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Shelley Collins: The vintage art dealer

shelley collins the galerie fitzroy

Owner, The Galerie Fitzroy

"The Galerie is different, interesting and accessible - the three things that Melbourne does very well!"

(We take a quick step into the City of Yarra to talk to the owner of one Melbourne's best art galleries.)

It all began, as many things do in Melbourne, in a café. The only (massive) difference was that this café was in San Francisco where Shelley Collins and her partner, Stefan, were living at the time.

“The café had vintage posters on its wall and Stefan fell in love with them,” Shelley recalled. “I did a bit of research, found someone who sold them and it went from there.”

What that means is that they went from serious collectors to owners of a gallery in Melbourne dealing solely in original vintage posters that they sourced during their annual buying trips to Europe, in particular France.

In 2002, Galerie Montmartre opened in a warehouse space just off Brunswick Street. As word spread, collectors came in droves to snap up vintage matchboxes and key rings for as low as $5 to huge posters that carried a price tags of up to $5,000.

The gallery had entered its eighth year when Stefan suffered a brain haemorrhage. With two young children and a business on her hands, Shelley allowed herself time to find her feet and then began making the tough decisions.

In 2014, Galerie Montmartre was rebranded as The Galerie Fitzroy and moved from its on-street location to an upper floor further down Brunswick Street where it continues to thrive.

How did the last six years bring you to where you are today?

Those years are a bit of a blur. My boys were aged two and four at the time, and I told myself that as they got older they would need me less.

I decided I would continue keeping the cogs turning with the gallery until I could make the necessary decisions. So I employed more people, I turned up where I could and I made decisions that other people could implement.

Galerie Montmartre’s lease came up in 2014 and I realised that my boys needed me more than ever. And I wanted to be there for them. But I also love retail and the posters and didn’t want to give it all away. The only compromise I could think of was to consolidate and downsize, hence the relocation and the rebranding.

As I was packing up Galerie Montmartre, I saw Stefan’s notes. We had so many dreams but there are new ones. And I don’t know what the future holds just yet.

Where those the hardest yards in the business?

To be honest, the past two years have been the trickiest. Moving and rebranding took on a whole new hustle. That, and the global financial crisis. Brunswick Street is not what it was when we started in 2002. A lot of businesses have closed. Online has made things very different but you’ve just got to move with it.

Take us back to when you bought your first poster. What was it?

We ended up buying three. And we went home in silence because we had never spent so much on anything before. One poster was by an artist called Razzia and was a huge fork with pasta wrapped around it. The second one was called Farigoulette and is a 1920s poster of a man stealing booze from a fairground. And the third was an incredible art deco boxing poster.

Most people would be content with just being collectors. What inspired you to go one step further?

We had begun travelling to Europe by then and we were meeting a lot of people. By the time we moved from San Francisco to New York, we were well into the collecting community.

One of our favourite art dealers suggested that we consider setting up a gallery when we returned to Melbourne because we had the knowledge and passion and most importantly, a very different eye compared to Americans.

Also, our jobs at the time gave us a lot of freedom and we wanted more of that. Plus, we had the bug of working for ourselves. It just made sense. And we had nothing to lose.

Were those jobs in the arts industry?

No, it was the computer industry! It was during the dotcom boom.

But you trusted that you knew enough and loved art enough to turn it into a business.

Yea! It not working never ever entered my mind. And if it didn’t, I would try something else. It was worth taking a chance on it.

The gallery has been around for 14 years. What’s the secret to its longevity?

Just keep going! I never feel like I know it all. I’m always learning and evolving. Always looking for the problem and how I can be the solution. What do I have to give that no one else can? And then, I go from there.

Longevity gives you confidence when things aren’t going well. You’ve got enough experience to say, hang on, I’ve been here before and it will pass. Only longevity can teach you that.

How do you know which posters will fly off the walls when you go on your buying trips?

I just know what’s going to work from what I like. That’s my criteria. Do I love it? Yes. Then someone else will. And I’ve found that we have created certain markets based on that.

Also once you set up shop, people come to you. We have an amazing collection of very rare and exclusive travel posters from a gentleman in Melbourne whose father was a graphic designer and printer. He came to us with this vast collection. That’s sort of the way it happens now.

Have you always been a Melburnian?

Yes! And proudly so. I love this city! Having lived overseas for seven years has made me love Melbourne all the more. Because we’re so far from other countries, we tend to look outward and bring in the best of what we see.

How do you think The Galerie contributes to Melbourne’s community?

It's different, interesting and accessible - the three things that Melbourne does very well!

What has been the biggest change in the city over the years?

There are more food options than ever been before in terms of bricks and mortar. There is less retail but more specialised ones. Those of us who have hung in there have really honed our craft. We know what we’re doing and we’ve adapted. We’re the survivors!

In A Snap:

Favourite Aussie phrase: “Happy as Larry.” I was always asked who Larry was when I lived overseas.

Best place to get breakfast: I have to say my neighbour, Stagger Lee’s.

Best street to go for a wander: Little Collins Street. Every year for my birthday I would take myself to the city and walk all the way from Spring Street right down. I'd go into all the galleries and all the shops.

Favourite Melbourne festival: Melbourne International Comedy Festival. I practically live there!

Best insider secret: Get a Melbourne Museum membership if you are a parent. Best value for money, entertainment and education anywhere in Melbourne. I took my boys there once a week for years. They took their first steps there.

Images by Stephanie Sta Maria

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