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Collector interview: Peter Fay, Australia’s champion of the outsider

The collector of works that are knotty, passionate, perverse and deeply personal talks about his tastes and his gift to the nation

Peter Fay chuckled politely at the National Gallery of Australia’s tentative suggestion that it market the current exhibition of his collection by labelling him Australia’s answer to Charles Saatchi. Mr Fay is many things, but he is no advertising guru; nor is he independently wealthy, nor can one quite see him cosying up to Nigella Lawson.

Nonetheless, his impact on Australian art has been quietly profound, and carries the potential to become more so as his forcefully idiosyncratic take on art is given an airing in the country’s most prestigious museum.

A former English teacher at the King’s School, a leading boys’ boarding school in western Sydney, Mr Fay came to art relatively late. His voracious collecting of homegrown, domestic-scaled and utterly individual work has assisted and even influenced some of Australia’s best contemporary artists. His ongoing support has meanwhile had the effect of unearthing rare talents that few curators or critics would be brave enough to champion.

Much of what he collects looks distinctly unprepossessing. It is local, raw, humourous, freshly shucked. “That’s part of my interest,” he told Nigel Lendon in an interview for Australia’s Art Monthly, “that idea of finding something that is treasured and rare and precious, usually in surroundings that are anything but that. So much of what masquerades as art comes from the other end of the spectrum—people with huge studios and expensive equipment, hangers-on, the lot. You look at what they’re doing and you think well, bully for you, but it does nothing for me, it’s just a commodity, whereas these unrecognised people are really going hammer and tongs at something they love.”

The Peter Fay Collection, exhibited at the National Gallery of Art under the title “Home sweet home” (an acknowledgment of its abiding connection to a domestic, rather than an institutional, space) proposes that we remove the signatures and labels that do so much to mediate our reception of art, and see creativity for what it is: in the case of most of these works, knotty, passionate, perverse and deeply personal.

Mr Fay has a booming voice, and a skittish, yet imposing, temperament that veers between acidic satire and forthright generosity. He has formed close, mutually supportive friendships with some of Australia’s greatest artists, including the late Rosalie Gascoigne, whose cool, Japanese ikebana- and Modernist-inspired arrangements of road signs and found objects earned her an unassailable reputation at an unusually advanced age. Other well established contemporary artists to have benefited from his encouragement and collecting have included Mikala Dwyer, Peter Atkins, Noel McKenna, Peter Cooley, Robert Macpherson and Ricky Swallow. Many of these were relatively unknown when Mr Fay first came across them, and their works continue to form a key component of the collection.

But just as important has been Mr Fay’s discovery of artists with no prior connection to the art world at all. Many fit into the category of “outsider artists”, but Mr Fay prefers to see art as a kind of fantastic mongrel rather than an abstract dispensation neatly divisible into insides and outsides, highs and lows.

In 1997, he discovered Art Projects Australia, a studio/workshop for artists with disabilities in Melbourne, and he has been collecting and closely following the production of several of the artists connected with it ever since.

“I have a strong belief in rattling the cage,” he said recently. “I want to get people asking, ‘Why is that here? Why is that art and that not?’ Outsider artists have as much to give as established, or insider‚ artists.”

In the 1980s, Fay met an old woman living in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney called Merle (Mick) Blunden. A friend had offered his services to her as a lawnmower. Norman Lindsay, an enormously popular, “bohemian”, though dreadfully kitsch Australian artist, had been her husband’s patron.

“She had been part of an artistic world,” Fay recalled. “Mick was one of the most beautiful people you could ever hope to know. I went up there every weekend and one day she said, ‘Why don’t you come up here and we’ll grow flowers, be involved in art, the whole thing?’”

There were many earlier sparks and epiphanies, but the move to the Blue Mountains seems to have been a profound turning point in Mr Fay’s life as a collector. When Mick died, he built a large timber house and continued growing and selling proteas, daffodils and jonquils. Mr Fay would frequently invite artists up to the house for lunches, and occasionally hold exhibitions of their work. Visitors would be given a list and invited to find the selected works among the domestic clutter. A succession of bushfires eventually led Fay to move back into Sydney’s Italophile inner west.

In his enthusiasms as a collector, he has gone from adoring painting, of the thickly clotted self-advertising kind, to surreally juxtaposed found objects laden with memories, to work employing words and script, and onto more conceptually-oriented work.

All of this has been provisional and intermingled, but much of it has drawn on what the co-curator of “Home sweet home”, Glenn Barkley, describes as a “craft tradition of making do‚ that is uniquely Australian.”

Mr Fay’s recent discovery of several hitherto unknown artists suggests a quiet return to basic mark-making, even painterly values, with child-like and sometimes surreal undercurrents. One of them, Gina Sinozich, is an elderly artist whom Fay discovered when she showed work in a suburban art prize in western Sydney.

Ms Sinozich is from Croatia, and a lot of her painting, which she took up when her husband became ill, relates to memories from home. But a recent series she painted in response to media coverage of the Iraq War has an incredibly vivid, unexpected presence, and has earned her a cult-like following and a deservedly high reputation in recent months. Another, Slim Barrie, is an artist in his 60s whose work was shown to Mr Fay after being discovered in a charity shop by a friend’s son.

Mr Fay’s decision to give a substantial part of his collection to the National Gallery—just the most notable of many acts of generosity concerning his collection over the years—is a reflection of his belief in a need to open up similar possibilities of creativity and responsiveness in others.

“As a former teacher,” writes co-curator Deborah Hart, Mr Fay “has retained a love of imparting information, although he is also deeply aware that in art, as in life, questions are often answered by more questions.”

“Home sweet home: works from the Peter Fay Collection” is at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (until 18 January)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The Art Newspaper profile: Peter Fay. Australia’s champion of the outsider'