(Re) Presenting | Toowoomba Artist-Run Culture & Heritage | made.Creative | ARI Remix Interview with Alex Stalling and Elysha Rei July 2021
+Made. Creative Toowoomba
About made. Creative Space
Founded in February 2011 by artists Elysha Rei (nee Gould) and Alex Stalling (nee Isaacson), made. Creative Space offered up-skilling, public exposure and networking for local artists and a voice for the artistic community of Toowoomba. While housed in a multi-roomed gallery above the vibrant restaurant strip of Margaret Street, made. presented many high-quality exhibitions by artists with links to Toowoomba, especially those who went through the school of Creative Arts at the University of Southern Queensland. made. Creative Space has now retired as an entity since November 2013. Its former Co-Directors recently banded back together to produce a reunion show in June 2021, featuring artists who showed with the ARI during its three year existence.
Elysha Rei Bio
Elysha Rei is a Japanese-Australian visual artist and arts manager based in Meanjin (Brisbane) who creates paper cutting, public art, and murals that connect with her heritage. She holds an MBA, Bachelor of Visual Arts, and is currently completing a PhD at QUT. She is the founder of Sam Rit Residency in Thailand (2013-2018), Co-founder of Made Creative Space Toowoomba (2011-2013), and the Public Programs Officer at Queensland State Archives (2017 – current). She has exhibited work, curated exhibitions, and managed cultural spaces across Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Netherlands, Thailand, and the US.
Alex Stalling Bio
For Alex, growing up in Outback & Regional Queensland fostered an appreciation for the role of creative culture and the impact they hold on the community. Based in Toowoomba, Alex has over a decade of experience in creative industries including: her artist practice, artist run spaces (Attic Art Space, made. Creative Space), community engagement (LIT Festival: Stories in light, Toowoomba Regional Council, Grand Central Shopping Centre, Hyperdome Shopping Centre, Clifford Gardens Shopping Centre, Rosecity Shopping World, Dalby Shopping Town).
Interviewer : Paul Andrew ARI Remix Project
Respondents – Alex Stalling and Elysha Rei
Interview July 2021 held at Tinker South, 8 Dexter St, South Toowoomba QLD 4350
Starting with Toowoomba’s ARI history
Paul: So, we’re here today with Alex Stalling and Elysha Rei talking about the Made Reunion Show, ten years down the track. Firstly, let’s talk more broadly about artist run culture here in Toowoomba. Can you give like a potted history, from your perspectives about what this sort of social history, cultural history to artist run culture in Toowoomba is from your points of view?
Alex: My Honours was actually on ARI culture. Toowoomba for a very long time has had an interesting ARI landscape, like Dancing Bear which is as far back that most people go with their collective memory. But with Toowoomba so much of it was very underground, it was almost secret, and you had to be in the know to know. And most of it was in weird spaces, upstairs, poorly signed. It was often just artists getting together, sharing the cost of rooms and each space were a response to a different need. There were more inclusive ones, more that were just friends, and they would rent it for 12 months and each of them would take a month. There were some that were attached directly to the university there were some that were independent.
They were also really transient, operating for 6 months maybe a year. That was where everyone’s finances were at, we don’t always like to talk about the money when we think about these spaces but if you are operating in a commercial location with a commercial lease, these are just the realities of operation.
Toowoomba has a rich history of artist run places so the idea of creating another felt natural. With ‘made.’ our point of difference, our niche, was that we were going to take the leap into an open shared and advertised space, making it more public.
We advertised it to the public and we invited the public along and we invited people from the university, from council, different groups and businesses, and we wanted them to be represented within this space.
We were starting to have conversations about connection, the place for art within our local landscape and highlighting the arts. Rather than opportunities always being brought into our region from metropolitan spaces.
