Artist Run Spaces 1985 to 2010

Artist Run Spaces 1985 to 2010

Talk by Rosalind Lawson at the Art Gallery of Ballarat 2010. A series of images were shown as the talk progressed.


This talk concentrates on the many galleries, performance spaces and public venues that were established by artists and others in Ballarat from 1985 to 2010, in order to provide an alternative system to the commercial and establishment galleries of the time.

Alternative Spaces, Artist Run Spaces, Artist Run Initiatives, Artist Cooperatives are all terms we could use. The ones I am considering were and are run by groups of dedicated, entrepreneurial and often idealistic people, as not-for-profit concerns. All wished to support the careers of artists, often very young ones, and provide the opportunity to exhibit work that was new and challenging. This talk acknowledges the support given by the Ballarat City Council through the Community Arts Officers in the form of grants, administration and their expertise.

In Melbourne The United Artists Group started up in July 1982. Its aim was to operate independently of the prevailing gallery system. This was in a space behind Tolarno restaurant. It lasted one year. Artists like Mike Brown, Ivan Durrant, David Larwill were involved.

Also around that time Roar opened at 115A Brunswick Street. Sarah Faulkner was one of the founding members who worked in the Roar expressive style that was so heralded. Their objectives give us an understanding of the way that art practices, ideals and understandings had changed. Their objectives included placing an emphasis on young untried artists, providing them with an opportunity to control their own careers, encouraging feminist artists and a multiracial membership. The Gallery provided artist education, but this was only to comply with a council by-law so Roar could be open on Sundays. (Traudi Allen)

Along with these political and social changes had come a change in art forms and experiences. Performance art and installation art meant that new venues had to be found and these highly uncommercial and often site-specific ventures were not for the private galleries.

The rebellious and experimental mood of the time revolutionized the way art was to be made and experienced. For those who had gone through art school in the 70’s generally had not studied professional practices as is done now. In fact at RMIT any wish to exhibit work at an under graduate level was severely discouraged and the teaching about the convention of displaying art works was completely ignored. I consider this untutored state was part of the freedom.

I exhibited at Roar in 1995 with 2 friends and we paid $915 rent.

1985 The Ballarat Contemporary Arts Group established a gallery at 30A Armstrong Street. Brenda Taylor, Jack Coman, Geoff Bonney, Kim Williams organized their first meeting at the “green hotel” which was the Golden City. I had just returned to Ballarat (I was 3 when my family moved to Melbourne) and was delighted to meet up with like-minded people. At that meeting a group of newly graduated artists from the then Ballarat College of Advanced Education, plus others, agreed to set up a cooperative gallery and this led to 30A Armstrong Street coming into existence. The building was previously the Town Hall Hotel and the upstairs space had been Maryanne Coutts studio. I remember seeing some very large wonderfully executed charcoal drawings pinned high up on the wall at the time we were moving in. Kim Williams and Jenny Hoban took up the studio space.

The first exhibition was in 1985 Sat 4pm titled FIRST EXHIBITION. It was opened by Jim Reeves and there was a performance by Graffiti Dance Theatre. The catalogue for the 2nd group included this statement:

The diversity of the work reflects the policy of the BCAG, whereby no selection process takes place and the emphasis on individual development and input is one of our basis aims.

Winter Exhibition 1985. Cold Comrades.

Summer Exhibition 3 – 16th March 1986

Winter Exhibition 1986. Between 1985 and 1987 there were many individual and group shows. Geoff Bonney and Jack Coman had a most successful exhibition and many works were sold. Tim Rollason, Sue Cowan / Sedgewick, Steve Sedgewick, Sue Quinlan, Kate Quinlan all exhibited. My exhibition was in 1985 and I paid $120 for 3 weeks.

There were many other exciting events. At the poets night organized by Sheridan Palmer – Eric Beech, Tom ? and Kominos all read and performed poetry. I organized a film night and showed the Dali film. Although the building had a wonderful mosaiced façade and was in pretty good order it was pulled down to make way for the Central Square development and the group was on the move.

1989 Arts Pool was established in the old swimming pool, which is where the Aboriginal Co-op is now. There were a couple of exhibitions there but the venue was physically not a good exhibition space.

