Meet Our Guest with Ursula Sullivan & Joanna Strumpf

Image Credit: Nikki To

Image Credit: Nikki To

For our first Meet the Guest story, Guest Work Agency Director and Founder Alana Kushnir interviewed a client who has been a part of the Guest Work journey, beginning with art law and expanding to art advisory and project management, Sullivan+Strumpf.

Sullivan+Strumpf are one of the leading contemporary art galleries in Australia and Asia, opening their Sydney outpost in 2005 and a second gallery space in Singapore in 2015. Today, the gallery represents more than 25 artists, produces a mixture of solo and group gallery exhibitions across the galleries each year, and is a regular fixture at Art Basel Hong Kong and Sydney Contemporary.  

Its founders, Ursula Sullivan and Joanna Strumpf met in Sydney in 1996 while working for the late Eva Breuer, one of the city's leading secondary market dealers in the 90s and early 00s. They began their professional collaboration by collecting art together. After almost two decades as Sullivan + Strumpf, Ursula and Joanna talk to Guest Work Agency Director, Alana Kushnir, about building long-standing relationships with artists, the changing nature of the art market(s) and the realities of running an art business in 2019.

 

Since you began the gallery, you have been committed to showing the work of your contemporaries and dealing exclusively in the primary market. I’m curious to know, what led you down this path, considering you had (met and) worked for Eva Breuer? 

The secondary market is quite different – you are working with a short term view, to get the highest price for the vendor, and you have to deal with whatever you can get. This is pretty much the opposite of what we do! In primary market, you must always work to the long term, be very steady and consistent with pricing, and you really work with an artist to watch them evolve. This means we choose who and what we work with, our focus is on quality and relationships.

 

When you opened your Sydney gallery you represented three artists - Alasdair Macintyre, Darren Sylvester and Sydney Ball. You continue to represent each of these artists to this very day, including the Estate of Sydney Ball (as well as representing another 25 or so artists). What are some of the characteristics of your relationships with these original artists, that have enabled you to sustain them for such a long period of time?

That is a very good question! As long as we want the same thing, it works. It doesn’t always work out though, and that’s ok too. Forks in the road are a part of life.

 

Recently I’ve been tasked with writing a paper on “the art market”. While at first I thought this was a fairly straightforward task, it’s dawned on me that outside of mega art gallery hubs like New York, London, or Hong Kong even, this concept of the “art market” is rather opaque. What do you think the art market is, or at least, how does it relate to what you do, as Sullivan + Strumpf, in Sydney and Singapore? 

There are so many different art markets within the art market - Australian, South East Asian, Asian, Sydney, Melbourne, Singaporean, local, regional, global etc art markets, we’re part of all of these. At face value, all ‘art markets’ are about numbers, stats, sales records etc; at its broadest it’s an industry - full of juicy gossip, successes, failures, money, death, divorce, politics, tax, love, hate, service, snobbery, equality, diversity, boys clubs, girls clubs, art clubs, competition, war and peace. Like every market right?

 

In 2019 (almost) every artist has their own website and their own (public) Instagram profile. Do you still believe in the holy trinity of artist - gallerist - collector? Or have the dynamics of the art world dynamics changed? And how do you as a gallery adapt to that?

Yes indeed, if having a website and social media account were all being a gallery was, that would be the end of it for sure. But, in the same way as it might seem like a good idea to legally represent yourself in court, it’s usually better to have someone who can add a professional perspective to what you’re doing, and who can provide the administrative, peer and voice of experience support that is usually required with anything more complex than ‘click to buy’.

I think relationships are incredibly important, and this is what links this ‘holy trinity’. And, though it sounds old fashioned, I think physical space ‘a gallery’ – the curation and outcome of an exhibition is also very rewarding for each of these too.

 

Your represent Australian artists, as well as artists from Indonesia, Pakistan, China, Indonesia, Singapore, Pakistan and New Zealand. Many galleries in Australia exclusively represent Australian artists. Why have you chosen not to do this?

We may sometimes be limited by our freight budget, but why would we (or our audiences) limit ourselves by geography?

 

What galleries do you admire? 

I used to want to be a lot of different galleries and have admired everyone from Roslyn Oxley to David Zwirner, but if I am honest, as we have grown and developed, I actually really love and admire our gallery and our team. We all work really hard, are deeply passionate about what we do, and have developed quite a valuable and unique perspective that has influenced and is influencing the way audiences think of the artists we represent. If we were starting out again, I’d think we were pretty on point.