Colin Laverty: Beyond sacred

Published in Australian Art Collector, Issue 58, October – December 2011

Collector Colin Laverty has just released a new, expanded version of his book Beyond Sacred. He talks to Jane O’Sullivan about his ongoing mission to change perceptions of Aboriginal art, both at home and overseas, and see it recognised as great contemporary art.

How do you think Aboriginal art is perceived overseas at the moment and, more importantly, how should it be seen?

I’m trying to promote Aboriginal art as great contemporary art. While it’s perceived as tribal or ethnographic art the market for it is tiny. But if you can get it into really great prestigious contemporary museums, both here in Australia and especially overseas, the market for that, and the awareness of it, becomes hugely bigger.

Getting good works into overseas museums sounds easier said than done. What’s involved in making that happen?

Most collectors are white, there are very few Aboriginal collectors, so what you’ve got to do is impress people in the first place with the aesthetics of the painting and hopefully that stimulates them to then go back and learn more about the culture from which the paintings come, which is what the artists want you to do. You’ve got to have a bit of wow-factor about it.

Is there anything collectors in Australia can do to support this?

We get great pleasure out of lending work to shows in the hope that the better the shows are the more people overseas, or even from within Australia, will become aware of what’s the best of recent Aboriginal art.

There seems to be something of a crisis of confidence in Australia at the moment.

I’m giving a couple of talks on the Orion [a cruise ship] and one of them is on negative influences on the Aboriginal art market. And it goes: global financial crisis; concerns about fakes and provenance; overcharging; carpetbaggers, which are described in the dictionary as unscrupulous opportunists; [and] flooding of the market with poor paintings, which has certainly occurred. It gives the whole thing a bad reputation.

It’s not exactly dire straits but I think we’re in a very serious situation. There are no jobs in most of these communities so everybody tries to be an artist. They’re not all good at it. But so far, as production has increased and new art centres have opened up with ever increasing numbers of artists, so has awareness, and people have been buying art … But now the artists are going to find they’re not selling their paintings anymore and they won’t understand why.

Was there a turning point for you and Elizabeth as collectors?

In 1988 we went to Expo in Brisbane. They had an amazing exhibition of Papunya Tula paintings. It was the end of the 1980s, they’d been painting for a decade with acrylic on canvas. They were really large paintings … the biggest was about 18 feet long. Both Liz and I, we had seen Aboriginal art around but had never really been impressed [but] we both had a total change of heart.

We then over the next few years made umpteen trips to various remote communities in the Central Desert, the Kimberleys and the north, and we had amazing pleasure out of that. It’s not just about buying art either. It was an amazing experience that a lot of Australians, of my generation anyway, hadn’t had … to see where the art came from and the beauty of the unspoilt landscape.

Why did you decide to realise a second edition of Beyond Sacred?

The first edition went really well. We sold 4,000 copies in two years which is remarkable really for a $125 book. It’s fun, I’m retired, I spend my whole time playing with art so I’m lucky. We realised that some of the pictures in the first edition aren’t masterpieces so we deleted 40 or so images and put in another 77, which have a slightly different focus or are slightly better paintings, to make a point. It ended up being 50 pages bigger and a bit more expensive.