Interview with Tony Stephens of Artbank | Yellowtrace


I recently in Sydney’s Rosebery where I was lucky enough to meet Tony Stephens, the very eloquent and knowledgeable director of Artbank. Tony gave a wonderful little tour of the premises and we had a great chat about the Artbank initiative. I’m still unsure as to how I wasn’t aware of this fantastic organisation up until only recently, and I’m so pleased to be able to shine the light on the fine work they do for the Australian art community. I know where I’ll be going next time I’m in need of beautiful art pieces for myself and for my clients.

 is a Commonwealth support program established to collect and promote the work of Australian contemporary visual artists. Formed in 1980, Artbank’s collection of some ten thousand works represents a comprehensive catalogue of Australian contemporary art over the last three decades. And the best part is this – all the pieces are available for lease! It’s almost too good to be true, right?

Recently Artbank launched a new publishing venture – – a conceptually driven bi-annual publication bearing the name of founding Artbank Director, Graeme Sturgeon. Edited by Daniel Mudie Cunningham, Sturgeon commissions original content addressing issues relevant to Australian cultural life. The magazine seeks to promote the value of Australian contemporary art to both the public and private sectors in our fine land down under and abroad.

So without further ado, please welcome Tony and  to Yellowtrace. Also, a huge thanks to Oriana for facilitating this interview.


Artbank Sydney Showroom | Yellowtrace
Artbank showroom in Sydney. Photo by .

Artbank Sydney Showroom | Yellowtrace
Artbank showroom in Sydney. Photo by .

Artbank Sydney Showroom | Yellowtrace
Artbank showroom in Sydney. Photo by .

Tony Stephens | Yellowtrace
Tony Stephens at Artbank showroom in Sydney. Photo by .


+ Hello Tony, welcome to Yellowtrace! Tell us a little about your background – what did you study, and when did it become obvious you were destined for an art-based career? What path led you to becoming the Director of Artbank?

I never had a firm plan for what I wanted to do professionally or where I want to end up. I studied Art History at the University of Queensland after transferring from Architecture. I have a background in construction and thought working in an associated creative field would be a good idea. I was drawn to the arts largely due to a lecturer I had named Nancy Underhill. She captured my imagination as she presented visual art as something important and accessible – not separate or elite.


Todd Robinson, Kilim 2012, Artbank collection, annual rental $700.

Angus at Artbank | Yellowtrace
James Angus, Red I-beam Knot 2012, Artbank collection, annual rental $3,000.


+ Can you give us a little insight into the inner workings of Artbank? How is the business structured – how many showrooms are there and how many people do you employ?

Artbank is a unique entity. A largely self-funding government support program established over thirty years ago, we are mandated with supporting living Australian artists by collecting their work and promoting the value of that work to the broader community. So interestingly, we aren’t actually a business – even though we have a commercial arm. Spread across three states and servicing the entire country, we have twenty people working to fulfill our objectives.


Artbank Sydney Showroom | Yellowtrace
Artbank showroom in Sydney. Photo by .

Artbank Sydney Showroom | Yellowtrace
Artbank showroom in Sydney, conservation work in progress. Photo by Stephen Oxenbury.


+ How do you go about selecting the artists you represent, or what specific pieces are acquired for Artbank’s impressive collection?

We don’t actually represent artists other than to have their work in our collection. The process of what we collect is governed by a Collection Strategy we developed which takes into account a number of factors including artistic merit, career history and our greater desire to have a collection which is representative of current trends and Australian art history.


Huntley at Artbank | Yellowtrace
Brendan Huntley, Untitled 2010/11, Artbank collection, annual rental $550.

Grogan at Artbank | Yellowtrace
Lucas Grogan, X Disarm 5 X 2011, Artbank collection, annual rental $300.


+ What words of advice do you have for young artists on the best ways to promote themselves and be noticed in the competitive art world?

