Lawyer Turned Gallery Owner Celebrates Contemporary Australian Art



   

Allison Bellinger cheerfully admits she knew nothing about running an art gallery when she opened her exhibition space in the centre of Inverell in rural northern NSW. The town is better known for agriculture and gemstones than a passing parade of potential art investors. But the former Sydney lawyer trusted her instincts and long interest in art and aesthetics and, in 2016, launched AK Bellinger Gallery with a sell-out show of works by contemporary Australian artist and three times Archibald Prize finalist Vanessa Stockard.

“I’d bought some of her paintings,” Allison explains.  “Through the years, we’d become friends and she generously offered to give me my first show. There was real local interest in what I was doing, and opening night was wall-to-wall with people. Vanessa and her husband came up for the night and they were treated like celebrities as they walked around town. People in Inverell have embraced the opportunity to see artists of this quality and now I have a small, but growing, local clientele and the gallery has also become a destination for people to bring their visitors.”

Allison and her husband, Brad, live north of Inverell on Trevanna, where they run sheep and cattle and grow fodder crops with their children, Olivia, who is 13, and Jack, aged nine. Brad, who grew up at Cressy in Tasmania, and Allison, who was born at Warren in central NSW but came to Sydney for boarding school and university, met when Allison was living in a share house with four Tasmanians. By that stage, Brad, who studied agriculture at Marcus Oldham College in Geelong, had bought a farm on the Victorian side of the Murray at Yarrawonga. “I was instantly attracted by his authenticity,” Allison recalls. “He’s very smart and when we started looking for a farm in NSW, he extensively researched the prospects in terms of climate safety. He bought in 2001 and we moved up here with two bags in the back of a ute shortly after we were married in 2002.”

It was worlds away from the corporate life Allison had been immersed in while in Sydney. She had also worked in London and lived for some time in Germany. “But life was an adventure and we worked hard and before we had children we were quite social,” Allison recalls. “We were always busy.”

The property came with a lovely old cottage, but eventually, Brad and Allison conceded they were no match for the brown snakes that kept finding their way indoors, so they decided to build a new homestead. This meant they decamped to the nearby shearing shed for almost nine months while the house was being built. “We took a stove down there and built a crude kitchen,” Allison recalls. “We had a shower and a toilet, but we washed up in a bucket, had a lot of barbecues and used a lot of paper plates. It was stinking hot in summer, but winter was even more challenging. It certainly made me appreciate the new house when we could finally move in.”

The family took some time away from the farm following years of drought and after the birth of Jack, who has some health issues and needs regular medical checkups. “We leased the farm and lived in town for a while,” Allison explains. “We love the farm but we needed to draw breath. Jack is doing OK health-wise, though he has to be constantly monitored. He’s a big character and loves farm life, so we take each day as it comes.”

It was when she was in Sydney for one of those doctor’s appointments that Allison credits as the germination of her plans for a gallery. “I visited a gallery run by of one of my old housemates, Megan Dicks,” she recalls. “I just fell in love with a painting by Louise Hearman but, at the time, there was no way I could afford it. Then, lo and behold, my grandmother died and left me some money. So I rang Megan and bought the painting. Later that year, Louise won the Archibald Prize, so it turns out I bought on instinct, but had made what turned out to be a very good choice.”

Allison says there are three main reasons people buy art and, while none of them is wrong, she is always interested to learn what motivates her clients. “Some see art purely as an investment,” she adds. “Others are buying for the aesthetic. The other reason is emotional. You buy because a work speaks to you. If I am being truthful, that’s probably the reason I choose a piece and why I’m drawn to particular artists.”

She describes her business values as old-school. “Trust is important,” Allison says. “It’s like shopping at David Jones. The clients should always know they’re going to get a quality product. I’m really interested in taking them on a journey of education and introducing them to more contemporary works. They might start out buying pretty florals, but I like to encourage people to think beyond the obvious.”

 

These days, Allison maintains a stable of about 25 artists that reads like a Who’s Who of contemporary Australian art and includes Nicholas Osmond, Vanessa Stockard, Nick Dridan, Sam Field, Anna Placidi and Kiata Mason. While she may be based in what most would call a remote location, she counts herself lucky that she lives in an age where she can sell to the world via the gallery website and Instagram. “I have clients in Russia, South Africa, England, America and Japan,” she says. “Even COVID-19 didn’t stop the interest as I think people had more time on their hands for browsing and buying online. I now realise that law provided the means for me to arrive at this situation. It gave me the confidence to take a new direction and advocate for my artists. It really is true that you don’t know what’s around the corner, but I feel very fortunate to have arrived at where I am right now.” AC

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