Elysha: The other big point of difference ‘made.’ had compared to the other ARI history and experiences of local artists in the area is that we charged to hire our space. When we first did that there was almost an outrage because artist expectations were that they should be the ones to be paid to exhibit. But we were operating in a different model – really providing a whole packaged service. Not only did they get a space to hang their work for three weeks, but it was also invigilated, we installed it and de-installed the show; they got an opening with drinks and food, and we did all the marketing for them. And in hindsight all the things that we did for the fee that we charged was just phenomenal. But it also wasn’t sustainable – initially it was just the two of us!
After realising we needed some assistance, we did recruit volunteers who were incredibly generous with their time. In addition, over a couple of years we ran a twelve-month program through the University of Southern Queensland and with the TAFE. Each year we had two dedicated interns, we called ‘made minions’, who learnt through a mentoring process in administration, install and de-install, and gallery operation side of things. But we also helped them curate their own exhibition project. This included getting their first grants.
Paul: Boy were you guys enthusiastic, and still are ten years later! But just to get some dates and from a temporal perspective so we’re talking where ten years is, what are we in? We’re in 2021 so 2011 you opened. And where and when in that year?
Elysha: It was February 2011, just after the January 2011 floods had hit town. The whole community was in disarray for many different reasons. It was a very tragic event. But in saying that, the timing was crucial in bringing the community together in a positive way. We had already booked out several shows in advance, but after the floods we had a lot of cancelations from artists that were affected. So we had to scramble to fill a few gaps because we were impacted that way.
Alex: It was scary for two reasons – one is you wanted to be able to launch this thing well, and two, there’s always a financial burden that comes with it. When you’re taking on a commercial lease, at the end of the day you still have to foot the bill. And these are things that you must consider, and either of us weren’t in a financial position to be able to cover these things.
The building and location – 174 Margaret Street
Paul: What sort of building were you guys in? What was it? Was it a sixties building, 1960s or older?
Alex: It was an interesting older building, one of those ones that had been many things over the years and had a lot of stories a lot of history. We were situated upstairs on level one. We just kind of added white paint to the walls and off we went. The building is no longer there now. It was bulldozed last year into a laneway.
Elysha: The gallery building was in between nightclubs. GE Money was downstairs along with a convenience store. Opposite was Subway, so we were in a very busy hive of the CBD which was a plus. But because we were on the first level we had to lure people to go upstairs. We used blackboards at the ground level front entrance as an ephemeral marketing platform. We used Coke to clean it because you get the black surface back to write again, and then used chalk to write on it.
Alex: And this signage was one of those things that at the time so many people commented on it for like aesthetics, but it was just us being resourceful because we didn’t have money to print paper! It was those kinds of things that you look back at it now and you’re like “Oh wow we were quite innovative but really we were just cheap”.
Paul: Well just resourceful! Did you have a website from the outset as well?
Elysha: Yes we did – www.madecreativespace.com on a Weebly platform. We did some really good documentation of exhibitions and maintained this on the website for a while. We took shots of every show and the openings and had a separate folder for each one. But after we closed the ARI we didn’t keep it live for too long afterwards.
Alex: We did decide to keep our Facebook page still active, because at the time we felt it was important to have recorded history – so much of the ARI history in Toowoomba is just oral history. As a reference point, it was really important. Our Instagram account was created this year just for the reunion show.
Paul: Okay, so let’s talk about the exit strategy then in terms of the end – how it felt like the end of it. Was it a conscious decision for both of you to say “Okay enough is enough”?
Alex: We started ‘made.’ as just a one-year project. At the beginning we had identified what Toowoomba needed and the easiest way to make those connections was to create those opportunities for people through having a gallery. So, this was a space where we could let artists play with their practice and be experimental. But also, a space to get to know patrons of the arts and getting those collaborations happening. Council used to approach us a space where we could assist them in engaging artists, and after time they would have the connections to go straight to local artists themselves. When that was happening more and more, I think that was when we were both just like “Well we’ve ticked our box”.
