Hunter Lifestyle magazine article by Marilyn Collins
Hunter Lifestyle magazine article by Marilyn Collins

Collecting In the Name of Art Story and Images Marilyn Collins

A unique collection of contemporary Australian art, representing the first decade of the 21st century by emerging Australian artists, has taken members of a citizens’ art collecting syndicate on an interesting journey of discovery and art enlightenment resulting in an unexpected bond of respect and friendship with one another.

Known as Hawkesbury One –the syndicate is part of a growing trend that has individuals pooling financial resources to buy art not individually, but as a collective. Hawkesbury One is aptly named as the Hawkesbury River links the members originating from the Newcastle/ Hunter districts with their Sydney counterparts.

The Group was initiated ten years ago by the late Frank Croll, formerly from Dungog who had spent his life supporting young emerging artists and had become a well known ‘philanthropist’. Frank’s estate bequeathed a number of significant indigenous paintings to the Newcastle Region Art Gallery, including a magnificent five-panel Gloria Petyarre.

Frank with his daughter Catherine Croll and nieces Janne and Lindy Ryan (from Dungog) drove the establishment of the group by each of them inviting friends and associates to become involved.

Lake Macquarie member Tonee Holley Knowles joined after a chance meeting with Catherine Croll right at the time the group was being established.

“With my background and interest in art it was a perfect opportunity which definitely Appealed, as I was an avid collector of artworks, and of furniture with an Asian influence,” she said.

“Our members come from a variety of professional and social backgrounds: some were confident in their pursuit of arts, others preferred a more cautious approach, whilst some members were happy to follow the group consensus, as when it came to making decisions the majority ruled, so you learnt to give and take.”

Hawkesbury One’s “Citizen Collectors” comprises 11 members who pay $2,000 a year and meet quarterly to vote on purchases. Every six months they rotate their collection of paintings, photographs, drawings, sculptures and video art around their homes. “The brief for the group was to collect contemporary Australian art from the first decade of the twenty-first century. With such a brief, they realised there was a lot to choose from, and the choices became even more complicated with the booming art market and with the emergence of new art forms, including video.”

In the early days, the group did a lot of the research themselves, but were sometimes overwhelmed and conflicted about which works to buy when members of “the team” had quite different tastes.

For a period of eighteen months, they drew on the services of an independent art advisor who has a specialisation in emerging artists, an area they have gained the confidence to explore.

In a practical sense, members operate on a majority voting system, especially when it comes to larger purchases. “The success of our group is their ability to give and take when it comes to the decision making and buying time,” said Tonee.

The collection of artworks kept in members’ homes carries the responsibility that they are securely hung in an environment free of dust, damp and direct sunlight and not too near or over an open fire or heater. Paint surfaces must not be touched and accidental contact must be avoided by distancing from high-traffic areas.

Should any artworks be damaged, regardless of cause, repair will only be made at the direction of the group. The cost will be met by the member responsible for the artwork at the time of the damage, unless the members determines otherwise. A member must hold current home and contents insurance that includes cover for artworks.

The Hawkesbury One group actively ‘curated’ the collection as a curator would a public Collection, resulting in a collection which includes many of the major Australian artists of our time – Callum Morton, James Angus, Tracey Moffat, Destiny Deacon, Luke Temby.

Hawkesbury One owns a work by Lucas Grogan, a non-Aboriginal artist controversial for his use of indigenous styles. With a majority voting system, as many as five of the group’s 14 members could be unhappy with a purchase. Video art has proved particularly contentious. In the early days, the majority voted against a video work by Daniel von Sturmer, who went on to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale. More recently, they have bought video works by David Rosetzky, Shaun Gladwell and Liam Benson.

There are pieces in the collection that all have agreed on and some that none of them would have bought individually. Collecting with others can be a mind-shifting experience. Group members inevitably influence each other, sharing ideas and information about different artists and styles. Sometimes, shifting a work from one house to another is enough to change long-held views. The works look different every time they are moved and a change of context can make a huge difference.

The interior of Tonee Holley Knowles’ living room has a definite south-east Asian feel with a personal collection dating back 40-30 years, therefore her current “on loan” work fits into the living room décor like a glove.

