Andrew Frost remembers openings, drinks, taxis – a typical Tuesday night…
Gallery openings were always on a Tuesday. And they all opened at 6pm. So it was a matter of choosing which ones to go to. The average was two, but the truly dedicated could fit in three, or maybe even four if they weren’t too far apart, say one in Darlinghurst and two in Paddington. Of course, the trick was choosing the right one because it didn’t really matter how many you could get to if the openings you ended up at were drab, tedious events, filled with mediocre art, or worse, weren’t even properly catered.
People went to gallery openings for all sorts of reasons, many of them to do with art, but more often than not it was about the social scene and the careers of friends and would-be friends, people you wanted to support and be seen to be supporting. That was the era of jeans, t-shirts and sneakers by day, jackets and ties by night. I owned a suit that I only ever wore at the weekends for parties or for going to posh openings at museums for exhibitions like Perspecta or the Biennale.
Maybe it had something to do with my post-student life of penury, but the bars of commercial galleries in the mid to late 1980s seemed to be a lot more generous than they are today – not just wine and beer and finger food on offer, but spirits and cocktails as well. [If you were responsible for serving me a drink 30 years ago let me say thanks again, my friends and I had a great time]. Not so long ago I saw some archive footage of a Brett Whiteley opening in Paddington, Sydney shot sometime in the mid-1970s. Everyone seemed to be drinking nasty red wine but the finger food looked magnificent – Devils on Horseback and paté and biscuits with the obligatory cheese.
It’s remarkable how egalitarian Australian openings are. A gallery simply advertises the day and time and you can just turn up. In London and New York, that’s not the case – you need to be invited to most places and woe be unto you if you arrive without your invitation in hand. But just about everywhere in Australia, barring the big sponsored events at museums, it’s an open-door policy. And in these straightened post-GFC days the drinks menu at most galleries might not be as extensive as they once were, but a friendly waiter [or gallery assistant masquerading as one] will offer members of the public complimentary wine or beer just on the chance that one of them might buy a work of art.
The hardiest group at any opening are those milling around on the street outside. In that Whiteley footage, Brett and friends were sitting on concrete stoops drinking from bottles of Mateus [ask your parents] and smoking roll-your-owns. Very little has changed, especially in the world of artist-run galleries. The outside street action is where it’s at: beers, chat, even a few people smoking. Suits for ARI openings disappeared in the Grunge ‘90s and these days most of the young guys look like they’ve just arrived from a hard day logging trees, what with their bushranger beards and gentle cardigans. The young women appear to all cycle to the shows, so its just sensible pants, flat shoes and backpacks.
Poor artists think the opening is all about them. It’s partly about them, sure, but a crowd has a single collective mind like a cloud of locusts. I broke a 12-year long self-imposed hiatus from exhibiting a couple of months ago and was obliged by the gallery to buy the booze. People came in and drank everything in sight, the beer running out in 45 minutes, the wine after an hour and a half. People came in and many of them went straight to the bar and stayed there. A girl shadow-danced in front of one of the video projections. My wife was accosted by a man who bemoaned the fact that children were at the opening- and they were running around… they wouldn’t put up with this sort of thing in Paris, he said. I suppose they wouldn’t. The thing is, an opening isn’t really complete without kids, and preferably a dog or two, and the gallery owners turning the lights off to make people leave. That’s the sign of a successful opening.
Sometime in the 1990s people started to wonder why all the openings were on the same day, and at the same time. It was crazy. Why not have an opening on a Wednesday evening, a Thursday or a Saturday afternoon. And so that beautiful confluence of openings, the streams of taxis arriving and departing, people asking one another as they passed on the street where you’d been and what you’d seen, started to fade away. It’s probably a lot more rational to do it this way, but sometimes, on a Tuesday at about 5.45pm, when the sun is going down and the streets of Sydney are fresh with the perfumes of early spring, I look out the window and wonder – is there an opening I should be going to?
This post originally appeared in Art Guide