Gallery East directors David Forrest, left, and Janis Nedela. Picture: Simon Santi/The West Australian

There's the appearance of business as usual as artist Tony Windberg delivers works for the last solo exhibition at Gallery East before it closes permanently after its pre-Christmas small-works show on December 16. After 21 years of operation, co-director David Forrest says there's no point in staying open when the outgoings far exceed income.

With the neighbouring Perth Galleries also closing permanently next month and Goddard de Fiddes Gallery taking a sabbatical for a year, Forrest says more closures will change Perth's cultural landscape.

An auction for the Gallery East property, combining business and residence, was sold at its reserve to a dental practice conditional on approval for its change of use. The prospect of moving is an emotional wrench for Forrest and partner Janis Nedela who built the existing gallery and residence 15 years ago on Stirling Highway, North Fremantle.

Forrest says it's not goodbye but rather au revoir, as he and Nedela continue as an on-line gallery, providing valuations and curatorial services, as well as presenting pop-up exhibitions at other venues.

It's a different scene next door at Perth Galleries, due to close permanently on December 7 after a "swan song" showcase from gallery stablemates Rachel Coad, Penny Coss, Holly Grace, Eveline Kotai, Jeremy Kirwan-Ward, Angela McHarrie, Britt Salt and others.

Although Perth Galleries director Norah Ohrt agrees selling art in the past couple of years has been like pulling teeth, her decision to close was tipped over the edge by the imminent sale of the gallery building. Early next year she'll relocate to a newly purchased home in Spain. "I realised I couldn't afford to retire in WA," she says. "I'd be on a pension and in a Homeswest flat."

The former long-serving curator of the Bankwest Collection has a history of wide engagement in the arts. Ohrt served on the Board of the Howlett Foundation, and as a valuer of major collections such as University of WA, Murdoch University and the City of Fremantle. She represented Sotheby's in WA from 1988 to 2011, and more recently represents Bonhams.

Despite her long experience in the visual arts, Ohrt is a first-homebuyer. "Most of my artists have their own homes. I've just never been able to do that when every spare bit has gone into keeping the doors open," she says.

She intends leaving her Spanish property in her will as a residency for artists, writers, commercial gallery owners and curators in the event of her demise, in about 30 years time, by her estimate. Her substantial private art collection will be sold at that time to create a maintenance fund for the property. In the meantime, she's planning a new venture, conducting gourmet tours in the picturesque Andalucia region near her new home.

It's an appropriate time to reminisce. Ohrt remembers growing up in Peppermint Grove and all over the State. Her father owned several properties, including El Questro in the Kimberley, now the tourist destination he always thought it should be when he sold it in the 70s.

She recalls selling $250,000 in paintings by Arthur Boyd in half an hour. "It coincided with a retrospective of his work at the Art Gallery of WA in 1994. It was exciting. Every day we seemed to sell two or three more paintings for $30,000 to $40,000 each," she says.

When asked what advice she would give galleries starting out, she said: "First of all, look after your artists - without them, you're nobody. Pay them before anyone else. Be honest and have integrity."

She is most proud of her annual New Works New Faces exhibition, drawing on works by carefully selected art school graduates, and the fact so many artists have stayed with her for decades. "I started off with a small family - a mother, father, brother and sister, and now my family is enormous with all of the artists and their kids included," she says.

Tree Lines: New Works by Tony Windberg is showing at Gallery East, Stirling Highway, North Fremantle, until November 25; The Swan Song Show opens at Perth Galleries, Stirling Highway, North Fremantle, on Friday and runs to December 7.

The West Australian

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