culture | 16 june 2017
how do you start up an art gallery? To find out We interviewed the curators from Play_station and meanwhile; two new artist-run galleries with a distinct style and approach.
words: charlotte doyle
photographs: russell kleyn
1. Choose a name
A key step in establishing any collective is a memorable name. To avoid any door-knocking from Sony, play_station has a lower case ‘p’ and an inserted ‘_’ (a google search of ‘playstation gallery’ brings up instructions on how to find your PlayStation 4 screenshots). The name is nostalgic and connotes a space where creative ideas can be pushed and played with.
The more abstract MEANWHILE means temporary and “here for now”. And it has temporary, almost accidental origins, invented for a short-term agreement to fill a window of a pre-existing gallery at 35 Victoria St in 2016. There was no Facebook page or Instagram account at that stage, just a Gmail so they could send out invitations to openings. Shortly after, spurred on by the success in the window, a committed and permanent gallery fell into place.
2. Form a collective
The founders of each gallery were first brought together by Wellington’s Massey university.
Tyler Jackson, Tom Hammar, Hugh Chesterman, BENT and Kane Laing, initially set up play_station as part of the requirements of an exhibition paper at the uni. The class-project has since morphed into a fully fledged set up on Egmont Street, currently exhibiting their ninth show. Their Facebook page is sleek and professional. The five guys are now members of a functioning board of directors, making executive decisions on what to show in the space and when.
Jesse Bowling and Jordana Bragg from MEANWHILE graduated from Massey together in 2015, a year ahead of the ‘dudes’ at play_station. The gallery has had a more fluid and unpredictable collectivisation/progression than its Egmont St counterpart.
Jordana was shoulder tapped in June 2016 about a location for an artist-run initiative at 35 Victoria Street. At first, Jordana was unsure about committing to the project, wanting to do it properly when she had more time. Yet Jesse and Callum Devlin, a founder who is no longer with the gallery, put together a show to be displayed in the window at Victoria Street. It’s success secured them the space until the end of the year. Jordana joined shortly after and from then on it became a more deliberate initiative.
3. find the right location
New Zealand hosts a number of artist-run spaces which have almost become institutions themselves. Founded in 2000, Enjoy gallery sits across the stairwell from the renowned Peter McLeavey Gallery up above the liquor store on Cuba Street. The Blue Oyster Gallery in Dunedin and RM in Auckland are long-standing artist-run initiatives, set up in the 1990s.
Auckland continues to host a number of new artist-run galleries, many scattered throughout the central city supporting the local artists. While Wellington is dubbed the creative capital of New Zealand, there is a surprising shortage of artist-controlled galleries . It is not short of creative material or artistic individuals but it is a small city and rent is expensive. Art collectives don’t tend to scream profitability for landlords. Jesse and Jordana say this is misguided as they are running a legitimate business.
MEANWHILE was the first artist-run initiative to open in the city since 2012. Jordana and Jesse describe their difficulty in finding available spaces, and landlords who were willing to take on a bunch of artists. Young creatives tend to fall into a non-profitable stereotype. Jordana says it was hard to convince landlords that it wouldn’t be a gamble to take them on.
play_station appear to have hit the jackpot, taking over a number of spacious underground rooms on Egmont Street. They have secured a 12 month lease and Tom Hammar tells me that the landlord quite likes having them there and has given them free licence to transform the space. For example, they've created 'The yellow room', a random, tiny corner next to the stairs, painted bright yellow.
MEANWHILE now boasts a large space above Willis street. Makeshift, D-I-Y walls split the room between an exhibition gallery and carved out studio space; the desks presenting a wide spectrum of distinctive artistic styles. Colourful foam lines the back walls.
4. Figure out how to fund it
It is no small feat to run a gallery. Rent needs to be paid, exhibitions need to be put together, and wine and nibbles sourced for openings. Luckily, what it lacks in physical spaces, the Wellington community makes up for in financial support. play_station embarked on a crowdfunding campaign for its initial set up and easily met its target. MEANWHILE put out a pledge for their first publication - “What have we done?” – and doubled their target in 24 hours.
To remain true to their non-dealer mandate, artist collectives rely on external funding from Creative New Zealand and local councils. play_station have put in an application for the next round of government funding. MEANWHILE have received support from Wellington City Council and Creative New Zealand, enough to cover the rent.
5. Discover the right projects
The exhibitions at play_station space and MEANWHILE have been carefully scheduled well in advance. Both put out calls for proposals at the end of last year, and received a load of applicants which were culled down to form the 2017 programme.
From the 40 proposals received, a panel at play_station selected the projects that worked well together. The projects vary from painting to sculpture and even an athlete-based performance involving two swimming pools. The ages of the artists range from early 20’s to 60’s and each artist is left to self-curate the space to suit their vision.
MEANWHILE hosted their first show in July 2016, and their programme runs on a three week turn around with a tight four day install period. Their sole employee (whose pay is credited to Wellington City Council) is website designer and technician, Sean Burn, who recently launched a slick, new website for the gallery with an archive of all previous exhibits.
6. have a sense of purpose
In their publication “What have we done?”, Jordana, Jesse and Callum, state “there is a fight in this”.
Artist-run galleries are typically intended to give control of exhibition spaces back to artists and empower them with a creative freedom outside of of the institutional gallery spaces and also strengthen the artist community as a whole.
Jesse and Jordana feel it's important to support local artists and imbue them with a knowledge of their worth. They run MEANWHILE through a business model that is intended to support artists both physically, by providing them studio and exhibition space, and financially, by paying them. Jordana says if these artists are imbued with a sense of value from the very beginning, they will be empowered through the rest of their careers to negotiate their worth. As Jesse points out however, you need money to make money.
Tom from play_station sees the collective as an opportunity for artists to truly challenge themselves. The creativity can be pushed beyond the confines of financial or art-market trends. play_station gives them the ability to control their own space and gives them flexibility. Conventions do not always have to be followed. They can create a ‘yellow’ room and change it to a ‘red’ room if they so desire.
Despite the deliberate distancing, Jordana and Jesse reveal that they have received ‘overwhelming’ support from the galleries and institutions they push away from. If MEANWHILE can't afford to rent a projector for a video installation, City Gallery or the Dowse will most likely be willing to lend them one for free. As Jordana says, there is a lot of “cross-pollination”.
"Setting up an artist-run gallery is not the simple act of finding an empty room to throw some art on the walls and host a fun opening night with your friends."
Support your local artist-run galleries:
Meanwhile - 99 Willis Street, Wellington, New Zealand
play_station - 8 Egmont Street, Wellington, New Zealand
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