Elysha: And after a period, the ARI had done lots of things for our own personal and professional realms too. So even within the three years that we existed I wasn’t here for one of those years, I was out at Miles running their regional art gallery (Dogwood Crossing) – which was a job I would not have had if I didn’t have the experience from ‘made.’ Creative Space behind me. When I returned to Toowoomba in 2013, we both sort of realised our own professional directions were changing. It just felt like its natural closure, and we had some exciting things to sort of say “Hey this is what we’re doing – we’re closing this chapter, but this is what we’ve got to look forward to, hope you’ll still follow us”! At the end of 2013 we ended ‘made.’ with a final exhibition hosted at Blockwork Gallery. We printed and framed iconic photos documenting the three years of the ARI and held an event where we broke the news and said our goodbyes.
Paul: So, going back to when you said it was going to be a one-year project, you set the enthusiasm, you hadn’t done it before – it’s a new experience. Do you remember talking about what an exit strategy might be after that initial twelve months? What the end might look like? Might involve, might not involve?
Elysha: We I remember at the end of the first year we were exhausted, but we thought, let’s do it again but let’s do it differently. And so, we reduced our opening hours, we became a little bit more organised in terms of setting the space, we had volunteers take a couple of shifts from us. We tried to be a little bit more strategic with the openings so that we’d go back-to-back with other galleries so that people would shift on…
Alex: We opened an artist residency program, transforming some of the gallery spaces. It enabled people to be in the space and assisted with paying the rent. For the artists it responded to their need for a studio space.
Paul: And that entrepreneurial package that you two provided to artists with great enthusiasm, that was incredibly generous for so long. Did that start to shift a little bit because of the volunteer input? And artists perhaps had more input?
Alex: We still did the same thing! But the big eye-opening moment for both of us was we attended an ARI symposium put on by NAVA [National Association for the Visual Arts] in Sydney, ‘We Are Here’ in September 2011.
Paul: …and how was that?
Alex: Beautiful. And wonderful and extremely eye opening. When we were sitting in a round table and we’re all talking about all the different things we each do. When we explained how many shows and assistance we provided, people said, “that’s too much!”.
Elysha: We were both doing above and beyond, but we were only trying to meet the expectations of artists our community. So, it was quite interesting to see that in other bigger cities, artists were much more aware of the value of galleries and the investment that you see them as – rather than just expecting everything to just happen for them.
Paul: But part of the irony is this rich ARI culture in Toowoomba, and as you say Alex, it’s an oral history of this culture, so these stories aren’t always shared. How often do you sit around and talk about the oral history of ARI culture in Toowoomba unless someone like me comes along? Or you’re running an ARI and then you’re like “Oh there was this there was that”. All that ephemerality in that history – did you decide to do that as a part of your university studies because you were wanting to start something that’s artist run?
Alex: As part of my Honours I created an ARI [Attic Art Space] as the actual practice element. I remember walking into my first opening at an ARI and was almost intoxicated by the atmosphere. There was a real sense of place. I knew I needed to learn more. I had stumbled into something that was going to shape my artist practice and career. Around this time, we did a collaboration between USQ [University of Southern Queensland] and West Space down in Melbourne. I got to work with the curator at the time and he came up to one of the openings at the space that I had. Because West Space had become more commercialised, I guess, he really appreciated the grass roots essence in Toowoomba’s ARI culture, and how he almost missed this part of it. So it felt like a really interesting time to be a part of things.
Paul: We’ve talked about the beginning and talked about the end and your exit strategy. So, for those three years I just wonder if have you done an audit and worked out how many artists you had in your programming?
Elysha: With the frequency of shows changing every three weeks, and four gallery spaces, we ended up having sixty-four exhibitions just in the first year! That involved at least twelve openings too. That first year we had four separate galleries within the space and artists could either have one or several of those galleries hired. But more often than not we would have a different artist in each space. The following year we reduced the amount of shows we had in a year due to a gallery being turned into the artist in residency space and because we used the back room as our own studio office.
