The decadence, colour and partnership behind Charles Billich Gallery 

For almost 40 years, Charles Billich Gallery has provided a hub of creativity at The Rocks in Sydney, while creating a powerful market for art internationally and withstanding significant periods of change and disruption. 

The gallery’s longevity stems from a balance of re-invention and consistent passion from the surreal vision of prolific painter, drawer and sculptor, Charles Billich. 

The business mind behind the artist, Christa Billich, who manages everything from the proprietary rights to pricing and promotion. This partnership has not only sustained a long and famously open marriage but also through the highs and lows that arrive from one of the most challenging industries to build a business from – art. They have sustained through cancer, COVID, significant upheaval and through a strong relationship with the Chinese market, where Billich first sold his art in 1996, when not so many businesses were pursuing the market. 

Next for the Billich couple is a greater focus on the NFP Billich Foundation, established to support up-and-coming artists. Also on the agenda is a major renovation of the gallery to salute a new era for Billich. 

It’s clear from what Charles Billich tells Forbes Brandvoice, he’s becoming more selective with what he paints – at 88, aware of the shortness of life, but seemingly no less prolific, even with the upcoming renovation shutdown of the gallery. “After the new vigorous working cycle, we’ll unveil ‘Cosmologies of Space’, Billich’s new period of sky-high unreality,” he explains. 

Charles and Christa shared fascinating histories prior to migrating to Australia, and meeting in Sydney. 

Born in Croatia, Charles sought political asylum in Austria after being sentenced to ten years in prison in Yugoslavia, for writing satirical articles in a magazine. He consequently studied art in Salzburg, before arriving in Australia in 1956 at the age of 21, and establishing himself as one of the country’s best-known contemporary surrealist art exports. 

Born in Germany, Christa arrived in Melbourne in 1966 at the age of just 20, and with just $100 to her name. She barely spoke English, but having studied jewellery design, she went on to work in a deli, and then with a jeweller, and then on to owning a series of fine jewellery stores in prime Melbourne and Sydney locations. Exploring new art for her apartment, Christa bought four Billich nudes on her first meeting with the artist. Later on, their relationship developed, and they were married in Croatia. She eventually closed her jewellery business, convinced Charles to open his own gallery – thereby cutting out the need to pay commission to dealers and became a full-time partner in the Billich Gallery – initially in Melbourne, then later at the Rocks. 

COVID lockdowns, along with lengthy periods of border closures have been challenging for the Gallery over the past few years, but the business saw an increase in the number of commissions and new collectors. Plus, Charles Billich leveraged an equation to break new barriers in his work: “Fewer distractions plus poorer social contact, plus augmentation of artistic professionalism, equals aesthetic appeal for serious collectors,” he says. 

While the presence of Chinese art collectors has Billich says, regretfully diminished, in recent years, he continues to see opportunity in what he describes as the “seismic shifts” in art. “I will continue in my attempts to create a Chinese cycle linking past artistic traditions to the present and the future instead of duplicating suspect Western trends of contemporisation. Yes, Chinese art deserves its own culture progressive kinetics!”

Meanwhile, the expectations of the art-buying public are shifting. 

“The Billich relationship with the frequenters of Billich Gallery has grown to the level of family. Enter the Gallery and yes, you enter a temple for the visually indoctrinated who believe in the serendipities of art and the magic of the creative,” he says. 

Being high-profile, and particularly interesting characters within the art community also comes with challenges, setbacks and opportunities. There have been numerous newspaper headlines, a starring role in a 2019 documentary, and Christa’s memorable time on reality TV in Australia. There have been deceptions and even a battle in Billich’s country of birth, Croatia, where 36 of is artworks were illegally seized and auctioned by the Municipality of Lovran.

“The tremors in the art world will subside and, as usual, a new Renaissance will impose itself,” Billich says positively. 

“It will reflect over causes and effects in the arts, abuses and deceptions in art marketing. It will point to the necessity of masterpieces and the avoidance of unskilled posturing. It will reverse eye indoctrination and the re-adoption of values of yore.” 

Sustaining a business and a relationship through the personal and macro forces of the past 40 years, how do you retain the creativity? 

Billich’s advice is to always consider the layman’s opinion. “It’s stunning how much you can learn from ‘ordinary’ points of view,” he says. 

“Respect the taste of the broad public and don’t dismiss the uninitiated. Just point to the merits of the art you sell. And make sure your art is meritorious.”

It’s advice that any artist can take on, and really anyone with a great business idea.

But more so, it’s both Charles and Christa’s love affair with the power of creativity and beauty. “We believe art is the cult of excellence”, Billich says.