The Art Collector’s Guide to Sydney

Sydney Opera House, Sydney Australia. Image via Pixabay.

Among world travelers, Sydney’s claim to fame is its iconic opera house, designed by Jørn Utzon and opened in 1973. While it’s a must-see landmark, visitors would be remiss to skip over the other cultural treasures in Australia’s largest city, especially its burgeoning art scene. With a mix of post-imperial antiques, indigenous artifacts and crafts, and forward-thinking contemporary works befitting a globalized 21st-century city, art in Sydney is as multifaceted as the country’s rich history. To help potential patrons navigate the metropolis, our editors have assembled this short, art-centric guide to Sydney. Happy collecting!

Preparation & Research

The first step to fulfilling both travel and collecting goals is simple: do your research! Though Sydney’s art infrastructure is small compared to New York, London, or Hong Kong, there are still plenty of resources for visitors to get a grasp of what’s on offer before they arrive. The most straightforward is, the official tourist site for the city, which lists all manner of attractions and events. The list of art exhibitions is surprisingly extensive for a government-run site and includes many smaller shows in addition to the headliners. For a slightly more in-depth view with small reviews, TimeOut (a perennially useful resource for most major cities) has a dedicated Sydney site as well and should be a part of any pre-trip planning. Finally, there’s Art Month Sydney, a yearly celebration of the city’s arts (held in March) that’s worth planning a trip around; the event’s website is also great source for year-round tips on how to get the most out of the city’s art and culture scene.

The Queen Victoria Building in Sydney, located next door to Abbey’s Bookshop. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

If you’re interested in doing some on-the-spot research in Sydney itself, a good bookstore is a must. Kinokuniya is a much-loved Japanese chain that puts a special emphasis on art books, which may be your best bet if you’re looking for something specific. For a more local flavor, Abbey’s Bookshop provides a variety of foreign language books, and Basement Books offers a wide selection of used books across many genres, including art.

Museums, Fairs, and Galleries

As a cultural capital, Sydney possesses many top-tier arts institutions, from world-class museums to experimental, artist-run exhibition spaces. If you’re looking for a more formal art viewing experience (and one that will bring you face-to-face with art, natural history, and more), the city’s major museums, including the Powerhouse Museum, the Australian Museum, and the Museum of Sydney have a little something for everyone. From the newer collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Art Gallery of New South Wales to the extensive antiquities of the Nicholson Museum on the University of Sydney’s campus, each institution has a different focus so there’s sure to be something for everyone on your trip.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

If building your collection is the purpose of your trip, art fairs are a great place to make connections and shop around for what interests you. Sydney has two main fairs: Sydney Contemporary, the city’s largest art fair, which brings together many established Australian and international galleries for a culture-filled week in early September, and the aptly named Other Art Fair, featuring mostly emerging artists and a unique model that allows collectors to buy directly from the artists themselves rather than through a gallerist intermediary.

One of the biggest and most unusual draws of the Australian art scene is the availability of Aboriginal art, a category that’s often expensive and hard to find elsewhere. If you’re interested in this market, Aboriginal Art Galleries, a group of 3 well-respected dealers specializing in ethically-sourced indigenous art, is a must-see. For modern and contemporary art, check out Art House Gallery for both established and emerging Australian artists, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery for big-name international stars, and Stills Gallery for photography and multimedia works.

There are, of course, plenty more commercial galleries selling everything from antiques to the latest contemporary art, but Sydney boasts an especially vibrant scene of artist-run initiatives, or ARIs. Often organized by local artists to support their peers, these spaces help to promote more experimental work by younger artists. Perhaps the best-known is Artspace Sydney, but there are many more, including Firstdraft, the longest-running of these initiatives in the country, and 107 Projects, which features a performance space, café, bar, and rooftop garden (plus a gallery).

Pricing & Purchasing

Whenever buying art in a new context, it’s important to get the lay of the land. The first step should be online research using a price database, a useful tool at any point of the buying process. After that, you’re ready to begin shopping around. Gallerists are generally good sources, if a bit biased toward their own shop. To get a better sense of the market, especially for older works, you should consult the experts and catalogs of an auction house. In Sydney, well-respected local houses include Lawsons Auctioneers and Valuers, which has been operation since 1884, and Leonard Joel. Of course, larger international auction houses like Sotheby’s and Bonhams also have outposts in Sydney; collectors with slightly deeper pockets will be tempted by their selection of colonial-era antiques, indigenous art, and Chinese artifacts.

Arthur Boyd, “Moby Dick Hill,” 1949 (Sotheby’s Australia, August 2017).

Framing & Displaying

Buying the art is only half the battle—you still have to get it home safely and ensure it looks great in the context of your collection. It’s here that a whole host of skilled workers—shippers, framers, handlers, and the like—take over from the dealers and advisors; you want to make sure your investment is in the best hands. Given Sydney’s growing reputation as an art-forward city, there are no shortage of fine art framers to choose from, along with a number of shipping, storage, and handling services for all levels of collecting. International Art Services is an all-in-one company, and there are many others. When it comes to framing, great options in the city include Andrew Bassett Fine Framing, ACME Framing, and Frameworks Custom Picture Framing. When purchasing a work, be sure to ask the gallerist or auction house staff where the best shippers and handlers can be found—it’s their job to connect you.

Andrew Bassett fitting up a mount. Image via Andrew Bassett Fine Framing.

Hiring an Expert

Of course, to take a truly deep dive into any city’s art ecosystem, it helps to have an expert advisor on your side. At their best, these professionals can give priceless in-person guidance, ferret out the best deals, and put you in touch with people and artworks often hidden from the general public. These relationships are built on mutual trust and respect, so finding an advisor that works for you (and ideally specializes in your market or subject matter of choice) is of paramount importance. Brenda Colahan is among the best in Sydney, with major clients ranging from Lexus and Toyota to the Sydney City Council (for their “Look of the City” initiative), in addition to a number of private collectors. If Indigenous art is more to your taste, Greer Adams, who formerly specialized in Aboriginal art at Sotheby’s and Bonhams, is well-placed to lead you (she’s also available to help with non-indigenous works, too). For more listings, check out Australia’s Art Collector magazine’s site.