Essay for publication accompanying Making Space: artist run initiatives in Victoria, 2007
West Space was founded in 1993, a sizeable period of time in our cultural, political and artistic continuums. The organisation didn’t organically develop out of artists sharing a studio nor did somehow just appear. West Space was a determination, an active attempt to readdress the characteristics of temporality, unsustainability and marginal existence foisted upon artist-run spaces at the time. There was nothing accidental in the formation of West Space, with its initial ambitions to support multiple and hybrid artforms and practices, to have a meaningful dialogue with the local community of the Western suburbs, to posit education and research as central to its politic. Although the organisation has constantly evolved, and been open to discovering new practices and ways of working, it is not by chance that West Space has become a sustainable proposition.
West Space began above a takeaway cafe in the Footscray mall, with access to the gallery through the cafe. After fourteen months of operation, a fire destroyed part of the cafe below, precipitating a move to a larger building nearby in 1994. With increased space and the subsequent growth of the organisation, West Space worked to obtain government grants over the next couple of years. After receiving several grants, the Australia Council restructured and cut organisational funding to artist-run spaces in 1996. West Space first embraced an advocacy role when co-founder Brett Jones challenged this Council policy change, made through its Visual Arts and Crafts Board, with comments on its ramifications; “The implication being that the big organisations will reside over these difficult times and that artists should go back to the studio”.
A developing desire for public exchange of ideas surrounding, and issues facing, artistic practice led to a West Space forum Writing Art in 1996, rhetorically asking ‘What’s wrong with art criticism? Which comes first, the art or the writing?’. Also that year West Space published the first of thirteen issues of Dialogue (1996-2000), a journal edited by Brett Jones. Topic based, Dialogue was ‘a response to the lack of opportunity for artists to write about professional issues concerning their practice and the broader functions of the art system’, and the first foray into critical publishing that quickly became a major feature of West Space’s activities. These self-generated initiatives represented the beginning of many different projects to be formalised as the West Space Projects Program in 1998 consisting of exhibitions, publications, sound releases, performances, international exchanges and forums. These projects intended to interrogate convention, extend networks and provide new opportunities for artists.
West Space moved into the City of Melbourne in 2000, employing administrative staff in 2001, to some a controversial decision, reflecting the challenges for artist-run models with the current
funding opportunities, while signalling West Space’s continuing development into a sustainable model. The funding environment dictates that it is very difficult for ARIs to secure enough funding to pay the rent, with most ARI premises being commercial leases at market value. There is certainly not enough money to pay artist fees and staffing costs. West Space made a strategic decision to invest in staffing in order to spend more time working with artists, while developing infrastructure and partnerships that support their practices.
West Space has grown in a measured and considered way. There are no handshake deals with Ministers and no externally set or influenced agendas. It’s an organisation that evolves to meet the needs of artists and art practice, and has been undergoing its most radical changes quietly over the past year or two. Its application-based, multiple-artform program that was rare in 1993, has been widely adopted as the ARI sector has grown, sometimes without the accompanying critical organs or engagement. Simultaneously there has been a corresponding shift in Contemporary Art Organisations[i] to models that resemble curated contemporary art museums. Eschewing their original raison d’être of supporting local artists to produce new work for exhibition, the resultant exhibitions of often ‘cohesive’ collections of existing work serve to illustrate themes in recent practice, rather than themselves embody current practice. Perhaps it’s not their fault. This shift from quantities unknown to known (which reflects these neo-conservative times) has certainly been lucrative, and Government funding support has solidified for those walking a path where shocks are few, and where an artist’s profile has been built elsewhere.
Foregrounding research as integral to artistic and organisational development, West Space has cast its net wide. It continues to investigate and debate new structures and methodologies that parallel its trajectory of placing artists at the centre of initiating new ambitious and critically relevant works, exhibitions, publications, and projects. Many of the developments at West Space, and certainly its evolving model, mirror the activities of many cutting edge Northern European organisations, identified as ‘New Institutionalism’[ii]. These developments are seen as a radical and inclusive departure from the kunsthalle[iii]; instead of privileging exhibition, the future West Space will place equal emphasis on generation, facilitation, research and dialogue.
The vision is for an organisation that allows many different points of contact and access, while at the same time activating the relationship with creative practitioners through facilitation, housing, development, collaborations and partnerships. Maintaining a minimal administrative footprint will maximise the activities that West Space can accommodate, and the forms into which it can contort to fit the needs of the practices of artists. Embracing a philosophy of flexibility throughout all aspects of the organisation, including physical space, timeframes and outcomes, West Space will function as a zone of generation, production, presentation and dialogue. It will be uniquely
‘futureproof’, supporting unimaginable changes to artistic practice into the future[iv]. This new kind of platform will open multiple and complex ways to connect and interact with artistic practice, as lines between audience and practitioners blur.
West Space has a past, it has a present, and it certainly has a future. What should be clear by now, is that West Space, along with many of the ARIs that form our collegiate network, is an ongoing artistic practice in itself, a practice with much still to do to posit artists in the centre of the industry where they belong.
Simon Maidment Director West Space
[i] The term Contemporary Art Organisation is a very specific one in the Australian visual art industry. It refers to public galleries showing contemporary art that do not hold collections. They make up a formal network, called CAOs, consisting of 15 such spaces, represented in Victoria by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, the Centre for Contemporary Photography and Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces. www.caos.org.au
[ii] Claire Doherty ‘The Institution is Dead! Long Live the Institution! Contemporary Art and New Institutionalism’, engage 15, 2004; “New Institutionalism is characterised by the rhetoric of temporary / transient encounters, states of flux and open-endedness. It embraces a dominant strand of contemporary art practice – namely that which employs dialogue and participation to produce event or process-based works rather than objects for passive consumption. New Institutionalism responds to (some might even say assimilates) the working methods of artistic practice and furthermore, artist-run initiatives, whilst maintaining a belief in the gallery, museum or arts centre, and by association their buildings, as a necessary locus of, or platform for, art.” Also see the European Kunsthalle project for an in-depth and on-going investigation of appropriate models for the modern European condition. www.eukunsthalle.com
[iii] Alex Farquharson ‘Bureaux de Change’, Frieze, Issue 101, 2006. www.frieze.com/issue/article/bureaux_de_change
[iv] Although with an impending need for relocation to a site that can support rather than define its activities, where that future lies remains to be seen.