The rise of Australia’s oldest Aboriginal art business – Cooee Art

From humble beginnings in Paddington, Cooee Art has grown from an emporium to an enterprise that includes galleries, a consultancy, and marketplace specialising in Indigenous art.

In his almost 40 years in the business, Adrian Newstead OAM, founding director of Cooee Art, has seen many changes across the Indigenous art landscape. But one thing has remained constant, and that’s his dedication and love of Aboriginal art.

It was in 1981 that Newstead first began working with Aboriginal communities, holding the first exhibition for Tiwi Design on Bathurst Island which marked the beginning of what is now Cooee Art.

‘Initially it was dedicated to showing handmade and handcrafted Australian gifts and items that reflected the Australian environment in some way, as opposed to mass manufactured Japanese souvenirs,’ Newstead told ArtsHub.

But it became more specialised when prominent Aboriginal identity Joe Croft became a partner in the business four years later. Aboriginal art had become Cooee’s primary interest with the company organising more than 100 exhibitions of Aboriginal art in Australia and overseas during the following decade.

‘The business has grown from a little gallery turning over less than a $1 million dollars in the ‘90s to an enterprise that has galleries, auctions and an advisory service for collectors both in Australia and overseas,’ he said. ‘We work with foundations and private collections and now turn over between $7 million and $8 million a year.’

Since the initial gallery was established in Paddington, the business now boasts a Bondi location ‑ a collector’s gallery built at the back of Newstead’s home – with over 2000 works of art which range from early contact and pre contact artefacts through to significant historic pieces of work. 

Both galleries are a paradise for collectors featuring prominent Indigenous artists including Rover Thomas, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Lin Onus and Queenie McKenzie, with work ranging from bark paintings, 19th and 20th century artefacts, to early desert boards, as well as high quality contemporary Aboriginal paintings, sculpture and limited-edition fine art prints. 

Our gallery is the oldest exhibiting Aboriginal Art Gallery in the country, Newstead said. ‘And I use the word exhibiting because exhibiting has always been an extremely important part of our philosophy.’

Newstead’s unwavering enthusiasm for art has meant there’s been a regular exhibition program at Cooee since the mid ‘80s. Currently there are between six and 15 exhibitions per year which includes touring exhibitions.

But he is quick to attribute the longstanding success of his business to his team, particularly to Mirri Leven who re-joined Cooee as a business partner and Director in 2014, helping to re-establish the Paddington gallery and expand the enterprise to include an auction house and consultancy which advises estates and conducts valuations for the major institutions around Australia including the National Museum of Science, the National Gallery as well as state galleries and museums.

‘Mirri has taken the business from strength to strength and given it a new vitality,’ he explains. There are not many businesses that are self-funded and last the distance, especially not 40 years and that is a great achievement.’

Visit Cooee Art, for more information on exhibitions, talks and events at Australia’s oldest Aboriginal art business.