Australians pride themselves on being a nation of art-goers. In a country where debate runs high and fiery about which city is Australia’s arts capital (main competition: Sydney vs. Melbourne, with Brisbane getting a look-in every now and then) hot contenders for the most-visited museums in the country are the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales, and Brisbane’s Queensland Art Gallery. In 2012, the mantle was passed back to Victoria when the Art Newspaper’s annual report on worldwide museum attendance put the NGV on top with 1.5 million visitors, surpassing the Queensland Art Gallery’s 1.4 million. Figures since then have hovered around the same mark. As the Sydney Morning Herald noted at the time, NGV, which records the residential locations of their visitors, draws a staggering 70 to 75% of its attendees from Melbourne and the surrounding area.
Australians may flock to the big blockbusters and internationally traveling shows that visit their official state galleries, but when you ask them what they’ve seen recently, it’s not usually what’s showing at the major museums that they mention first and foremost. In the most recent census data released in 2011, about 26% of the population aged 15 and over reported visiting a visual arts venue over the past year. The state museums clearly draw big crowds, but what Aussie art-goers talk about when you ask them what’s new and interesting are the exhibitions they’ve seen at smaller spaces, commercial galleries, and artist-run initiatives.
Alex Winters, an independent curator and the Curator and Exhibitions Coordinator at the popular performance and visual arts venue Brisbane Powerhouse, says there is definitely a feeling of excitement for art “at its emerging stages, presented in underground or lo-fi settings.” The wealth of artist-run initiatives, or ARIs, which can be found in art centers in cities around the world but exist in abundance here — and are an integral part of the exhibition ecosystem — speak to this excitement for low-pressure exhibition spaces. Don’t misunderstand, this is not your “art-party” scene (though they do throw a good opening) but professional, polished exhibitions that keep production costs low by pooling the resources, time, and effort of those who run them. They’re for artists, by artists, where you can find a tight-knit community of creative professionals supporting their city’s arts scene, and where gallerists and curators go to find “the emerging.”
Brisbane-based artist Sam Cranstoun describes his start as a typical one. “The best opportunity for young artists to exhibit straight out of university is with the many ARIs that have emerged locally,” he says. “These exhibiting platforms for emerging artists are really important, and they manage to regularly present high-quality work given the early nature of the artists’ careers.” After exhibiting in a few of these spaces, like Boxcopy, inbetweenspaces, and Accidentally Annie Street, he was offered representation from the Brisbane-based Milani Gallery. There he joined a stable of notable and established names such as Judy Watson, Vernon Ah Kee, Richard Bell, Eugene Carchesio, and the estates of Gordon Bennett and Ian Burn.
Ron and George Adams, founders of the artist-run initiative MOP Projects, in Sydney’s Chippendale neighborhood — one of a few arts “hubs” in the city — were careful to make the distinction between ARI and commercial when in 2012, after 10 years running MOP, they opened Galerie pompom. Situated in a smaller space next door it serves the moneymaking function while preserving MOP as a space for all things emerging and experimental without a focus on profit.
That’s not to say that the two don’t inevitably overlap at times. An upcoming and eagerly anticipated exhibition, “Acid/Gothic” (August 20 to September 14, 2014) will take over both exhibition spaces. Nick Garner of Das Platforms, a quarterly print magazine and online media project covering art and culture, is curating the exhibition, which features notable Australian artists Gary Carsley, Pia van Gelder, Tracey Moffatt, Sarah Mosca, Tomislav Nikolic, Jess Olivieri and Giselle Stanborough, as well as the German artist Peter Weibel. Corresponding with the next issue of Das Superpaper (the print component of Das Platforms), the exhibition will also be presented as a “short film of an exhibition,” but shot in a separate location — the historic colonial Elizabeth Bay House. George Adams explains that “the formal and theoretical underpinnings of the project were to ask ‘How do we remember, how do we relate to each other and how do we navigate this universe together?’ while the film prompts the question ‘What can conventions of exhibiting works learn from the evolving conventions of film?’”
How the idea of a film of an exhibition will pan out remains to be seen, but the project has attracted institutional support from the Australia Council for the Arts, and it falls in line with a current trend in arts programming that ignores borders of print, film, performance, or virtual vs. physical presentation, while exploring new ways to construct what we know as an “exhibition.”
Winters notes that the Brisbane Powerhouse is mindfully pursuing programming that could fall in a number of categories and “producing more whole venue events to bridge the gaps between art forms.” The upcoming “IRL,” to be launched in May 2015, will be a “Whole-venue festival celebrating the convergence between live arts, visual arts and digital and gaming culture.”
Similarly, “Framed Movements,” at Melbourne’s Australian Center for Contemporary Art from October 10 to November 23, 2014, focuses on the way that both dance and the visual arts engage with movement, or choreography, as an exploration of time and space. A part of the citywide Melbourne Festival for theatre, music, dance, visual arts, and multimedia events, the exhibition will be accompanied by a full run of performances.
This type of production in small to medium size spaces provides a way for funding to cross borders as well. It’s part experimentation and part practicality. Interdisciplinary projects that span multiple art forms make themselves eligible for grants from a larger pool of supporters who concentrate on print, film, performance, technological advancement, or other media. A 2013 change in government, and resulting and forthcoming cuts to arts funding, have left many anxious for their futures. The newest proposed budget plans to cut A$87.1 million to the arts over the next four years, taking the bulk out of Screen Australia and the grants awarded by the Australia Council. Support for individuals and small arts projects and organizations will be hit hardest, but the cuts are expected to bring reduced budgets and job cuts to entities large and small. Already a turn to more philanthropic avenues of funding is being seen, but how this will affect the Australian art scene and the country’s gallery-going habits, only time will tell.
Recommended current and upcoming exhibitions:
·Archibald, Wynne, and Sullman Prizes 2014 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, July 19 – September 28, 2014.
·Annette Messager: Motion/Emotion at the Museum of Contemporary Art, July 24 to October 26, 2014.
·Matt Hinkley at Sutton Fine Arts, August 2 to 30, 2014.
·Gunter Christman at The Commercial, August 29 to October 4, 2014.
·Julie Fragar at Sarah Cottier Fine Arts, October 9 to November 1, 2014.
·Bridie Lunney, There Are These Moments at Gertrude Contemporary, July 26 to August 23, 2014.
·Optical Mix at the Australian Center for Contemporary Art, August 16 to September 28, 2014.
·The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier at the National Gallery of Victoria, October 17, 2014 to February 8, 2015.
·Stuart Ringholt, IMA at Ksubi at the Institute of Modern Art, August 2 to September 6, 2014.
·Tyza Stewart at Heiser Gallery, August 5 to 30, 2014.
·Platform 14 at Jan Manton Art (presented at Metro Arts), August 14 to 30, 2014.
·Tom Nicholson: Comparative Monuments (Ma’man Allah) at Milani Gallery, September 5 to September 20, 2015.
·Wildflower Dreaming: Shirley Corunna and the Coolbaroo League 1952-1962 at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, July 15 to December 14, 2014.
·Shaun Gladwell: Afghanistan at John Curtin Gallery, August 1 to September 14, 2014.
·Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, In–Habit: Project Another Country at the Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art, August 1 to October 3, 2014.
·The Extreme Climate of Nicholas Folland at the Art Gallery of South Australia, July 19 to November 30, 2014.
·Beauty & Strength: Portraits by Michael Riley at the National Portrait Gallery, March 21 to August 17, 2014.
·Arthur Boyd: Agony and Ecstasy at the National Gallery of Australia, September 5 to November 9, 2014.