ABOUT THAT: MOSTLY AN INTERVIEW WITH PAUL ANDREW
By Peter Anderson
Over the last six or seven years the Brisbane artworld has witnessed the rise and fall (and sometimes rise again) of quite a number of artist-run ventures: studios, publications, co-operative projects, advocacy and industrial organisations, and galleries. While some of these activities have had quite limited life-spans, either as a result of circumstances (The Observatory, Art Walk) or because of predetermined constraints (A ROOM), others have survived for longer periods.
The longevity of particular organisations appears to be very much the result of circumstances, and some formations (One Flat / O Flate, the Artworkers Union / Queensland Artworkers Alliance) have made quite dramatic changes along the way, with still maintaining a certain continuity of aims and /or personnel.
The following material is primarily concerned with THAT Contemporary Art Space, however it does feed back into these broader structural issues. The general form of what follows is that of a drastically edited version of an interview conducted with THAT’s co-ordinator, Paul Andrew, during March ’87. In an attempt to cover more ground I have summarised certain sections of the discussion, cut large portions of the questions and answers, and made minor adjustments to speech patterns. In the light of these changes, what follows should not be construed as a true record of interview.
The first concrete moves to establishing THAT occurred in late 1984 when Paul Andrew called a meeting of local artists who were interested in the possibility of setting up a gallery and studio co-operative. Contact with both the Institute of Modern Art (IMA) and A ROOM seemed to indicate a gap in the kinds of exhibition and support structures that were operating within the local context. While A ROOM was concerned with younger unestablished artists, the limitations of the short-term nature of the project seemed to indicate a need for ‘a reasonably long-term organisation that could assist younger unestablished artists working in a professional way … providing studio space so that there was access not only to the actualisations of processes, but to the actual process itself’.
While initial group discussions began in 1984, it was not until February 1985 that the current premises at 20 Charlotte Street were located. However, although they appeared eminently suited to the group’s needs, the rent required was too high. Following a fruitless search for more affordable premises the group proposed a somewhat lower amount to the owner’s agents. This was accepted, with the tenancy taking effect from May 1985. During the six months of meetings and discussions prior to opening the space, there had been a core group of about fifteen people. This group was to share the tasks of setting up exhibitions, minding the space and generally formulating the direction of the organisation. ‘At one point it seemed as if only a gallery would be possible, simply because of financial constraints, and in the initial stages at the present premises it appeared that the tenancy could be reasonably short-term – which, in many respects went against the original aims’.
Q: How was THAT to be different from other local galleries?
Paul: It was clear to me from what little involvement I had had at the IMA that there were other things happening on the local scene that were just as valid and meaningful as what the IMA was showing. It tended, from my experience, to present work from interstate, particularly Melbourne, and I really had no idea what was going on locally … It was after encountering the A ROOM people that I realised there was quite a healthy scene’.
Q: So the aim was to provide a gallery run by people from ‘the scene’ to support ‘the scene’ itself?
Paul: Exactly … it was to look at the presentation of contemporary visual arts at a grass-roots level by the artists themselves and, I think, looking away from that mediation that you have in government funded organisations … where you have a director and committee who tend to mediate between the community, the public and the art. The idea was to cut out the middleman.’
Paul: The initial collective established the space as a venue that would hold their exhibitions, which tended to be individual or two person shows. It was done simply because we had to fill time, we had financial responsibilities that we had to meet, and in some ways it appeared that we were only going to be there for a short time.’
Q: So in the first instance the gallery operated as an exhibiting space for the people who had studios?
Paul: No … Because not everyone in the collective had studios. It involved five or six other people who didn’t have studios, and even some of the people who did were not able to organise shows. So it wasn’t looking specifically at studio people having shows, it was looking at the entire group as prospective exhibitors. The idea was – if our time was to be unlimited – to focus not only on local stuff, but to look intrastate, interstate and overseas … and that’s happened to some degree’.
THAT has been a self-funding organisation right from the start, although some small subsidies have been received in relation to particular projects. This has meant that a fairly large group of people have had to maintain an involvement simply to ensure the financial stability of the operation. However, such involvement goes beyond simply paying rent or contributing to the cost of incidentals. In the early stages it was clear that a lot of people were interested in taking an active part in establishing and maintaining the organisation, so it was decided ‘that it should be open to as many interested people as possible, simply because that invariably gives a place a more positive feel and tends to reach out and be more inviting’.
However, as with many large group situations, a smaller group of people tend to take on a higher proportion of the day-to-day administrative and logistical tasks. In the early stages Paul and John Waller took on this role: ‘I was there all the time and so it was a sort of discretionary thing on my part to organise, to administer and to get the thing going’. Because there were no clear formal divisions of responsibility, it is very difficult to outline the exact manner in which obligations and duties have been divided. In general however, ‘the group has made the decisions for exhibitions and for studios, and all the other ins and outs, the general administrative activities, have been looked after by one or two people. It’s very awkward to define it, it’s changed in several ways, but basically that’s the general direction … I think’.
