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The Art of Relationship

Canberra Review/Canberra Times, February 12, 2000

by Stan d'Argeavel

Its a long, long way from the Off-Broadway theatre stage to the quiet, secluded streets and lanes of Bungendore village and an even further distance from successful playwright to fine wood worker and gallery director. Bungendore Wood Works Gallery owner and artistic director David Mac Laren revels in just that.

“When I moved from New York City to Bungendore I wanted a place to display my furniture as well as the work of other furniture makers in the region.” says David.

And it’s this relationship with his designer/makers that David now finds the most challenging and enjoyable facet of running one of this country’s finest mixed media galleries - all in a sleepy little village in the Southern Tablelands of NSW.

“Its a very fragile set of circumstances that controls the lives of the makers and artists that provides the life-blood of the commercial gallery,” says Mac Laren “and I am extremely proud of achieving a special working relationship with makers.”

Quite often the makers are craftsmen working alone or perhaps with a wife or husband and sometimes an apprentice. The whole financial aspect of this simple, sometimes alternative, lifestyle is completely different from large scale manufacturing for retail stores of furniture brand names.

In the gallery scene there has often been not-so-amiable relationships between gallery owners and the artists they represent. According to Mac Laren, “At times galleries pay when they can - and so use the makers as a bank. The artists supply the work, then may not hear from the gallery for months on end. On ringing they may be told something like ‘Oh we only sold that piece the other day’ when in fact it probably sold months before.”

David sees this relationship as one requiring sensitivity, bringing galleries and makers into a special form of partnership. “It’s a human dimension we’re dealing with here and I have become much more aware of how important this is.”

Mac Laren sees the fragility of the makers situation as paramount to that partnership. Ill health, the risk of injury to the craftsman’s natural tools (his or her hands), marital problems, depression, rejection, financial and family pressures all can have a far reaching effect on individual makers. “I often feel extremely frustrated when people come into the gallery, admire the exhibitions and the makers work and then express a need to win Lotto, or say they may be back next week to buy. I just wish there could be a greater commitment on the buyer’s behalf and I wish I could get the story across of just how fragile things are! That maker’s work may never be available again.”

“Many of the makers have been at it for over twenty years, many are approaching the end of their productive years and it is certainly a very different story to normal mass manufacturing ideology.”

David Mac Laren believes his Wood Works Gallery has set the standards for working relationships with artist/makers. “We pay on thirty days, or even sooner if circumstances dictate, and the makers rely on this. When we take a deposit for a commission or furniture order, a share of that deposit goes directly and immediately to the maker to help with production costs. This is professional, the way it should be. We are setting the standards for this industry.”

David sees designer/makers as finding something the “alternative culture” was on about through the 70s and 80s. On a recent trip to Western Australia he found people true to their cause, getting up for breakfast and then going straight into the workshop stopping only for meals breaks and then perhaps not for that.

In a sense these people are living the culture, a bit like a religious order. “I am humbled over and over again by these people, they are good people, infused with their art and craft, living in ordinary houses with few material desires and they are quite at peace with themselves.”

“I feel the commercial gallery has got to provide an outlet for this dedication and make it possible for them to make a living – if kudos in terms of recognition comes after that then it is secondary and in any case is in the hands of the gods or the curators of public galleries or whatever.”

Mac Laren sees the public gallery carrying the role and responsibility of exhibiting work by art school graduates or emerging artists and while not wanting to appear as a put down, sees this work as often being indulgent or more to the point exploratory and not mediated by commercial galleries. “It doesn’t have to sell. But it is OK in certain areas;, it does help to push the edges and contributes to the ever evolving idea of art and self expression.”

The bottom line is that commercial galleries do have bottom lines like wages, rents and overheads so in the end the work is mediated by what the gallery can convince the buying public is worthwhile. That process is just as important to the maker as it is to the gallery in terms of survival.

The reality is that no matter how alternative or simple the lifestyles, makers still have to eat, pay for electricity and raise families. “This is where I come in, further downstream, providing an outlet and relishing the wonderful feeling of matching a sensitive and appreciative buyer to a maker’s work.”

In 1998 David Mac Laren’s workshop burnt down. The loss was immense and heart wrenching. Tools gathered and modified over many years, valuable work in progress and a stockpile of irreplaceable timbers – all gone.

This forced an ideological re-assessment. Re-build or re-direct? To be or not to be? “Going to the workshop was my ‘high’ – now I’m enjoying working on building relationships between my makers, staff and clients.” The workshop remained in the ashes and as a fond memory.

The challenge is to get across this complex message about relationships to the public. Traditional advertising does not allow for this. There is a need to change the language of advertising, to entice people to want to know more. “There has to be a way, we just need to find it.”

“I was impressed with Beaver Gallery’s text in a recent Muse magazine. They found a way of expressing more of what a piece is about in a line or two, referring to a work as an example of such and such landscape and so on. It helped create more intensity, guiding people to the pieces, honing them in on the art, providing a hook for the buyer and more of a grab on what the art is about. This is an area we should look at more and more.

The educational aspect is very important. “I tell my sales people that our customers have taken the time, a minimum of three hours say, to drive down the road to Bungendore, visit us and return home. This is a major commitment in their busy lives. When they walk through our door they are special. They may not be back for some time, we need to help them, to pass on the fragility of the balance between making and selling. To help them make their trip worthwhile and their experience something to cherish in this high tech, fast wheeling world we live in. And I am very proud of the way they do just that.”

“The nice thing will be when a buyer says to his friends or visitors, ‘I bought this at the Wood Works Gallery in Bungendore.’ And he knows he will be saying this in the confidence that his friend or visitor will find the same quality and benefit from the standards we have established.”

Thursday 13 March 2008