Testing Ground: Artist-Run Spaces in New Zealand

The story of artist-run galleries begins, at least for my generation of emergent, post-pubescent, pre-mortgaged Auckland artists, with Teststrip. In the front room of an inner-city flat the same garage can-do that launched a thousand punk bands was transmuted by gestetner fluid and acrylic paint into an aesthetic protocol. During its five-year span Teststrip (1992-1997) evolved from an initial slightly smudgy exercise in self-promotion into a clean white cubic staging-post on the way to fame and fortune. Sassy, careerist and self aware, by its persistent charm Teststrip alerted others to the possible joys of running a gallery.

Following Teststrip’s wilful example came many other spaces. In Christchurch, The High Street Project (1992-) arose from a diverse group of artists using the first-floor above a restaurant for showing work. The donation of the space led to a broader, more low-key approach (in galleries, as in psychoanalysis, the cost of the service is intrinsic to the theraputic result). Auckland’s Fiat Lux (1997-), with loud 70s municipal aztec carpet and walls of deep Galaxy blue, represents a two-year old adventure in interior decoration, as much as curation. Run by Megan Dunn and David Townsend, purveyors of sexy low-fi arts and producers of a newsletter whose cheezy lyrics and spelling mistakes have been often emulated (if never equalled). These spaces are run by artists; others, like Wellington’s Cubewell House(1993) and Spot, in Auckland were initiated by curators. However, in spite of disparate locations and styles, there was (and is) a common ethos – clubhouse galleries inventing their own rules and rank, their own culture, but also seeking foreign relations. Part Charlie Brown, part Lord of the Flies, part Henry Kissinger.

The motivations of those who pour money, time and sweat into these spaces tends to be more complex than (art)world domination. Clubhouse galleries have filled many roles: stepping stone from artschool to artworld, otiose sideline or opportunity to trap passers-by in random webs of madness – sometimes all symultaneously. Close producer-consumer relations are typical, and sometimes ARS appear to be short-circuits of inner-city hipsters making work for the viewing pleasure of similar small groups of inner-city hipsters. Intimacy is one of the advantages; preaching to the converted, perhaps one of the dangers.

Other art providers look to artist-run spaces as aesthetic test-kitchens. Relations range from the nostalgic benevolence of those enmeshed in big institutional politics to perhaps more sinister advances. The sprightly Honeymoon Suite (1997-1998) was for instance seemingly adopted as mascot by the bigger. badder, older Dunedin Public Art Gallery, DPAG curator Gynneth Porter breezing in to put together a show. Hand-biting is, of course, an important component of such relationships and parody shows an excellent way of reciprocating the attention. It came from the Guggenheim(1997) was the Honeymooners riposte to a whistle-stop blockbuster MASTERPIECES FROM THE GUGGENHEIM; while the Gallery presented the treasures, the Suite hung faded reproductions rented from the local library, accompanied by a catalogue of familiar rhetoric.

Back in 1993 Ronnie van Hout did something similar at Cubewell House. He displayed the labels and didactic panels from the national export show Headlands – arranging them in the various rooms of the gallery as if an X-ray of the show’s agendas. Cubewell House also presented Sqare Deal – four works exhibited for minutes only in China’s Tianamen Square. The catalogue explained, “Research has shown that the audience for speculative, lively, intelligent and wilful art in New Zealand is small. Cubism decided to give the artists in Sqare Deal a square deal and take their art to the millions of people who live overseas.”. In toying with beauracratic policy-speak, such shows offer all the intimate appeal of twisted cover versions.

Networking has always been a crucial part of the role of alternative spaces. Teststrip developed exchanges with Australian galleries like Basement, CBD and Pendulum, and boasted an International Advisory Board stretching from Sydney to New York and Berlin. Illustious members included Sylvere Lotringer and Harmony Korine, With a number of ideologically similar spaces throughout New Zealand, it is now possible to whirl around the country and on to greater things abroad without ever darkening the doorstep of a traditional dealer or public gallery.

The growth of alternative spaces in the 1990s has co-incided with the retrenchment of government support for the visual arts. Ironically, with their ‘flat organisational structures’, ARS have been paragons of free enterprise – veritable entrepreneurial kibbutzim. From the casually administered to those with boards of trustees, these spaces have enjoyed occasional arts council support (usually indexed to their level of visible beauracracy). Most have had a whiff of the money from time to time, with the majority relying on exhibitors coming up with the rent, plus the occasional fundraiser and sponsorship deal. In a decade when public museums have been largely comatose, with shows as little more than screensavers, alternative spaces have kept the contemporary art scene breathing at little or no cost to the taxpayer.

Institutionalisation of the artist-run space arises not only because the demands of funding bodies, but also the needs of administators and a desire for continuity. Employing an administrator is one solution when organisation becomes onerous. Conversely, the limited life span of many may be due to the conflict between furthering ones own work and taking care of gallery business. As Judy Darragh, longtime Teststrip Board Member, says “the problem with artist-run spaces is that you’re an artist and your own work should come first and then you end up supporting all these other artists.” Short lives can also spring from issues of ownership – it’s often easier to start from scratch than take on something as idiosyncratic and personality-driven as galleries tend to be. Those already in the business may show a reluctance or perhaps inability to pass the parcel, and let’s face it, it’s better to burn out than to fade away…

First published in the New Zealand Listener, February 7, 1998