Paul: Every three weeks?! I was trying to explain that to someone that we used to do shows every two weeks. And one of the reasons we did that because we had that model where artists pay. What were artists paying, can you remember what your package deal was?
Elysha: Gallery One was the largest space, it was the space that you walked into as soon as you get to the top of the stairs, it was $330 for a three-week show – including the opening, marketing, install and de-install and invigilation. The second gallery space, Gallery Two was slightly smaller and was in the corner overlooking Margaret Street, it was $220. And I think Gallery Three was something like $180. It was really small, and it had no windows, and it was a walk-through area. Gallery Four was a tiny black room where we encouraged installations and video screening, which was $100 or $80 or something ridiculous like that! But the sum of all these gallery fees would help us pay a month’s rent basically.
Paul: That was my next question! So, with all your overheads and your outgoings did you come up with figures that based on what your projections were for outgoings?
Alex: Yes – so our outgoings included all running costs except a wage for either of us. We didn’t pull any kind of income at all, it just purely paid for itself to function.
Paul: …and did it?
Alex: Well the first year we did, but there was a couple of instances where we were really trying to scrape the barrel! This is when we would organise a couple of group shows as a really good way to get lots of artists involved for a really cheap rate, but it still generated income for rent. We’d also do some joint-venture projects with either businesses or council where we might put on a workshop for a fee. We were also successful in gaining sponsorship from a couple of different companies for materials which artists transformed into works. Grants were also very helpful. The first time we got Regional Quick Response grants and from Artslink Queensland, that helped to pay for a few things.
Elysha: These grants were fifteen hundred dollars and I think you got a response within four weeks. We were involved with three of these successful grants – one for our own project, and one for each of our interns as part of their experience being mentored and producing their own show. And where there were grants involved we would also put together a catalogue and mention the logo and acknowledgement of the funding body.
Paul: Just going back to what you were saying at the outset…. that there was a bit of an uproar about charging a hire fee to exhibit. Whereas from me the artist paid for everything because that’s just how it was. So, when you guys were doing things at that particular cultural moment there was a very different understanding. What did you say? Did you have to keep arguing for this modelling that you had?
Alex: It was more about education – we were very transparent about how it was all working. There was a lot of work for advocacy in this change. There were other ARIs who could offer free exhibitions to artists. But they were funded in a different way, so they didn’t have to pay for a space, instead sitting within another venue.
Elysha: I think that’s probably why we worked really hard. We had to prove ourselves in so many ways but in doing so we also provided such a service, such an experience, that it was worth every penny and more. And people did start to realise that it was worth every cent. We even had artist from Brisbane come up and go “This is great, this is so cheap I’m going to like come up here from Brisbane”. And they did. Because they realised that they were getting a much better deal than they would have down in their hometown. We had packed crowds for openings – a hundred people plus!
Alex: At our very first opening there was three hundred people through. And all we did for advertising was written letters on paper stuck into the windows where you could see it driving past. That’s how much the community really wanted it! It was really beautiful and overwhelming – super overwhelming.
Remembering the Toowoomba floods
Paul: I want to go back to the flooding because I’d forgotten about the rivers and the canals in Toowoomba – there’s water everywhere. I remember when the floods happened in 2011. I remember thinking “How did Toowoomba flood”? You know it was silly, naïve, foolish. Because I’d forgotten that this is a water plain. At the time you were organising the opening of ‘made.’ and then the flood comes along. Describe that moment.
Elysha: I think we were all in shock but all wanting to do something. You know you’ve got to keep busy in times like that. Alex was directly affected because her home was so close to the torrent that went down the main street.
Alex: Yes, we were told we had water lapping up our house, but it didn’t go inside, and we were displaced for only a couple of weeks. In the big scheme of it you know it wasn’t so bad and these were easy things to navigate. But I remember being in town at the time. We were fitting out the space when it happened. We could see the water going past on Margaret Street, but you still had no concept of what was actually happening.
