, but a certain curator seeing their work can.”

It was working with Paul at an international art fair where Hugo first met Jan Minchin, the director of Melbourne’s Tolarno Galleries. Over a glass of champagne one afternoon, Hugo casually mentioned he’d love to work at Tolarno – hands down his favourite gallery in Australia – and Jan responded with a job offer if he were to ever move to Melbourne. Four weeks later, Hugo packed his bags and headed east – and Jan held true to her word.

It was during these formative years at Tolarno that Hugo cut his teeth in the industry that he quickly discovered was for him.

At the same time, he noticed a significant number of Adelaide-based collectors making the trip to Melbourne to purchase pieces of art.

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The gap in Adelaide’s commercial gallery market and a yearning to get back to his hometown saw Hugo return from the eastern seaboard a few years later and, in 2008, launch the eponymous Hugo Michell Gallery.

Now an esteemed player in the Australian contemporary art market, the Beulah Park gallery has a stable of 20 artists, to whom Hugo credits his business’ success – a gallery is only as good as its artists, he explains.

After cementing a robust portfolio of clients across Australia, time was nigh for a new challenge. His sights were set offshore on the big business art fairs.

Although Hugo concedes they’re an expensive and time-consuming venture for small galleries, he says art fairs are one of the best ways to expose local artists to an international audience.

“A gallery might be lucky to have 30 people come through in a week, while a fair can have 100,000 people in a few days,” he says.

“An international collector buying an artist’s work won’t make them famous, but a certain curator seeing their work can, by giving them a show in a museum overseas, for example.”

As for which of his local artists sell well overseas, Hugo says he’s too new to the art-fair scene to pinpoint any overriding theme. On recent trips to London for Saatchi Gallery’s START art fair and Art Stage Singapore, he’s sold work from artists including Adelaide-based Trent Parke, Stanislava Pinchuk (Miso) and Tony Garifalakis.

It doesn’t take us long to realise that there is in fact one uniting factor in these successful overseas sales – Hugo Michell himself. It’s no mean feat to pack up a gallery, travel half way across the world and sell art to a completely unfamiliar market. Sales don’t occur in a vacuum, and Hugo’s comprehensive knowledge and palpable passion for his product, along with a gregarious ability to connect with customers is critical.

“You have to network and take every opportunity. If you get invited to a dinner you go, and you go to every event they put on because you just don’t know who you’re going to meet and where it may lead,” he says.

“There was a time when people would shop around with fairs internationally. You can’t do that anymore – you’ve got to commit to specific fairs so you can slowly start to build up those relationships.”

As for what lies ahead back home, Hugo’s thrilled to be representing two new South Australian artists – Sera Waters and Amy Joy Watson – and helping bolster the state’s creative community.

And while the thrilling atmosphere of an international art fair might be hard to top, for Hugo the bricks and mortar gallery will always be the heart and soul of his business.

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