The axis of the art scene is shifting in Australia’s most-isolated capital city. On one end of the spectrum, the traditional gallery is in crisis; on the other, artist-run initiatives and pop-up studio spaces are providing a hopeful new model for the sector. This change could be pinned to a number of factors, but none more significant than Western Australia’s backbone: natural resources. It seems any discussion about the Perth art community inevitably involves the mining industry, especially in recent times.
The resource boom that started in the early 2000s has slowly caused inflation to bump up gallery rental costs, as well as creating a new generation of cashed-up miners who have stopped buying art in favour of holiday houses and speedboats (or both). Last year three of Perth’s most respected fine art galleries closed shop, another took a sabbatical and several more slipped under the radar. Each cited hiking utility prices and lack of public interest as the main causes. So is the mining boom to blame?
Possibly, but it isn’t entirely at fault. Changes to regulations on self-managed superannuation funds have also acted as a deterrent to art collectors. Forcing artwork into storage, and causing a huge gap in cultural investment, this new legislation is adding pressure to Perth’s creative predicament. There’s also a decline in institutional buying, the effect of the Euro crisis and ripples from the GFC to contend with.
Despite all these national and global influences, the resource boom in Western Australia is widely accepted as the main culprit, perhaps because it is the most local quandary. But while mining hasn’t always paid dividends for traditional art galleries in recent years, that’s not to say it has killed the industry entirely. When Galerie Dusseldorf, Gallery East, Perth Galleries and other spaces closed down we certainly had no reason to celebrate, but a silver lining has materialised amongst all this doom and gloom.
Artist-run initiatives have popped up all over the city, from North Perth garages to empty West Perth shopfronts. These gallery models have existed for as long as commercially-run spaces in the creative landscape, but they are currently flourishing at an unprecedented rate on our reputed culturally-lacking west coast. As in other cities, such exciting projects are often group-run, and tend to find derelict spaces to fit out on the cheap, taking advantage of empty structures and councils willing to fill them with something/anything.
William Street, which snakes out of the Perth CBD into the creative hub of Northbridge, has almost turned into one long studio space with the likes of Paper Mountain, Kurb Gallery and many others. Further into the skyscraper-lined streets of central Perth, hides Moana Project Space in a once-abandoned chamber which received accolades for its architectural genius when it was first built in 1907. Now run by two local artists fresh out of art school, it boasts an office space for 25 creative professionals, a gallery and a bustling café. Just up the road is the not-for-profit Free Range Gallery, which is managed by a volunteer group of artists and arts administrators who are focused on operating as an independent gallery.
It’s not just spaces and studios multiplying in Perth, but also larger scale schemes. The Perth Cultural Centre has had a facelift and these days is a hub of excitement and market days. The Fringe World Festival, first started in 2012, has quickly become an annual highlight. On top of all this Perth people have seemingly stopped believing they need to go east for their creative pursuits. The most optimistic of us west coast art lovers and makers have realised this is a good time for the arts in Perth.
That said, even with the new shift, there are still flaws to be ironed out. There are a lot of big egos in this small pond, renting a space is still met with exorbitant rental prices and it’s not the easiest place in the world to actually sell art. (Western Australian artists tend to live up to the starving artist clichés - have you seen how much a coffee costs here?) It also goes without saying: a lot of these new spaces are temporary, and several have come and gone. Moreover, those maintaining a belief in the traditional gallery model tend to stick up their noses at the younger scene and its flightiness, sometimes rightly so.
Nonetheless, the best way forward is to embrace the changing mindset. Because with it comes a cheerful feeling that art in Perth is becoming something for everyone. There are at least two decent gallery openings every Friday night for the rest of this year, and most of them don’t even require nice shoes to attend. Art is no longer exhibited in the same way in Perth. Maybe we can blame the mining boom for that. Or maybe we can thank it.
Karys McEwen lives on the sunny west coast. She is currently completing a Master of Information and Library Studies, and works as a gallery girl and freelance writer. Her work has been published in No Cigar, Arty, Lionheart and Filmme Fatales, and she is a regular contributor to NYC-based digital publisher Portable and local online magazine SixThousand.