Joseph Allen Shea: I landed in Paris by chance

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Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance  

“I'm quite attracted to anomalies”, comments independent curator, publisher, writer, consultant and gallerist Joseph Allen Shea, during a conversation about what makes his approach unique. Coming from an unconventional curatorial background, he parlayed his way into the art world through his graphic design, advertising and publishing, right into the heart of Paris.

Boasting an impressive body of work throughout his career, Allen Shea notably established Gallery A.S., a roving curatorial gallery with no permanent location, after his six-year tenure at Sydney’s Monster Children Gallery. After moving to Paris, Allen Shea collaborated with artist Mel O’Callaghan to establish Gallery Allen, in an effort to continue the communication and education for the global distribution of progressive contemporary art and ideas.

A day in the life of Joseph Allen Shea involves working across many different projects, wearing many different hats, but as he puts it best; “never without looking at beautiful art objects every day.”

You’ve called both Sydney and London home for extended periods of time. How did you wind up in Paris?

I landed in Paris by pure chance. My wife and I moved from London back to Sydney to have a three-week holiday, which turned in to a seven-year residency. At that point, we wanted to be back in Europe – not London exactly – but Paris felt like a bit of an impossible project. It was somewhere I’d visited a dozen times while living in London, but it was a place where I didn't know the language, nor the culture.

I took a residency at the Cite Internationale des Arts; a program mainly for artists, I believe I was the second curator they took. I was granted an opportunity to complete a project, highlighting some “Australianism” in the gallery. My co-director and Australian artist, Mel O’Callaghan, who had a studio here suggested I replicate a temporary project similar to what I was doing in Sydney.

I never called it a pop-up because it wasn’t necessarily about time; it was more about space and environment and architecture. I was really trying to merge contemporary art and architecture to see how buildings affected artwork and how artwork affected buildings. The idea was to extend that to one exhibition in Paris in an artist's studio, but then after extended conversations with Mel, we opened a permanent space in her studio, which then became Galerie Allen.

There was no real master agenda, no hard research, no business plans. It was really a sequence of events that brought us to open a gallery here. It's a gallery that's hopefully a little bit more fluid or open in the idea that a curator and an artist are running a commercial space.

What does bringing Australianism of the art world to Paris mean? Does Australian art have its own identity, and if so, does it translate into a different culture?

I would say it has its own identity to a certain degree, incorporating elements such as humour and isolation and practicality. We do have some fantastic international artists who operate on a world stage, but unfortunately for international audiences, there are so few that are able to export their art without exporting themselves.

Do you find inspiration to create is easier in an aesthetically pleasing city such as Paris?

Not necessarily. I thin, in fact, it could be quite the opposite. In my experience, a lot of the work that has interested me comes from a place of less inspiration, almost with a “need to create” mentality, because the artist is in a vacuum. Just in the same way a lot of music comes from bored kids, when people don't have what they want and are craving it, they create it. Australia is not a cultural vacuum, but it is isolated; you do have to build your own thing.

How is your approach to curating unique? What's your point of difference?

I didn't take a very straightforward avenue of entering the field of art. I studied graphic design then I worked in advertising and publishing. I became more and more interested in art when I was living in London, there were always independent galleries and exhibitions to visit. I began publishing artist books using my skills from graphic design and advertising to distribute otherwise hard-to-find artwork. Through making books, I was offered possibilities to run galleries and make exhibitions in institutions when I returned to Sydney. I’m very interested in things that don't quite fit perfectly, in backdoor entries and outsider points of view.

Do you have any exciting upcoming projects? 

We are currently preparing for the Foire Internationale D’art Contemporain (FIAC), a world-renown contemporary art fair. We're exhibiting for our third year, exhibiting in the main section. The FIAC is something quite important to us because we were accepted quite early on as an outsider gallery in Paris, to this very, very competitive fair, with a very tight selection process. It is held in the Grand Palais every year; the most beautiful exhibition space.

How do you spend your time when you're not working?

Unfortunately, there's not much separation! Someone said to me once, "find a job that you love and you'll never work a day in your life." Consequently, I find the opposite is true, which is find a job that you love and you never stop working. However, if I find myself not working, I'm spending time with my family and my two boys.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I wake up at about 7am and have coffee and breakfast with my boys and my wife. I usually I take the bus to work or ride my bike, which is much more interesting. I try to be very French and eat out every day. It’s very important for French people to take a lunch break and eat in restaurants!

The kind of projects I typically work on are either upcoming art fairs or exhibitions. I do get out of the office a lot, going to see artists’ work in their studios. We only work with 10 artists but it's always important for me to know what's going on and what other people are doing, especially younger artists.

I feel privileged in the fact I've chosen my life and the way I work. Things happen under my own decisions, and that's something that doesn't come easily or for free, in the sense that you've got to work for it. Every job is a job, however, and there is always admin to do, but I can't hold anyone else accountable for the boring stuff. However, any mundane chores are always wiped out by all the necessary fun work I get to do; look at beautiful art objects every day.