Dick Bett passed away on Monday November 29, 2011. The Contemporary Art World in Australia, and particularly Tasmania, lost a major and important figure. For the past 25 years The Dick Bett Gallery has been the pre-eminent commercial Gallery in Tasmania and has developed a nation-wide reputation for the excellence of its exhibitions and the quality of the artists it has nurtured and represented. The significance of the Gallery and of Dick’s personal contribution as a gallerist is one thing, and is obvious in the choice of artists represented and the levels and the types of support provided for them by the gallery, but it is Dick’s innovative methods and passionate commitment to developing an informed audience and market for contemporary art, that has been perhaps his major contribution to the field.
All galleries undertake activity to build a strong and loyal clientele, and all galleries of quality take on a variety of means to create opportunities for their artists, this much is not new. Most follow well established patterns though. Beyond the Gallery Dick and Carol Bett established the Derwent Collection, (and later the Tamar Collection), based on ideas Dick had trialled as a gallery director when Director of the Govett-Brewster Gallery in Auckland, prior to setting up the Dick Bett Gallery, (later simply the Bett Gallery), in Hobart in 1986.
The Derwent Collection brought people together from various walks of life, linked by a developing interest in art and a desire to collect. Many members of the collecting group initially knew very little about contemporary art but through regular contact with other members, at evenings and events both social and instructional, a cohort of supporters grew to become astute, informed and confident supporters of contemporary art. A feature of the Derwent Collection was that works regularly rotated around the homes or offices of the group, so all became beneficiaries. After a period of time the works held by the Collection were sold off within the group and a new collecting group started. It is impossible to estimate the value of this innovation but clearly it supplied solid support for the work of many younger to mid-career artists at a time when their work was affordable and created a loyal base of buyers for further purchases. The success of the Bett model is that it is being applied by others to the lasting benefit of artists and audiences alike.
Dick’s apparently gruff, no-nonsense style could have superficially led to some confusion about his character. While never wasting time or suffering fools gladly he was in fact a very warm, generous, gentle and funny man with a wry, dry wit and a genuine love of people. Some artists will know the levels of support and loyalty he provided during their early development but it is not something he would have wanted to make a fuss about, it was, like the Derwent Collection, all part of building something good and lasting, and being prepared to take the time to do things properly and create something of substance and depth. That Dick and Carol Bett have certainly done.
Having known for some time, as his illness developed, that the time remaining to him was quite limited, Dick worked right up to the end and he bore that knowledge with his characteristic pragmatism, grace and dignity. Earlier last year people from all over the country gathered to celebrate 25 years of the Bett Gallery. A sweet sadness permeated that occaision, as many or perhaps most assembled were aware of Dick’s situation but the love and respect we all held for him, and he for us, was palpable at that event.
The Bett Gallery will remain, in the hands of his son Jack, daughter Emma and wife Carol, a vital feature of Tasmania’s cultural life. His legacy lives on as well in the lives and the memories of those who were fortunate enough to know him and those for whom art is more than a commodity, is a passion. Dick had this passion and he shared it with generosity and perhaps that is the legacy he would have wanted to leave behind. We truly are the poorer for the loss of this man.