Top Sydney gallerist launches blistering attack on the art world

Evan Hughes, son of founder Ray, is closing the Hughes Gallery and running for office


When Tate Modern’s director Chris Dercon visited Australia in 2013, he challenged the country’s museums to recognise the achievements of Sydney gallery owner Ray Hughes. “If no one will organise a show about Hughes here”, Dercon told the audience at a lecture in Sydney, “then I’ll do one at the Tate.” It would be a fitting tribute for a man who has championed Australian, Chinese and African artists for nearly 50 years and closed his final show at his gallery in December 2015. We spoke to Ray’s son Evan about the decision.

Evan Hughes: The Hughes Gallery ceased to operate as a commercial gallery after long deliberation last year that was brought about by my father’s poor health and the changing dynamics of the industry. When we read that our great friend David McKee was closing his gallery in New York, it was almost as if we were given permission to declare that the art world had been taken over by dickheads. Too much of the commercial art trade has become about the selling of product and the accumulation of capital, much to the confusion and disillusionment of young artists.

Both my mentors, [the London dealer] James Mayor and my father, have such wonderful eyes and such extreme passion for the paintings they sell and the people that make them, that it was just depressing to realise that the art trade is now centred on glorified shopping malls run by quasi-property developers (art fairs) and tacky mail-order firms (internet enterprises). I suddenly asked myself: “Would Vollard be doing art fairs and Artsy?” Maybe he would; we didn’t want to.

My father continues to live in our warehouse in central Sydney surrounded by his extensive private collection of well over 1,000 works of Australian Modernism, 1980s Australian Neo-Expressionism, Chinese contemporary art, African contemporary art and Australian Depression-era furniture. While he is alive, the space will be a by-appointment living museum. Eventually it will become a permanent museum, which I will fund through the other commercial operations of our family office. I will maintain a role in dealing contemporary Chinese art when the conditions are right.

I have enormous pride that I am able to close the chapter on our art dealership in an extremely sound financial position and open a new one with the Hughes Foundation for the Arts, which will give modest but regular support to Australian cultural institutions, starting with a gift of important pieces from our collection to the Queensland Art Gallery. So many art-dealing dynasties end in tears, bankruptcy, court or acrimony. My father and I and all our artists remain on very good terms and my family now is able to fulfil my wishes to take on a more public role for our endeavours.

I will be running for office this year at the forthcoming Federal election for the Australian Labor Party in the blue-ribbon, harbourside Sydney electorate of Wentworth. The seat is currently held by the most popular conservative prime minister in recent Australian history, Malcolm Turnbull, whose family I have sold paintings to. In the 1990s, when Malcolm was still a merchant banker, the Turnbull family commissioned one of my father’s artists, Lewis Miller, to paint a portrait of Malcolm. Unhappy with the work, Turnbull confronted my father at a function and exclaimed: “That artist of yours is no good; he’s made me look like a big, fat, greedy cunt”, to which my father replied, “He is a realist painter, you know”.

I am running on the platform of an immediate parliamentary vote that would bring in gay marriage, zero net carbon emissions by 2050, and high rates of national education and childcare funding. I will also be seeking full restoration of funding to the arts.