Social Memory – Made. Creative Space Toowoomba (2011 – 2013)
by Elysha Rei (Gould)
It started over coffee, as many ideas too. Two young arts alumni living in regional Queensland, were thirsty for opportunities and frustrated by the lack of them. We’d spent 3 years in art school together, we both took different paths and then found ourselves back in Toowoomba flirting with the idea of making our art space over coffee. It was 2010 when the idea of Made. Creative Space came about.
Alex Stalling (nee Isaacson) and I (Elysha Rei, nee Gould), became the ‘dynamic duo’ that opened a multi-space art gallery in the middle of Margaret Street. We spent the last 6 months of 2010 trawling through commercial property opportunities, playing with names and acronyms and figuring out how we could possibly do this. My son was 2 at the time, and I was working part time, so we committed to a 12-month project, which ended up spanning 3 years.
Toowoomba had been through generations of cultural activity about 5-10 years earlier. From the Dancing Bear Café, the Boogie Shack, the Office, weekly events at Bon Amici’s, 53 Russell Street, Tracey Projects and Attic Art Space (which Alex Stalling also founded). Alison Mooney had been producing art exhibitions in partnership with the former Metro Café, and then formalised this into MARS (Metro Artist Run Space). The Grid Hybrid Arts Space, Raygun Lab, Kontraband Studios and First Coat were yet to be born.
When speaking today about the Toowoomba ARI scene, Alex Stalling has always been passionate about its history. “The Toowoomba ARI culture was born out of necessity, like many ARI’s are. There was a gap in the local creative scene, a disconnect between artist and artist, artist and community and artist and other industries. The pockets of groups were in themselves creating those connections and it was a drive to expand those connections that the local ARI (Made) was born. After decades of pop-ups, small, large and everything in-between the DIY nature of the Toowoomba community is now woven into its creative fabric. It’s almost expected now to look towards these DIY’ers for the big events, our connection to larger opportunities, established artists and a step into the practices of modern artists.”
When Made began we were both single-income families, with little cash to spare. We borrowed money from a close friend to make the down payment on an upstairs commercial space at 249 Margaret Street, which time had forgotten about. Each room was coated in a different colour of paint. It was dusty and dirty but brimming with potential. The space was laid out like a rabbit warren – one room leading into another. It had 4 windows overlooking Margaret Street, and car parking spaces out the back. The dream had begun.
Fit-out took place over December 2010 and January 2011. Alex’s (now) husband worked tirelessly to help us install walls and fixtures to make it gallery-ready. We had vinyl lettering naming each gallery space One, Two Three and Four. We chose a black and white courier new font logo to keep the cost of printing down. We bought the cheapest possible white paint (ceiling paint) to cover the walls, which ended up needing 2-3 coats (learnt that lesson the hard way). Everything was dependent on budget, but it certainly seasoned our thrifty sensibilities.
Up until that point there had been two other art spaces that charged artists a hire fee to use their gallery – Attic Art Space and 53 Russell Street. We were in competition with other opportunities that were free of charge and were certainly met with an initial sense of hesitation for asking for money. So we made sure to package the whole experience. The hire fee including an exhibition for 3 weeks, installation service, invigilation, artwork sales management, an opening event and doing all the marketing. In hindsight I can now see just how generous we were with our time doing all these things! But it certainly gave us invaluable experience which I use to this day in my professional life.
Our agenda was to be professional yet accessible. We opened applications up to anyone – emerging and established artists, and those locally, nationally and internationally based. Each of the four exhibition spaces ran concurrently with a joint opening every three weeks. We wanted to be a playground for artists to experiment, and an inclusive and welcoming space for new artists to dip their foot in the water.
