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40 Under 40 Asia Pacific

Geoff Newton

1 September 2016

Founder, Neon Parc, Melbourne, Australia

I feel it’s an Australian thing, to wear many different hats. The sense of collegiality is heightened within a smaller scene; everyone works with each other.’ Geoff Newton’s easy-going attitude belies the energy that has seen him establish two branches of his Neon Parc gallery in Melbourne, co-found the SPRING 1883 art fair, lecture at two universities and curate exhibitions at a number of other venues. And though a successful painter in his own right, his own art has now taken a back seat as he concentrates on promoting other Australian and New Zealand artists to both a domestic and international audience.

Neon Parc was established in 2006 in a small space on Melbourne’s Bourke Street with the curator Tristian Koenig (who left to start another gallery in 2010). It was a natural progression from Dudespace, the monthly pop-up exhibitions Newton ran in his own house while working as an art handler at the National Gallery of Victoria in the years after art school. These ‘barbecue and beers’ exhibitions were a means of casually showing his own and other young artists’ work without the rigmarole of applying to one of Melbourne’s many artist-run spaces. ‘In the beginning we were very driven and brash,’ says Newton. ‘I guess we still are.’

Unusually, Neon Parc was launched without investors and is still self-funded. Last year, Newton expanded to a second, enormous space in Brunswick, Melbourne’s industrial area. It is, he says, like Vyner Street in East London to Bourke Street’s city-centre location. There aren’t yet other galleries nearby but Newton feels confident they’ll come. Brunswick will allow more room for experimentation, including some performances, he hopes, and perhaps collaborations with Melbourne’s fashion festival.

Though he trained at the Slade and the Canberra School of Art, Newton has largely given up painting, feeling his dual role muddied the waters. Showing his own work seemed ‘nepotistic’, he says, and he had to choose one path: ‘To stand in front of, say, a museum curator, I think you need to be definitively an artist or a gallerist to be taken seriously.’ Newton thrives on the promotion of other artists, and the dynamic that can be created by bringing art and people together. It’s a sentiment that led, in 2014, to his co-founding the SPRING 1883 art fair, a boutique hotel-based event of some 30 contemporary art galleries. It moved to Sydney last year but returned to where it started, the Hotel Windsor, for Melbourne Art Week this August.

Newton is clearly a Melbourne man, comparing the scene there to Cologne in contrast to Sydney’s Miami: ‘Put crassly, Melbourne tends to be more old-school sophisti-cated, whereas Sydney is more about fast money and gloss.’ But he has transported Neon Parc and its stable to numer-ous fairs, from Cologne and Copenhagen to Los Angeles and Miami. Such fairs expose his artists to an internat-ional audience, which is important ‘to keep reminding people that Australian and New Zealand contemporary art is just as good as anywhere else, and to tackle the stereotype that it is all Aboriginal art’.

Such isolation and misconceptions are, thinks Newton, ‘the tyranny of distance’. Persuading European or American collectors and curators to make the flight is difficult. So he goes to them. And a further consequence of these international travels is that Neon Parc’s exhibition programme has itself become more international: in 2014, for instance, Newton mounted an exhibition of Martin Kippenberger’s exhibition posters from Cologne, the artist’s first show in Australia since the 1992 Sydney Biennale.

Newton was 29 when he started Neon Parc. He is 39 now. How has the gallery matured? ‘A lot of artists who started with the gallery as young unknowns have now been recognised with exhibitions elsewhere […] the more senior artists I’ve taken on in the past five years already have a strong exhibition history and have been attracted by what I’ve done in the past decade. That’s humbling.’ At heart, Newton is a gallerist who wants to promote and enhance Australia’s artistic scene by building connections, and by importing and exporting the work of artists he believes to be interesting. That may sound grandiose, but that isn’t Newton’s style. It’s dialogue, probably over beers and a barbie.

Anna Brady