Elysha: You almost don’t believe it. I remember driving past the corner of Queens Park and Hume Street and the water was so powerful it was almost like a tsunami wave coming up and torrenting over the road and you couldn’t see the park. All you could see was just water. It was a sight I’ll never forget. It really affected a lot of people in different ways. People lost their homes, not being able to get home and even things like the groceries stores all clearing out because the trucks with supplies couldn’t get to the range. And Grantham just down the mountain, it had the worst death toll. They’re about a twenty-minute drive from here and their whole town was wiped out.
Reflecting on a decade
Paul: One final question – so we’re just talking about reflection – where you’re at right now, does it feel like it was ten years ago ?
Elysha: I feel like where we are now is as family women. So much has happened in our lives in that decade. But when you have an event like a reunion today where you get to see people perhaps for the first time in ten years, or even just the fact that people corralled around us to put it all together, that feeling hasn’t really changed. The excitement of doing something like this and feeling like no time has passed when you’re seeing these people again – I think that was noticed today.
Alex: It’s been really interesting behind the scenes with private information that we’ve been given, to see the contrast of what ten years is for people individually. Just how quickly life changes or doesn’t depends on what sort of track your own personal life is. But having a reunion show has just sparked that kind of reminiscent feeling in people. They want to share stories of where they’ve been, and it’s been an emotional kind of time for us.
Elysha: Definitely! I think what has really been apparent with the reunion show, is that the last ten years has been an opportunity for other people to reflect on ‘made.’ as an entity. Because at the time I think it was a very thankless task. People enjoyed it for what it was and then when we didn’t exist anymore, they moved on with their lives pretty quickly. But having a chance to come back ten years later with that hindsight, perhaps they’ve seen the landscape in the region change and maybe see the ripple effect of what we started. We had a lot of lovely comments today from people genuinely talking about the impact that ‘made.’ had on the community. And so that ten years has given them a chance to reflect on what it really did. Even though at the time they may not have seen it in action.
Paul: And so even with all these other artist-run initiatives before yours and during yours and after yours, do you think your key competitive advantage was the amount of love and labour and social enterprise you designed in the modelling that had that impact? Have people commented on that?
Elysha: I think so. ‘made.’ was different because it was accessible and because it was inclusive. I think they were the two unique selling points for us. We may have had the same facilities and functional offerings as other galleries, but we were a space that was always open to anybody that was interested. It wasn’t about the clique, it wasn’t about particular institutions, it wasn’t about any of our friends. It was about everybody. And that was what was different.
Alex: Exactly. If people wanted to have an exhibition, we weren’t going to tell them what they could hang, this was their space. They had it for three weeks and they could put what they like on the walls. Or paint the walls!
Paul: So talking about the archive, you’ve accumulated a lot of photographs. So my question is about ‘made.’ Creative as an archive. This is an archival experience in a sense and it’s very social and it’s this way of reflecting and remembering together. There are benefits with nostalgia, but I see it as much more of a community, more grass roots than that, because it’s actually about time. Even though ten years has passed it is like no time has passed at all. I just wonder whether that meaningful stuff for you is about bringing art together? Bringing people together in a quite difficult time? You even had to reschedule your reunion show opening due to another COVID19 lockdown.
Elysha: Yes that’s right! It’s uncanny that we find ourselves in another pivotal moment in history ten years later. The first time a flood and now a pandemic!
Alex: When we started the conversation last year about this whole reunion it was important due to major lockdowns for us. We’re all feeling quite isolated, and this is a space that enables us to bring people together again, because there is that real sense of community with it. So being able to be inclusive and have that community vibe with what we we’re going to do here was integral to how it panned out.
Paul: And have people come from far and wide?
Elysha: People have sent work from as far as Melbourne and Townsville. We had some in-person artists come to the opening from Brisbane today, including me, as well as yourself Paul, from Russell Island.
Alex: And people who couldn’t be here in person have sent their family in their absence.
