Carol has asked me to speak today about Dick’s larger contribution to Tasmanian life.
Dick was ever a large thinker ahead of his time. Over thirty years before Greg Taylor’s great wall of vaginas found fame in MONA, Dick, then a sculpture student, envisaged a new Tasmanian art that would begin—perhaps appropriately, perhaps not—with a wall of arses, each arse hanging in its own plastic bag. These realistic representations were to be made of fiberglass struck out of a plaster mould taken in turn off real, living bottoms.
From the beginning Dick recognised the power of collaboration. He enlisted the aid of another then unknown sculpture student called Kevin Perkins. And so on a midwinters night in a chill South Hobart flat, these two future giants of Tasmanian art set about plastering the bare arse of their first model, a young woman who will forever remain nameless.
All went well until the plaster started heating up to such a degree that the woman, fearing labial scorching, began to scream. At this point the avant guarde of South Hobart made a terrible discovery: the plaster had already set. Faced with no other alternative they had to smash up their precious work. Unfortunately for the now traumatised model even after resolute demolition work some plaster remained burning her, resolutely and defiantly anchored to her now vulcanised vulvic regions by an intricate system of pubic hooks.
Kev Perkins found his temperament as a gentleman in conflict with certain compelling practical facts. He held up a pocket knife and looked at Dick. Dick realised if contemporary Tasmanian art was to have a future there was no choice. He did what Dick always did when he agreed with an idea. He clapped his hands. The model looked away. And Kev went in with the pocket knife and pruned away the offending plaster remnants.
After this sorry setback word got around, Dick was unable to get any further models, the wall of arses remained unfinished, Kev Perkins became a furniture maker and, in anticipation of an artistic life, carried a pocket knife with him forever after.
Other bold plans came to nothing. Holden refused to give Dick a brand new Holden that Dick wanted to bury in a pit, reasoning, not unfairly, that a grass mound in Hobart was not going to shift too many Kingswood wagons and Torana sedans in dealerships across the rest of the nation.
At some point Dick met Carol to whom he wisely proposed not plaster nor pits, but partnership—in life and soon thereafter a gallery. And thus was the Dick Bett Gallery born, a gallery that was always something more than a gallery, because Dick was always so much more than an art dealer.
In all this Dick was sustained and anchored by Carol and in more recent years Emma and Jack. He was a family man, but his idea of family was as large and open as his idea of art.
Dick was a friend to me, as he was to so many. When I had nothing but three toddlers under three, mounting debts and a far from finished manuscript of a first novel it was
Dick who gave me a job labouring on his house renovations, an act of kindness that moves me to this day. It was money I needed. But it was so much more than money. It was a vote of confidence in me that I had something and was accepted. And I was not the only artist or writer labouring there, and God knows how those renovations have managed to stand to this day.
When I first met him, Dick told me there was good Tasmanian contemporary art, but no market for it. He saw his job as creating that market. At the time it seemed a quixotic, doomed idea. But against the odds, Dick succeeded.
And in the process he did so much more.
I think it not too much to say that he made of us a community. He took the camaraderie and excitement of the 1980s artists cooperative Chameleon Gallery, of which he was founding director, and built it into what we have today.
Dick connected artists and art lovers, joined artist with other artists, artist with writers, all of us with all of our possibilities.
He did the heavy lifting that the official government bodies should have and never did do with artists: nurturing, supporting, encouraging, joining. Various exhibitions from South of No North to the yearly Poets and Painters to the Tahrir Square like Future Perfect brought together so many, built so many friendships, challenged and questioned what art here was and should be and might yet become, and all of it created a sense of shared excitement and possibility that fed into better and better work.
I doubt any of these more ambitious projects ever made him money and most likely cost him a great deal. But then Dick wasn’t a money man.
I recall when he boldly took a young Richard Wastell to Sydney and exhibited him in a rented space there. He’d managed to wrangle some media interest and the day after the opening there was a glowing review in the Australian Financial Review, describing Richie’s work as must buys and very good investments. A rather hungover Matt Newton and I had arrived at the exhibition at opening time to catch up with Richie Wastell to find the doors locked, no sign of Dick, and a growing queue of suspicious looking Sydney merchant banker types in suits nervously fiddling with cheque books.
After some time, as the suits grew more and more annoyed, I went outside looking for Dick. I finally spotted him circling the block in his big white van—like a lost mother whale outside Hells Gates trying to find its beached calf and failing—looking for a park as the money men slowly evaporated. 45 minutes later Dick finally appeared. There was only Richie Wastell, Matt Newton and myself left.
You should have seen who was here, said Matt. It was incredible.
You should see the parking, said Dick. Its atrocious.
And then came that ch-ch-ch chortling laugh, a waltzing noise somewhere between walnuts being ground and a lawn mower trying to start.
He was never broken by vicissitudes, by the smallness of others, this little man with a big love, whose eyes grew ever larger and wider as his glasses grew steadily stronger. I never knew him to be cynical. Ever affable, interesting, generous, there was much hope about him, a irrepressible, sometime impossible to believe hope that dared and made so much possible in the daring.
He always wanted to in his words, ‘Shake it up a bit.’ His hands and jowls would seem to vibrate at the point and the vibration would often continue spiraling outwards for several months after.
He was brave and beholden to nobody. He wasn’t frightened as so many in our sometimes Lilliputian island are frightened. He wasn’t frightened by failure. He wasn’t worried about giving offence. He wasn’t frightened by the politicians and bureaucrats, he wasn’t intimidated by the critics.
Richie Wastell said of Dick: He believed. In Tasmanian art, in Tasmanian artists. In us, even when in that most Tasmanian way we didn’t believe in ourselves. And because of him Tasmanian contemporary art which scarcely existed in the 1980s is today a recognized fact here and beyond, an art that at its best is large, open and free, an invitation to dream our world anew.
Death is an end and the man is no more. Talk of legacies rings hollow to those who remember the unique and unrepeatable soul. As Dick learnt early on, seeking to simply mould the living is not always the best way.
At the recent 25th anniversary of his gallery when Dick so bravely said goodbye to us all, there was in that room and overflowing into Elizabeth St so much largeness and love. For a moment it seemed as if gathered there that night was the Tasmania you dream about—brave, gifted, open, laughing, free.
I don’t know if we’ll ever arrive at that Tasmania. But because of Dick I and many others glimpsed it.
And I am grateful. For that, for so much else.
Dick was a friend, as he was friend to so many. And today I miss him very much and too late realise how important and how good he was; how large a hole he left.
In our island, so often so mean and pinched, so destructive and so stupid, so unbelieving and hateful of its own, in this island Dick Bett believed and made of us so much that was good. He showed us the power of generosity and largeness and hope; showed us that we were better that we thought, he reminded us how much better we might yet be.
I will miss his lawnmower laugh, his hope, his courage, his unflagging optimism. His wonderful wide eyes. I will miss his hand on my shoulder when I visit the gallery. I will miss my friend.
I will miss him. Very much. Vale Dick.
2 December 2011