Despite the unexpected January 2011 Floods in Toowoomba, we managed to fill our first couple of months’ worth of exhibitions and have our inaugural opening to a crowd of nearly 150 on Friday 4 February 2011, 6.30pm. Our whole floor space was brimming with people enjoying the cheap wine, catching up with each other and enjoying this fresh new face of the Toowoomba Art world. We opened with a series of solo exhibitions from Simon Mee with his incredible paintings and drawings; Ester de Boer’s detailed illustrated worlds and an installation by Christian Low which literally wrapped cling-wrap around poles in the gallery space, making a walk-through maze.
We challenged ourselves in making each exhibition a complete transformation in space from the previous one. This included artists directly painting and drawing onto the gallery walls like Alice Weinthal’s fish, Maryanne Oliver’s feminine portrait or Harry Nuss’ tree branches. Alex and I joked how many layers of paint ended up being on those walls – you could carve and excavate them to see the history of the exhibitions.
We branched out to the community and non-arts related businesses to gain sponsorship and new audiences for our own self-directed projects. Memorably ‘On-site’ was one of these. I managed to get in-kind sponsorship from the former Wagner’s business and received a tonne each of sand, cement and rocks. These were then passed onto a small group of selected artists to challenge their practice and create new works.
After an idea was emailed to Toowoomba Regional Council regarding an arts event for the annual Carnival of Flowers, we were granted the opportunity to see this through, and developed ‘Creative Tanks’ as a project comprising of mini artist residencies inside the shopfront windows of CBD businesses during the festival week. This model proved successful enough to grow and deliver for another 2 years afterwards.
We held workshops, music events, life drawing, and even had our own gallery shop and art library. For a couple of months, we also hosted artists in residence David Usher and then Stephen Spurrier.
I still think back and think ‘how on earth did we do all that!?’
64 exhibitions in the first year.
16 exhibition openings.
Open 5 days a week.
And only 2 days for de-installing one show and installing the next.
By the end of our initial 12 months we were exhausted but decided to keep going with a few changes. We reduced our opening hours, recruited a team of volunteers and mentees and tried to implement some more work-life balance. The rush was addictive. Each new exhibition was always unique in some way – the installation method, the new paint colour, a new project. The breadth of variety was so satisfying. We connected with so much of Toowoomba’s arts and business community. I’m still close to many people to this day.
After 18 months at 249 Margaret Street, we made the decision to give-up the bricks and mortar space to concentrate on producing community events and pop-up exhibitions. Our lives were changing just as fast. Alex fell pregnant, I had moved to Miles to run their regional arts centre Dogwood Crossing, and we realised we just couldn’t do it all. We continued to operate Made. as a creative producer, delivering the Creative Tanks event for Carnival of Flowers as well as Project: Art Journal.
At the end of 2013, after 3 years of growing, loving and learning from Made., Alex and I announced that we would be moving onto the next phases of our creative and professional lives. We held a final exhibition at Blockwork Art Gallery with a series of iconic photographs capturing some of the best moments of this ARI chapter.
Despite the challenges and financial stress that came hand-in-hand with this DIY venture, I would do it all again. The connection to our community, the thrill of experimenting with our ideas and the freedom to do so, will always remain some of the most satisfying years to remember. I look back at the photos from this ARI with many fond memories.
About Elysha Rei:
Since finishing with Made. Creative Space, Elysha relocated to Thailand for 18 months to undertake a Master’s in Business Administration whilst setting up the international residency program Sam Rit Residency. She has since held coordination roles at Flying Arts Alliance and is now the Public Programs Officer at Queensland State Archives. She continues to practice as an artist creating works from personal and historical archives which embed narrative and symbolism within a Japanese design aesthetic. Works include portraits, patterns and paper cutting which have been translated into large-scale murals and public art commissions for Councils and private clients. Notable achievements include being invited as the inaugural artist-in-residence at Museum of Brisbane in 2017, large-scale murals for First Coat and Grand Central in Toowoomba, a 2018 recipient of an Asialink Arts Creative Exchange residency in Japan and international solo exhibitions in Bangkok and Tokyo.
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