Painted by Guo Jian, the untitled work originating from The Mao to Now exhibition held in Sydney in 2008 depicts a modern-day woman of China breaking away from the traditional mould. “Everyone has a different interpretation from viewing the artwork,” explained Tonee. “My young granddaughter said she loved the ladies dancing.” Another work hangs in the master bedroom – a black and white photograph by
Joachim Froese of two flies and a dried citrus fruit.

With a buying power each year of $22,000, often more than a regional art gallery in Australia has for its acquisitions budget, the group found themselves0 in a powerful position in terms of learning how to acquire major works and getting the collection at the head of a buying list.

“We pitched very seriously to the Newcastle Art Gallery an idea for a show about our group collection, the ups and downs of decision making, the purchasing of the work, and that this show would be part of the modern trend of doing things collaboratively, rather than the older patron model of single-named collections,” said Hawkesbury member, Tonee Holly- Knowles.

“We also aim to hold forums, create public events, and promote philanthropy for the average person, rather than just the VERY rich, and will run our Citizen Media project through our Citizen Collectors’ website.”

Now nearing the end of its 10-year lifespan, the group must decide what happens next. One option is a private auction, where members bid for the works they want to retain in their personal possession or a public auction, selling the entire or remaining collection. There is also talk of continuing for another decade by those members wanting to stay on and form perhaps another group named Hawkesbury Two.

With savvy buying, it is possible they will make money – some works have appreciated others have not.

Nevertheless, Tonee says the investment aspect is a secondary consideration. “It is hard to work together as a group unless people are doing it for love and enjoyment. Without a passionate and committed group, choosing works can be a chore. “

Usually, people view an artwork, like it and buy it. However, this group’s approach is more intellectual than emotional. They go backwards and forwards between members, thinking about the background of the artist and their exhibiting history.

“At the quarterly and annual general meetings the group meets for lunch, usually at one of the member’s homes, and over a few glasses of wine makes decisions as a group. On one occasion they gathered at the NSW Gallery dining room, combining business with the pleasure of viewing art.

“It is clear that over the years we have enjoyed each other’s company as much as the art and this is one aspect I am sure we all will miss when the group disbands,” said Tonee.

After 10 years, the members of Hawkesbury One feel confident enough to undertake their first commission of a new work. With $20,000 to spend, the discussions have been as passionate as ever. Some wanted to look for a new artist, while others preferred to revisit an old favourite. Some said the work should be a landscape painting; others a multimedia video piece.

They finally settled on Pamela Mei-Leng See, an Australian-Chinese artist who cuts delicate shapes and images from paper, rubbish, plastic and stainless steel. She will create a large-scale work for the group, to be shown with the rest of its collection in a public exhibition at the Newcastle Region Art Gallery in June. The

Citizen Collectors – Hawkesbury One exhibition will open 11th June and run until 4th September, 2011 at Newcastle Art Gallery. For more information visit

Tips on How to Establish an Art Group

• Keep the group small. With more than 25 people, it becomes difficult to make decisions and move works from home to home.

• Have a clear contract. It is important that everyone understands the rules: how much money members contribute, how long the group will last, and what happens to the works when the group disbands. Some groups enter into a joint-venture agreement.

• Know what you want. Draw up a collection policy, with clear guidelines about the kind of work you will buy. Larger groups often have a rotating purchasing committee to meet artists, visit galleries and consult other members. Smaller groups can use a voting system.

• Be practical. The works need to be moved from home to home. Unless you plan to use an art courier service, it is best to avoid large, heavy pieces.

• Check your home insurance policy. Most art should be covered but particularly valuable works might require specialist insurance.

• Consider hiring a consultant, especially if you are inexperienced.

CAPTIONS: Tonee Holley Knowles pictured with painting by Guo Jian, the untitled work originating from The Mao to Now exhibition is part of the Citizen’s Collection. A black and white photograph by Joachim Froese of two flies and a dried citrus fruit.

Callum Morton Sculpture. Dick Betts of Dick Betts Gallery, Hobart who started one of the first Collectors Groups in Australia called the ‘Derwent Group’ (they are all named after rivers), pictured in 2002 lecturing the Hawkesbury group on how they ‘formed’ their group and showing works from their collection.

Visiting galleries such as Damien Minton Gallery, members of the Hawkesbury Group learnt more about the latest in the art world from artist Michael Bell.