Paul: We’ve gone on in terms of looking at becoming an incorporated association, which is happening at the moment. I think that this change really started happening in early ’86, when we looked at pigeon-holing duties. There was always a treasurer and co-ordinator, and then in ’86 we looked at other kinds of duties – secretary, assistant secretary and gallery and studio committees looking after those particular aspects of the organisation.
Q: If you look at the way the Visual Arts Board has dealt with the Contemporary Arts Spaces (CAS), particularly in their 1985 CAS report, it appears that they have been forcing a standardisation of financial and organisation structures, establishing a more uniform system of CAS throughout the country. In the early stages of this process it seemed that other sorts of organisations, like THAT, would be pushed to the side, producing a more clearly tiered gallery system …
Paul: The sort of feedback I’ve received about the system here in Brisbane is that it is perceived by a lot of people to be a three tiered system: the Queensland Art Gallery as the top level, the IMA as the middle level and THAT space as the bottom level. The sort of response I’ve had from people involved in both the QAG and the IMA is that it’s important to have those three structures, and that on this ladder system, THAT is a stepping stone to the IMA which is perceived by some as a stepping stone to the QAG. I think that what’s happening is that there are waves of people coming up from the colleges, and self -taught practitioners, whose needs are not being met by the established organisations, and so it is only through their own concerted efforts that their work gets seen.
So it’s a matter of trying to organise spaces like Union Street, A ROOM, Cockatoo, First Draft, Kelley Street Kollective, Bitumen River, THAT space, One Flat, The Observatory … but there is no one particular reason for them evolving, each place has its own set of reasons for starting.
Q: One things that’s struck me on a number of occasions when talking to people involved in artist-run activities, is that there is sometimes a desire not to receive funding from bodies like the Visual Arts Board, because to do so would tie you to the overall government funding structure, there’s a desire to work ‘on your own’, to work out other methods of surviving financially.
Paul: Yeah, yes … I think that’s another reason for the rise of these sorts of venues and activities … because of the degree of accountability established funded organisations have. In effect, their hands are tied. By having operations that look at independent sources of revenue, spaces like THAT can look at being really open-minded about policy (within financial constraints, of course). I suppose it tends to be less alienating because there’s an absence of that ‘big brother’ type of situation which places like the IMA tend to be in (where to some extent the organisation has to fit the funding body’s policy framework). I know that at THAT space, from early on, there was a desire to maintain an independence from government funding, and I think that’s still the case now. But I think it is clear that we could still have access to small funding sources to allow us to have the autonomy that we want, which means that we can still determine what goes on.
Paul: Money goes because of particular policy decisions, but at THAT space policy has been a discretionary thing, formulated by the group of people assessing exhibition and studio proposals. So it is not a matter of saying ‘we want one third this, one third that, and one third the other’ – which really means nothing. As I’ve said, we’ve tried to look at intrastate, interstate and overseas stuff, but basically the strategy is to put local stuff on the same level as other things that are happening, by involving those other things. Certain things have been ‘local art’ in terms of the title or particular pieces of writing around them, but the general feeling is that all the stuff that happens at THAT is just as valid and meaningful as that which happens anywhere else.
* This piece was based on an interview with Paul Andrew conducted in March 1987. It was originally prepared for the first issue of Eyeline (May 1987), but for some now unrecalled reason it was then held-over for the second (it is listed in issue No.1 as forthcoming in issue No.2). However, again for reasons neither Paul nor I can recall, it was decided to pull the piece – perhaps this was because by the time Eyeline No.2 was in preparation it seemed clear that THAT space would be forced to close, and it looked like what was needed was a piece that looked back in a more retrospective way at the activities of THAT.
This piece has sat in my files as a carbon copy of the unpublished original I’d sent to Eyeline at the end of March 1987. It is one of a number of not quite finished or unpublished pieces produced during this time, including an eight page essay on ‘No Names’ written for Art Network in 1983(‘A Question of Judgement: Notes around ‘No Names’, Brisbane, May ’83), and a review of Brian Doherty’s exhibition ‘This Work Was’ at THAT space in October 1985.As I’d not been to art college, nor studied art history, my focus at this point was not what you’d think of as ‘art criticism’, in fact I was as interested in the processes of how art happens, and where it happens, as I was in what it might mean. (Peter Anderson, February 2016)
In mid-1988 Eyeline published Michele Helmrich’s historical account of THAT space, ‘That’s That, but is that all? That Contemporary Art Space 1985-1988’ Eyeline No.5 (June 1988) pp.16-19