Paul: I came along because through your social media marketing I saw you reaching out, you’re connecting. I was just picking up on was that incredible empathy, quite intuitive stuff that I was reading. Maybe I’m reading into it from my own experiences of being involved in these amazing coming together sort of things. But that’s certainly one reason that I wanted to come was just this incredible ground swell of support.
Elysha: Oh that’s good!
Paul: Yes congratulations! Really, really exciting. Thank you for just everything. It’s just so exciting, and the joy that you must bring to so many people. Sometimes people don’t sort of let you know “Hey you’ve brought me a lot of joy in my life” they don’t. So the next one will be for the twentieth reunion?
Elysha: We’ll have to see!
Advice for future ARIs
Paul: On a final note, what advice would you give to the next generation of artists wanting to start their own ARI?
Alex: My advice? Number one is, do it! The skills, memories, connections, development and what you will add to your community both general and industry is truly immeasurable. It’s hard, it’s fatigue-inducing, it can be stressful, it’s all about learning, but it’s 100% worth it.
Number two is, before you start, seek advice. Talk to others who have done it or are doing it now. Ask the boring questions as well as the romantic ones. Check out your local hubs for insight, they might be running programming that may help you. For me it was YAQ [ Youth Arts Queensland] arts business course. And if you can, seek advice from generic business spaces. Talk to an accountant, one that is happy to talk about regular business plan stuff. You never know there might be a smarter safer way to do what you want to do.
Elysha: My advice would be to find the right people and the right place. Alex and I were successful in our ARI for many reasons, but it’s those nameless people in the background that often go unthanked – partners, husbands, families, friends. We had an incredible support network at the time, and Toowoomba is a very supportive community. We also found the perfect commercial space where we could envision our idea before we started to make it come a reality.
Yes, it is hard work, and you take a lot of risk with the adventure, but never lose sight of the bigger picture. ARIs are a valuable contribution to the arts ecology of local communities and the arts industry. They can be catalyst for emerging artists and playgrounds for established artists. Each ARI is so unique in its proposition but find what works for you, so your time and energy is being funneled into something you’re passionate about.
And lastly – document and archive! Capture these ephemeral moments of cultural memories. Be sure to share them with ARI Remix!
Photo Captions: Made Creative Space Reunion
Alex Stalling and Elysha Rei at Made Creative Space Toowoomba, February 2011
Photo credit: Cindy Laine, University of Southern Queensland
Installation view of the exhibition ‘Black and White: Kalos + eidos”, March 2011, picturing work by Adam Armstrong and Sandra Jarrett. Photo credit: Elysha Rei.
Installation view of the exhibition ‘Project: art journal’, July 2011. Photo credit: Elysha Rei.
Image 4 (& Header Image)
Documentation of initial Made Creative Space fit-out, January 2011. Photo credit: Elysha Rei.
Digital copy of Made Creative Space front door signage, printed 2012. Image credit: Alex Stalling
Image of Director’s desk set up in office of Made Creative Space, 2012. Photo credit: Elysha Rei.
Image of Elysha Rei and Alex Stalling at the opening of Exhibition 9, featuring work by Elysha Rei. Photo credit: Nerida Tupas
Digital copy of Made Creative Space invitation for the second suite of exhibitions in 2011. Image credit: Alex Stalling
Installation shot of artist in residency studio set-up featuring work by Stephen Spurrier and David Usher, June 2011. Photo credit: Elysha Rei.
Installation view of an exhibition featuring work by Christian Low, April 2011. Photo credit: Elysha Rei.
Installation view of the exhibition ‘The Studio Project’, curated by Elysha Rei, picturing works by Damien Kamholtz. Photo credit: Elysha Rei.
Installation view of exhibition ‘Bird and Boat’ by Alister Karl and Craig R Cole, January 2012. Photo credit: Elysha Rei
Alex Stalling, Elysha Rei and David Usher at the ‘made.’ reunion show, July 2021. Photo credit: Evan Hollis
made.creative catalogues courtesy of the artists Elysha Rei and Alex Stalling along with artist colleagues