It’s a rare thing to see pictures from a state art gallery hanging on the walls of a commercial gallery.

That was the case last night at the 50th birthday party for Australian Galleries in Melbourne, without doubt the longest surviving commercial art business of any significance in the country.

The National Gallery of Victoria lent paintings by John Brack and Arthur Boyd, both of whom were among the first crop of artists to show with Anne and Tam Purves, the rag traders who turned their pattern-making factory in Colingwood into an art gallery back in June 1956.

Tam Purves passed away in 1966 and Anne in 1999 but the business, now run by son Stuart, has grown to include four galleries in Sydney and Melbourne.

The pictures on loan from the NGV included a set of portraits of Anne Purves by Boyd and a portrait of Tam Purves by Brack.

Last night, Derby St. in Collingwood was closed to traffic so a marquee could be erected in front of the gallery to accommodate the overflowing crowd of freeloading art luvvies, myself included.

James Mollison, former director of both the NGV and the National Gallery of Australia, was the guest of honour, saying lots of predictably (and deservedly) nice things about Australian Galleries’ place in the history of modern Australian art, noting that aside from Boyd and Brack, the Purves family had also represented Sid Nolan, Bert Tucker, John Perceval, Fred Williams and Brett Whiteley, to name a few.

As this was a decidedly Melbourne, Mollison knew he was in safe company when he made the bold – even absurd – declaration that “the story of Australian art was 80% Melbourne”.

As a Sydneysider now residing in Melbourne, I couldn’t help but let out a small protest.

“That’s a big call,” I muttered, but my interjection was dismissed by most of those around me. Only Dennis Saville, a Sydney dealer, offered the only other interjection, but even he conceded that Melbourne’s contribution to Australian art was “more like 60%”.

Peter Fray

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