A Walk Around Elevator ARI Lismore with Co-Directors Betty Russ and Michael Donnelly | Winter 2021
Elevator Artist Run Initiative was established in 2020 and is situated on Bundjalung Country. It is an Emerging Artist Run Initiative and Project Space, Lismore NSW
Elevator ARI | Lismore June 2021
I – Interviewer – Artist curator Paul Andrew
R – Michael Donnelly, Co-Director
B – Betty Russ, Co-Director
I: Betty and Michael wow look at how spacious the gallery is….
B: Out the back too. We’ve got a huge space out the back…
I: Downstairs is the gallery space and upstairs is the artist studios?
I: Okay. Awesome.
R: Elevator ARI started as an upstairs space and there was a business running out of there.
I: Oh I see
R: Then we got the opportunity to get this space as well and it’s grown since.
R: And upstairs was an underground music venue, pre- Covid…that is
I: Oh my God. Look at this courtyard, a graffiti wall, and so close to the Lismore Regional Gallery, talk about oh my God that’s just fantastic, location, location, location…
B: Hey what’s that?
R: What’s what?
B: That chair.
R: Oh someone just gifted it to us by the look of it. ( a mystery chair in the courtyard)
I: Oh this is truly extraordinary.
R: The stairs from the artist studios are in construction. They started falling apart so that’s another project. (laughter)
I: Oh bugger, always so many projects with artist-runs. Actually, and on that note Michael what was this building originally do you know? Because it’s quite old by the looks.
R: What it was originally I’m not sure, it’s been many things. The tenants previous to us, that we know about, one was a sign writer upstairs and his dad was downstairs doing RV detailing, car detailing. And there was a mechanic here, there was a karate school or a mixed martial arts dojo upstairs that had classes down here in what is now the gallery space. There was a telemarketing centre And back in the nineties it was student accommodation for arts students. And apparently it was quite a party venue. And there used to be another house next door that has since burnt down that was also a large accommodation centre and learning hub for students.
I: As in visual arts students or music, at Southern Cross University or the conservatorium in the Quad just over the road?
R: Yeah, yeah connected to the Conservatorium and SCU we think, because I think the…the uni used to have a campus here wasn’t it? Like a…
I: SCU? Is that where you studied?
R: Yeah so we had like Fiona Fell who taught both of us I think.
R: She used to live here, now she’s living elsewhere, Fiona was a lecturer at SCU and she informed me that lots of extraordinary things happened in the student accommodation days.
B: Yeah, oh and Claudie Frock and Renee from a new artist run under the conservatorium are coming here to Elevator in forty-five minutes so we’ve got time to keep chatting.
I: Under the conservatorium, that sounds fabulous. So, this central area of Lismore has extended the Lismore Quad, it’s a growing precinct, and Lismore Regional just there, are they big supporters?
B: Yeah Kezia is, they’re, they all are, they’re really really supportive. And Ingrid Wilson the communication’s manager for Arts Northern Rivers is always going out of her way to include us in things yeah. Yeah we couldn’t have asked for a better set up. I’ve been involved with ARI’s for a while now and it has,…we’ve been really lucky, so much of a groundswell of support here.
I: Based on past experiences?
B: Based on past experiences yeah. I mean our biggest struggle here with Elevator ARI is finance which is unsurprising because that’s normal for artist-runs yeah. But the landlord here is amazing, the guy who owns the building is a fucking legend and wants this artist-run activity to grow, to happen…
R: Right behind us.
B: right behind it, all the way…
B: …the whole thing yeah. Umm…
R: He’s also hands off which is great.
I: So if you go through really tough patches like “Oh can’t pay the rent for a month or we’re behind” or whatever, is that sort of …
B: We won’t get kicked out. We…
I: …yeah so you’ve got that sense of security…
B: …we haven’t done that though
B: …I’ve got doubles of some of my body organs so you know, if needed, I just…laughs…but yeah.. as you know it’s always a struggle for artist spaces. we pay, I was just telling Sharon our neighbour, at Brake Tech mechanics, this morning. She was like I said something about “Oh I’m not working at the moment” and she said “anyway all the time..” and I’m like “Oh no, no we pay to work here”. She was like “What”? I said, “Yeah Michael and I pay to work here”. Laughs
I: Yes so it’s a grassroots non profit business model, different to a standard business model, sole traders and all that. Lismore is like many other places where there’s artistic precarity where you just keep doing this love, passion, enthusiasm you know shared cooperative spirit. Somehow magic happens and things keep happening and there’s this sort of effusiveness, and an abundance of artistic activities. But meanwhile there’s this experience of precariousness that’s sort of ongoing as well. And that tension is often what makes things really interesting you know.
B: Yeah. True.
I: And also exhausting. You know but it sort of there’s an energy that comes with this precarity, maybe?
R: Yeah we got a lot of advice in that regard with many many people that have been involved in similar situations and I think having that supportive advice has helped us prepare. Or at least not have unrealistic expectations. So, we’re open to the precariousness if that makes sense.
B: Yeah, yeah we sort of know it’s going to happen and then when we run into a bit of trouble…we are at the moment, it’s not huge amounts. Just “Ohhh how are we going to pay that electricity bill”? You know then it will just happen.
R: But we’ve also had some great shit happen.
B: Yeah, yeah we’ve had some really good news lately yeah.
I: Cool well touch wood for more of that.
B: Yeah, yeah totally. Which we can’t tell you but and I’m sure you understand what I mean. Do you know 107 Projects in Redfern, do you know of them? They are, you should really be in touch with them. They are amazing, Jess Cook, and they are one of the longest running self-funded ARI’s in the country and she is fucking dynamite. They got through the Brandis administration and Covid without backing into, you know asking for government funds. Jess, just…and they’ve now got multiple venues in Sydney. I mean they’re just super busy and I worked there for a couple of years, extraordinary experiences, skills development, project management, creative collabs and, so much….
I: So much has changed in ARI’s over thirty, forty years but I feel it’s a living legacy in living memory, well at least for a while. And these stories from like long after you’ve left this one you might go and do other ones or whatever but you know this Elevator ARI experience will be part of this incredible living knowledge base.
B: Well I sort of subconsciously know that and when we first started discussing the …the conception of Elevator one of the major things in our…what do you call that? Your business statement, but it’s not, it’s like a …
R: Manifesto or…
B: Your manifesto or whatever it is…
I: Yeah your vision statement or whatever yeah there’s all sorts of yeah, yeah, yeah.
B: Was to create an organisation that is dynamic enough but is solidified in its identity enough that once it’s been established, you can slowly have other people come through. But it remains yeah, something you have founded.
R: And hopefully pass it on so that it will stay and you can go off and do other stuff.
B: That’s some thing we admire in particular, the handing on model that 107 projects in Redfern run on, and I think they have been in operation for fifteen years now or something close…
R: …and has Jess been there the whole time?
B: Jess has been there the whole time. They started in Hibernian House (Sydney), probably twenty years now, and Jess is still there and so are the founding directors, all still founding directors, even if they live in all you know all different parts of the world. And for any major decision that needs to be made, well, it still goes through them and I think that’s really cool. So we could move to New Zealand at some time and still you know be a part of the major decision making. Sort of…and it’s almost as if it’s not a possession, a possessive based ideal, well it probably is. Because you know the colonial state, but it’s more about you know prolonging the positive energy of somewhere like this with only clear intentions.
R: …to do something positive with that.
B: Yeah keep the good part.
B: …parts of these things being alive, living, ongoing…