How to… Write About Art, with Louise Martin-Chew

Based in Brisbane, Louise Martin-Chew has been writing about art for over 25 years, producing written works for commercial and regional galleries. Louise also writes regularly for national art magazines, catalogues, books, and newspapers. Her biography Fiona Foley Provocateur: An Art Life (2021) won Best Book (joint prize) in the AWAPA awards from the Art Association of Australia and New Zealand in 2022. 

How do you get started on articles or essays for publication?
Ideally, I start by talking to the artist (when possible). One question I like to ask an artist is how they got started, and what drives them to make. Sometimes it emerges from their biography but so often artists are from unexpected and unlikely backgrounds. I find that compelling. 

Are there any genres, subjects, or perspectives you feel are currently under-acknowledged within the dialogue of Australian art?
So many! In recent years we’ve heard from incredibly diverse voices which is wonderful. Currently I am writing about art prizes (for the 2024 Art Prizes Planner) and that is an untapped area ripe for research. Annually, Australia awards some $6 million in prize money, yet there is little research about its impact. Commercial galleries are also crucial in brokering contemporary art into the broader landscape, but their methods and approach are often unrecorded. Lastly, artists themselves. The State Library of Queensland holds the James C. Sourris AM collection of artist interviews, with artists speaking about their practices in detail. These are incredible and make me look for more of that microhistory. 

What is your top tip for any budding arts writers?
I feel as though a focus on the art is the best place to start (leaving yourself at the door). Ultimately, you need to earn your reader’s respect, and honour the artist or subject first. Much of what I have seen from new arts writers recently is in the first person, and includes the writer climbing the stairs, or chasing their child around the gallery… 

Do you have a favourite written work about art?
Often, it’s what I’ve read most recently, but there are some standouts. Robert Hughes (1938-2012) of course (The Art of Australia, 1966, Shock of the New, 1991), and currently John McDonald (Sydney Morning Herald) – he is always authentic. Gertrude Langer (1908-1984) was crucial to the maturation of Brisbane. Alison Croggan is more about literature and writing, but her pieces for The Monthly this month express so well why we continue to do creative work. Her second article traces the increasing vulnerability in arts and culture with the drift in government support and its need to cover increasing breadth highlighting the obstacles to a sustainable creative life. Raising the flag is important; this is analysis we rarely see. 

What would you like to write about next?
I loved developing the Fiona Foley biography and am planning to pursue the biographical genre further. I am currently developing an idea focusing on creative women, with the idea of a book of shorter biographical pieces – mainly contemporary but also from history (there are so many untold stories)! 

How important is good writing to the success and appreciation of the visual arts?
It is crucial to encourage interest and engagement with the art of our time. Broadcaster Daniel Browning told me recently (for an interview published in Art Edit #37) that “artists show us where to look”. It is so true. 

With thanks to Louise Martin-Chew for her time. 

Banner Image: Louise at an exhibition by Jo Lankester, taken at Onespace Gallery. Photograph by Louis Lim. 

November 2023