The MMIAM Journey

A blog about the Master of Management
in International Arts Management program

Karen Zadra in front of a painting by Aboriginal artist Eileen Stevens

“I Want to Spark a Fire in People”

An Interview with Karen Zadra, Director of Galerie Zadra

Karen Zadra is the owner and director of Galerie Zadra, which specializes in contemporary fine art by American, European, and Australian Aboriginal artists. She is also a member of the MMIAM International Advisory Committee.

In this interview, Karen and I chat about Australian Aboriginal people and art. To learn more about Aboriginal art and culture, enjoy this introductory guide provided by Aboriginal art curator, Nici Cumpston (Barkindji), Aboriginal scholar, Jilda Andrews (Yuwaalaraay), and the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the University of Virginia.

In your own words, please tell me a little bit about what you do.

I am the director of a commercial art gallery, Galerie Zadra. We specialize in Australian Aboriginal art. The gallery was originally founded in Adelaide as Marshall Arts and in 2008, I left a regional, government-owned gallery outside of Adelaide to become their Gallery Manager. At the end of 2012 my husband and I bought the gallery and ran it for two years. By 2015, we had moved to Europe; my husband is European, and we wanted to return there. This move took us to Luxembourg, where we were for a little more than six years. We’ve just, a few months ago, moved to Basel, Switzerland.

I’m curious about your experience promoting and selling Aboriginal art in Europe. Is there a large market? How has that been?

The market here is growing! When we moved to Luxembourg, we didn’t intend to keep the gallery going but we found that there was interest locally and of course, my Australian clients were still very interested in buying from us. So, we changed the name to Galerie Zadra and relaunched primarily as an online gallery. We did some temporary exhibitions with a private members club, House17, and an arts and culture venue just outside of Luxembourg City. Our show at the private members club in particular was their most successful ever. The Australian ambassador came over from Brussels and we had a huge crowd. The venue was really pleased, and I was quite surprised at how well received it was. Luxembourg doesn’t have a developed art market; we moved there for other business reasons. So, I was very pleasantly surprised by the reaction.

Now that we’re in Basel, it’s of course a very different place [to Luxembourg]. You probably know about Art Basel, the big contemporary art fair here but there are also a lot of museums in Basel. Switzerland, generally speaking, has a very strong tradition of collecting art. However, the commercial risks here are very high at the moment, because of COVID, and the real estate costs are also very high. I’m not prepared to take that risk, so we’ll continue to operate online. But also, now that I’m working face-to-face with Europeans, I’m finding that a lot of people see Aboriginal art as being more as ethnographic than contemporary fine art.

Can you explain what you mean by that?

Europeans aren’t aware of just how political contemporary Aboriginal art is and these pieces, even if they are what you’d call aesthetically “traditional,” are political statements. They’re assertions of sovereignty. They encapsulate lived experiences and realities and history and trauma. Everything. A lot of Europeans don’t really understand that about Aboriginal art, so it can be an uphill battle. Americans are probably a bit more open-minded. You’re used to the politics of living side-by-side with Indigenous people. But not in Europe; it’s a very different market here.

There are two sides to the Australian industry: you’ve got the work being made by Aboriginal people on their traditional lands, in their own art centers that are owned and operated by Aboriginal people; then on the other side you have those non-Aboriginal people that are often using unscrupulous means to get artists to paint for them. They pay the artists often very little and then sell the work for a great deal more than what the artist was paid. So, there are some fairly large ethical questions hanging over some areas of the Australian Indigenous art market. Unfortunately, a lot of that art has found its way to Europe. The European market doesn’t understand the ethical differences, Australians are only just beginning to, although some people just don’t care. They’re interested in whether they like the look of a piece and whether they can get it for a cheap price.

It sounds like you’re doing a lot of educating. Is helping people understand those complexities something that you’re focused on?

Yes, definitely. My interest for a long time has been Australian Indigeneity, although I should note that I am not an Indigenous person. But it depends on the client. Some of them are really interested in other levels of interpretation while some clients just want to stay at the aesthetic level. You can’t push people further than where they want to go. You just hope that by living with the work their curiosity will be piqued and that they’ll come back and perhaps talk to me or do their own research.

One of the big issues I’m having is trying to get people to talk about provenance, especially in the context of Australian Indigenous art. Provenance is very strongly linked to ethics. Where was this work created? How was the artist paid? Was it conducted under fair conditions or under duress? There’s a whole range of issues that come into play that you don’t generally need to worry about when you’re dealing with a white Australian or American artist.

APY Lands, South Australia where Aboriginal artists like Eileen Stevens (the painting in Karen’s headshot) live and work. Credit: personal archive.

It sounds like you’re truly laying a foundation in an area that is already rich with art appreciation. How has it been establishing contacts given COVID realities and your online-only presence?

The move to Switzerland was quite large, it’s taken a while for the dust to settle! But it’s getting there. I’m hoping to establish a network, through the public institutions, so they know that there is now an Australian who is also an expert in Australian Aboriginal art and culture and I’m here if they need me. I’m happy to come in and do talks or whatever they need.

I’m also working with a curator in Australia who is working on a traveling exhibition that will be going to France and also to Berlin and I’m exploring the possibility of going up to Berlin when the show opens to speak to people there and maybe do a public program. This type of communication is really important. Hopefully it fills them with a sense of awe for one of the world’s oldest living cultures. I want to help spark those fires in people. So, I take a slightly different perspective than your normal or traditional galleries which are more focused on selling or pushing sales. Of course, that’s important, I am a business, but I also have a strong curatorial or educational drive. I really want to bring the buyer, collector, and viewing public together.

What is something you’ve learned about working or about leadership that you want to share with the MMIAMs?

It’s important to learn how to listen properly. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the public sector or if you’re in a commercial setting, you really need to meet people where they are. When you start listening to those that are in front of you, it puts you in a much richer position than you were previously, you learn a lot more and hear what they want from you and then you can deliver that.

Ok. Last question: Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you’d like to share?

If your interest lies in the commercial arts sector, you should know that it’s changing quite rapidly. When I started out in this business—and even just going to openings when I was an art student—the galleries used to be packed with people. These days, unless you’re a big name or big brand gallery, that’s less so. And that predates COVID. I think it’s largely that people see art in a much more transactional way. They see art as more entertainment rather than a cultural activity. Museums are heading in this direction as well.

More and more art is found online, especially as real estate prices skyrocket, and with the deluge of social media, it can be harder to be seen and heard as an art gallery.

I’m a little old school, we used to try to build an artist up, build up their profile and help them develop a career. There was an understanding that an artist would develop over 30 or 40 years and that hopefully their reputation would exceed your lifetime (and theirs!). That’s not happening anymore. The career spans seem considerably shorter. Who knows what’s going to happen with NFTS (i.e. non-fungible tokens), that’s going to completely shake things up.