When Tracy Cooper-Lavery cold called her contact for the Mugrabi family in 2018, Home of the Arts didn't exist yet. Disruptions due to the pandemic meant the gallery would come later in 2021. Still, it was a ballsy move. The estimated $5 billion dollar New York-based Mugrabi Collection holds over 800 Andy Warhol artworks – the largest of its kind – along with a hunk of artworks by Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Picasso...the list goes on. With no gallery, the HOTA director calls her audacity to approach a preeminent family like the Mugrabis a distinctly Gold Coast quality. And it paid off.
Eventually, Cooper-Lavery landed a meeting with the Mugrabi lawyers, Danziger, Danziger and Muro, which she describes as "a very New York way for it to happen" and somehow she managed to sell them the dream of the Gold Coast.
Six years later, after a hefty sum and plenty of logistical gymnastics, Pop Masters: Art from the Mugrabi Collection, New York is open for business.
The exhibition acts as "a crash course in American culture" explains HOTA curator, Bradley Vincent as he walks me through the space. While Australia has hosted an array of other Pop-adjacent shows in the past, such as Pop to Popism at the AGNSW and Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines at NGV and the forthcoming Andy Warhol photography exhibit at AGSA, what sets this exploration of the genre apart is that it brings in new voices says Vincent.
"It's not trying to tell a specific history. We're trying to make some new associations and put some new things in conversation, which feels like the right approach for a new gallery."
A phrase that keeps getting tossed around is "all killer, no filler" – and it's true. Inside you'll find Warhol's silkscreen portraits of Robert Mapplethorpe, Sylvester Stallone, and Keith Haring and Juan Debose, and intimate polaroids too. There's paintings from Basquiat and the larger-than-life dancing dogs canvas from Keith Haring that was promised to a gallery in LA but ended up at HOTA instead. Vincent says the latter work is his favourite. "It inhabits this place of activism and protest, celebration and love that is inherently queer. To bring that to the Gold Coast is special."
These artworks sit in conversation with Damien Hirst's pill cabinet installation When They Were Down They Were Down (2007), a painting from Tom Sachs' Reese's candy series, George Condo's Untitled (Choo Choo) 2009, along with works from Tom Wesselmann, Katherine Bernhardt, Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Kwesi Botchway, Julian Schnabel, Mickalene Thomas and KAWS.
Vincent tells me that he did not have carte blanche access to the complete Mugrabi collection. Rather, he worked through a series of longer lists, pulling together pieces that made sense for a Gold Coast audience. Both Tracy and Bradley were conscious of the fact that, for a lot of visitors, this would be their first time encountering HOTA and so they wished to make that experience as accessible as possible. Part of that meant featuring artists they would recognise. Tracy notes how the Pop Art premise of taking the every day and making it extraordinary is something she believes a lot of Gold Coast locals will resonate with. In a way it's "Pop city" she says.
Pop Masters exclusively features international artists and I wonder what Australian artists Vincent would include if he had a choice. Jenny Watson comes up. A few floors above the gallery Pop Masters is in, you'll find a body of work from Yuriyal Eric Bridgeman, and the curator believes this sits directly in conversation with Pop, transforming the everyday world of rugby league.
At the end of the Pop Masters: Art from the Mugrabi Collection, you enter a darkened room, there hangs a digital drawing of Warhol's from 1985 which was recovered and turned into an NFT. Stretched out on the wall next to it, is a blown up photograph taken by Michael Halsband in 1985 of all these artists and iconoclasts posing together after dining at Mr. Chow Restaurant in New York City. Those of us present find it very moving.
Pop Masters: Art from the Mugrabi Collection at Home of the Arts opens on February 18.