Emotionally attached to the art world

The Flinders Lane Gallery has occupied a special place in the streetscape for 30 years and many collectors have fond memories of coming to openings then going out dining nearby. 

Claire Harris has been in the gallery for 20 of those years, greeting collectors, making them feel comfortable, the last 12 as director.

“I think galleries get a bad rap because of the way they can be portrayed,” she said. Some view them as elitist.

The gallery is now one of a dwindling group in the CBD but Claire resisted the impulse to move to the new art hot spot in Collingwood when the lease came up. 

“We did think about Collingwood,” she said, but she lives nearby in Swanston St so she’s committed to the city. Her son goes to a school on the fringe and there are other parents living nearby.

“I was looking for character. I’d been looking [for gallery space] for over two years. There was just one other contender.”

When a space came up on the first floor of the Nicholas Building, she was undecided for six months. “It’s opposite the Metro Rail dig. It was so noisy. It was 85 decibels in here. There were heritage issues and sleepless nights. But the community of the building attracted me.”

She now likes the quiet of her new location, a large and multi-roomed renovated space that was formerly a bead shop and began as several individual shops. The evidence of its past uses has been retained in sections of the walls.  

“It’s calm and peaceful in the gallery now,” she said. “When you go out you have to face the onslaught of the streets.” 

The hardworking gallerist with a feel for people also has an office for the first time. “Sometimes my head explodes from so many questions. Now I’ve got doors to my office so I can have a hissy fit in private.” 

Claire is a hard worker. She’s open five days a week and is often in on Mondays as well. “I’m very practical and pragmatic. A fundamental part is having good relationships. I don’t like being stressed out.”

She likes the conditions in the new building better. She has fashioned a small kitchen for herself in the refit so she doesn’t have to eat el-desko. 

“I was constantly eating at my old desk. Now I can sneak out the back and have a sandwich,” she said.

She runs the kind of business that promotes old-style aesthetic values. “It’s a hard slog. Every week there’s something I haven’t seen. I’m constantly bombarded with new images.”

Art is sometimes seen as a luxury item so there’s a whirlpool of romance, delusion, cynicism and aspiration around the question of taste and that’s without even adding the political dimension.

Claire has 17 reasons why people do and should invest. The dynamic businesswoman has them listed on her website and challenges anyone to come up with more.

Sales come naturally to her. Nothing seems to faze her. Landscape – “it’s a bit of escapism.” She has her hard edge artists, her indigenous ones, her mechanical drawings, even line works based on the pheromones of a spider orchid. 

She says it’s cheesy but she loves phoning up artists and telling them that she’s been able to sell their work. 

“Some artists don’t talk. They need to be asked particular questions to get to the truth.”

One thing is for sure – artists love sales. They don’t need to know why an unknown purchaser has believed in them. 

“Collectors are more like supporters,” Claire said. They’re emotionally attached to the art world.

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