There is no one way you have to go about getting noticed – everyone is different. I would however recommend getting out there and meeting people in the art world. You don’t need to carry a portfolio under your arm for this to be effective. Just relax and be open to sharing the parts of yourself which feed into your practice. With a bit of patience, a little luck and a bucket full of self-belief you will be fine.


Ben Quilty, Pig 2011, Artbank collection, annual rental $3,500.

Lynch at Artbank | Yellowtrace
James Lynch, Bob’s Picture 2013, Artbank collection, annual rental $1,750.


+ How has the art landscape in Australia shifted from when you first started out, to where it is today?

Commerce plays a much bigger role in contemporary art than when I started. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – there has always been a transactional relationship inherent in artist’s lives. But I think there other pressures coming to bear that are skewing certain elements of the creative process.


Borland at Artbank | Yellowtrace
Polly Borland, Untitled XXX 2010, Artbank collection, annual rental $900.

Davies at Artbank | Yellowtrace
Gerwyn Davies, Milk 2013, Artbank collection, annual rental $400.

Polixeni Papapetrou Ocean Man 2013, Artbank collection, annual rental $1,850.


+ How do you stay up to date with the art world and where do you turn for creative inspiration – please list any specific titles like books, journals, websites, blogs etc?

Staying in touch helps you stay up to date. In my job I get to see a significant amount of what is happening in Australia – not just in the visual arts but across the creative fields. I would like to say I look at various books or websites for inspiration, but the truth is that I turn inward.


Kovacs at Artbank | Yellowtrace
Ildiko Kovacs, Chinese Ribbon 2012, Artbank collection, annual rental $2,500.


+ Do you have any words of wisdom for people who are interested in starting their own art collection, but may feel intimidated or not know where to begin?

Contemporary art is for everybody. Taste is subjective so it is important you listen closely to your own reactions and not take the advice of others. Everyone thinks they need to buy art with financial appreciation in mind – this will never work. Just buy what you like. And if you can’t make up your mind, rent a couple of things from Artbank to get a feel for what it’s like to live with contemporary art.


McDonald at Artbank | Yellowtrace
Darren McDonald, Sulphur Crested Cockatoo with Broken Wing 2013, Artbank collection, annual rental $1,250.

Miranda Skoczek, The Impressive Macaw 2009, Artbank collection, annual rental $1,100.


+ Could you share with us your vision and your goals for Artbank for the next 5 years?

When I think about my vision for Artbank I think about Coca-Cola. When I was younger I remembered hearing that it was Coke’s ambition to have reticulated Coca-Cola into everyone’s house. I thought at the time how odd that would be. Weirdly though, I think it’s a totally reasonable vision for Artbank to make contemporary art a part of every Australians life – whether at work or at home.


Hodge at Artbank | Yellowtrace
Gregory Hodge, Magazine Mystics 2012, Artbank collection, annual rental $1,200.


Let’s Get Personal:

+ Best piece of advice you’ve been given?

It doesn’t matter what job you are doing, do it to the best of your ability.

+ What is your most treasured belonging?

Two vintage Swiss watches I inherited from my late grandparents – they wore them every day until they died and now I don’t even wear a watch!

+ What’s one thing other people may not know about you?

Cooking relaxes me. Breaking bread with people is also one of my favourite things to do.

+ In ten years I’d like to be…



Dolly Jukuja, Snell Kurtal 2012, Artbank collection, annual rental $850.


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About The Author

Dana Tomić Hughes
Founder & Editor

Dana is an award-winning interior designer living in Sydney, Australia. With an unhealthy passion for design, Dana commits to an abnormal amount of daily design research. Regular travel and attendance at premier design events, enables Dana to stay at the forefront of the design world globally. While she is super serious about design, Dana never takes herself - nor design - too seriously. Together with her life and business partner, Dana is Boss Lady at Studio Yellowtrace, specialising in Design Strategy, Creative Direction and Special Projects. The studio takes a highly conceptual and holistic approach to translating brands & ideas into places & experiences.

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