Miriam Grundy is a specialist on Aboriginal art. Discussing her background at art school and her continued fascination with Aboriginal art, Miriam also spoke to us about tradition, moving to New York, and her sustainable apartment.
Where did you grow up?
I’m from Bondi Beach, born and bred. Looking back now it was a really idyllic childhood.
So tell us how you became interested in art.
I always knew that I wanted to do art in some capacity. We had one original painting in the house, and I thought it must have been a Matisse or a Picasso it enchanted me so much. When I was 15 I went to high school in Paris for 3 months and I’d go to the museums every day. That was a huge influence on me — actually seeing all these artworks that I’d been looking at in books for years and years. So I made up my mind that that was all I wanted to do.
And how did you become a dealer?
I went to COFA in Paddington and did painting, drawing, and a few other practical subjects — I loved it there but I knew I wasn’t gonna be an artist. So I was like, “I can be involved in this but I don’t actually have to do it.” I had too much respect for the discipline to continue being a mediocre artist; I switched to art history, theory, and have just fallen forward since.
How did you get involved in Aboriginal art?
For a long time I was working in non-Indigenous art, and then I started working with a dealer in Bondi, Adrian Newstead, [at] the oldest Aboriginal art gallery in Australia. As soon as I started there I had a moment of clarity and said, “This is it.”
What was exciting about working with Aboriginal art for the first time?
It was a whole new visual language, and it was all so distinct. In the same way that there were over 500 different Indigenous dialects in Australia, there are also 500 different schools of art. Art education as I experienced it barely touched on Aboriginal art, but to learn that these schools were so different, complex, and unique, and had their own narrative and history—that really resonated with me.
Are you still drawn to non-indigenous art?
Absolutely. As a dealer you have to be discerning. A dealer as much as an artist has to have their style. If you become a general store and do a little bit of everything, you lose your focus. This is really what I came to New York to do—to show the art that excites me.
Okay, let’s talk about New York. When did you move?
Had you been here before?
I’d only visited for two weeks the year before, so I had very little insight, it’s really just been make it up as I go. I actually thought we’d be living in LA, which we did for two months. I initially loved it, but then after a while it was isolating, so as soon as I got to New York I was so keen to get amongst it and I still pinch myself on a regular basis about the opportunities that New York throws at you. I think whereas in Australia we have nature and beaches, in New York you have humans, and the humans are your environment.
Tell us about your apartment.
I’m very big on sustainability, and we came from a 3 bedroom house in Sydney that was full of stuff, so I was like, I don’t want more stuff. I made a decision—everything had to be either second hand or hand made and I had to know where it came from; it couldn’t be having an impact on the earth. After you acquire a lot of stuff, you start to get conscious of, “Where did this come from? What will I do with it when I’m done with it?” I think in this day and age you have to really question why things exist. Once you put them through the litmus test, you get a bit of clarity as to what you actually need in your life.
What else about New York speaks to you?
[In] New York, it’s kind of like you’ve got all these atoms crashing together, and some bounce off, but some stick, and that’s how I’ve made my way here. I think it makes you a much more open, energetic and honest person and sets you up to really appreciate this city and the ingredients that go into it.
Do people in New York and the states have an eye for Aboriginal art?
Absolutely. Art so much part of the public domain here so people have a very well trained eye. In Australia, the majority of my clients were American. That gave me a lot of courage to come here, knowing there was that appetite. I certainly think what happening at an institutional level is really significant. There’s a huge show in Boston in February called Everywhen; it will be the biggest show in America in 25 years. And it was announced that the Kluge-Ruhe in Virginia is starting an Aboriginal curatorial program. I hesitate to say this, but in for now I feel its future does lie in America.
How is Aboriginal art being received here in the states?
I think that is one of the most refreshing and liberating things here—there is no Aboriginal art section; it’s contemporary art, and these artists are contemporary painters, sculptors and photographers. Aboriginal artists are keeping company with the best artists in the world. These artists fly in from the bush and their artwork is shown at the best galleries in New York, and it’s accepted, applauded and celebrated. It’s globalism in its best incarnation.
All the artists you represent at the moment are women—can you talk about female painters in the context of Aboriginal art?
Kitty [Napanangka Simon] is a great example of that. She is a very traditional lady who started painting in this very immediate, gestural way. Her experiences of walking through the desert are evident in her all-inclusive paintings. She will a mixture of line work, which comes from body art and ceremony and these bright merges of color- the landscape, to paint these expansive, loose paintings. Her community of Lajamanu is renowned for the several breakaway, expressive gesturally dynamic, older female painters who have been nurtured there. And despite the contentious position that these artists occupy amongst other members of their families and the wider community, it is their commitment to women’s Law, ceremony and ultimately passing on knowledge that reasserts the validity of their work.
You said Aboriginal art is accepted as contemporary—can you talk about the contemporary versus traditional dynamic?
I see it as telling old stories new ways. Acrylic paint on canvas is not traditional. This was an entirely new kind of technology and medium when it was taken up in the 1970s. You can’t segment Aboriginal art, you can’t limit it and say, “Between these years, that was true art.” A dangerous thing is to talk about Aboriginal art in the past tense and to regard it as something that has happened and had its peak. Every art movement changes, and if it didn’t, nothing would evolve. It’s continuing on a story.