Art swap

How an Athenian gave Melbourne contemporary art and Australia a cultural kick up the proverbial

Anna Pappas is no shrinking violet. She is every bit the loud and proud Athenian many have come to love. She’s unforgiving in the way she speaks and puts me in my place, but it comes from an educated perspective and her pure drive and passion to showcase contemporary art to the masses. She speaks with a tone of wanting to educate rather than patronise. And I am all ears.

Born in Athens, Pappas was educated in a German school. Her father was transferred to Australia for work and it wasn’t long after her and her mother moved over because, as Pappas describes she was “uncontrollable”. She arrived in Sydney in 1971 and could only speak Greek and German, no English. To say times were hard for her is an understatement, but one thing kept her going – her art. With a background in graphic arts, Pappas stayed on in Sydney after her parents went back to Greece and stayed in her graphic arts studio for many years.

In 1994, she moved to Melbourne, and after many twists and turns, she decided to follow her heart and open a gallery. In 2003, she opened Uber Gallery; now Anna Pappas Gallery. “I spent three years travelling around Europe assessing galleries and trends there so when I opened in St Kilda, it was one of the very few galleries that had international artists,” Pappas tells Neos Kosmos.

“The reason of the gallery, at that point, was an exchange of international artists to bring their art here and [how] local artists to take their art overseas. It is an exchange of art.” Pappas invests a lot of time, energy and – let’s face it – money, to make sure the artwork is given a chance to breathe. She is devoted to promoting the exchange of culture and fine arts. She has taken artists from Australia and sent them to art fairs in Chicago, Berlin, Hong Kong and Korea. This way, the gallery features those whose works make a significant contribution to the philosophical, creative and cultural discourses of time.

“We are working at expanding the horizons of Australian art now. Australian art is a bit like Australian food. It’s pretty good, but it’s a fusion and it’s not very clear what it is. By taking Australian art overseas we are hoping to expand the horizons of the artist here and also to educate international collectors and scream ‘hello we are here!'”

Her gallery covers international and local artists, established and emerging artists and all media, but she stresses that it must fall into the category of contemporary art. “I don’t show modern art, I don’t show secondary art and I don’t show anything that is not alive and kicking. The art I show works as we speak while modern art, most of them are dead now.” The art work varies from video to installation, to photography, to sculpture, 3D objects, painting, watercolours and collage. “I’ve got an installation at the moment that I am exhibiting made out of borate that looks like crystals with bones from animals, all built to look like the city of Hong Kong with all lights going through it. It’s very contemporary art. “I’ve dealt with a couple of Greek artists but it’s very, very difficult. Moving the art outside Greece is quite complicated for tax reasons because it connects to the ancient art, treasures and so on so the bureaucracy is horrific, it’s quite expensive.

“Greek art is amazing. Contemporary Greek art at the moment is one of the best arts I’ve seen in Europe. It’s a very small scene, so it’s very intense and very international.” Pappas is confident that Australia will gain and progress with these cultural art exchanges.

“Because we are young, we excel in the concept of art form, we have open ideas and we are not restricted as much as other countries,” Pappas says about Australian artists. She has noticed that most of the established Australian artists here venture to London, whereas the emerging artists and ones doing their residencies choose to reside in Berlin and hone their craft. But does this lack of a sense of history and identity hinder Australian art? Does it push artists to travel abroad to find their voice? She vehemently disagrees.

“The countries that have a strong connection with their art, have a much better understanding of their art. Therefore they have a much better market for their art as it’s not a new thing with them. Also the eye gets used to the aesthetic of the art. “What we do have here in Australia is a much more laid back attitude to it. Whether that’s good or bad I don’t know, but I know a lot of artists go overseas to gain that.”

Visit the Anna Pappas Gallery at 2-4 Carlton Street, Prahran, Victoria. For exhibition information contact (03) 8598 9915 or email