1989 Erth – Environmentally Recycled Theatre opened a gallery in Furnival Chambers, which is now the Ansonia, 32 Lydiard Street. Guy Fairnie (Badger) and Steve Howarth were very involved in the organizing of this space. Liz Blizzard had a studio upstairs. One exhibition was called Erthquake with Linda Blake, Dean Simpson, Kate Quinlan, Garth Horsfield.


1989 Ballarat Arts Umbrella was established through the Community Arts Officers Paul Mason and Merle Hathaway who shared that position. Peter Widmer at this time was an active member of the committee.

1990 there were 2 political issues that drew artists together in an effort to save the Community Arts Officer position, and the attempt to take over the Mining Exchange and establish it as an arts venue. Passionate letters to the editor, heated and fiery meetings in the basement of Craig’s, many approaches to councillors. Artists won the fight to retain Community Arts but the Mining Exchange went to David Senior who set up the ME Antiques Centre.

1990 Peter Widmer and others set up the Funereal exhibition at the Mining Exchange to mark the sad occasion of Ballarat artists and the general public losing such a potentially exciting arts venue.

1990 Artworks> in Humffray Street was established through Ballarat Arts Umbrella. The old butchers shop was owned by John Barnes and he rented the shop for $44 pw. Rent to be paid by artists was $60 a week. Merle also negotiated a loan of $2,000 to be paid back over 3 years, from Council. Sarah Sanders, Linda Blake and Anne Roberts were all actively involved in organizing exhibitions and gallery administration.

The gallery proved to be very successful and many exhibitions were held. Jennifer Marshall curated Printworks at Artworks with Dean Bowen, Danny Moynihan, John Neeson, Rosemary Eagle, Kath Hardy and others. I exhibited with Loris Button.

Many community-minded artists are generous and positive. They often find inventive ways to fund the infrastructure. An example is when Linda Blake along with Steve Howarth designed the Begonia Festival float for the Courier. With the theme of Alice in Wonderland a large plastic head was made, painted and set into a fantasy environment. This float was extremely effective and must have taken ages to complete. As payment Linda asked the Courier to donate money to the Arts Umbrella Group and a cheque for $500 was duly sent.

Throughout this time and after, a most active and passionate art supporter was Cath Laffey. A councilor, Cath always made an effort to attend or facilitate arts events whenever possible.

Art Works lasted over two years but, in an amazing time for art ventures in Ballarat between 1990 and 1994, three more galleries opened and the competition proved too great. As well in 1990 4 Man Rural Crisis. (Art in the 90s by blokes in their 40s) was held. This terrific exhibition of the work of Ray Woollard, Graeme McGregor, Peter Widmer and Geoff Bonney was held in the Old Library building, Camp Street. Again the arts community was after this building as an arts venue but was assured that it was to be demolished and could not pursue the idea! …


This amazing time saw 97 Bridge Mall, the old East Ballarat Bank Building, open as the Ballarat Artists Gallery. Established by Judy Woodward and many others, the gallery was opened by Jack Barker. Then in …

1992 105 Bridge Mall was opened by Margaret Rich, the then Director of Ballarat Fine Art Gallery. This space was very well placed having a good front window and was a manageable size.

But plans to establish Arts Post in the Ballarat East Post Office, and then later to actually buy it, was spearheaded by Judy, but of course many other artists were included. In August 1991 this statement was made: We have secured the Property (BEPO) as a permanent home.

At this time there was an unbelievable membership of 148 people. In order to set up the building as a gallery space, members worked phenomenally hard. The committee established a café, studio space in the back rooms and a small art shop selling cheap art materials to members only. Many members spent hours in refurbishing the building, painting, sanding, fitting hanging systems,–the things you have to do. Art Bank was also set up mainly through the enormous work of Margaret Finnegan. A loan scheme was established and businesses could hire work for $2 a week or purchase work through paying a weekly amount. The committee at that time was Judy Woodward President, Jenny Parkes Vice President, Margaret Finnegan Secretary, Zaiga Svanosio Treasurer, Steve Howarth and Peter Sparkman.

A letter of support came from Sir Sydney Nolan: “There is no doubt that your gallery is the right idea and should be the way artists always managed their selling. You have obviously all worked very hard and I hope you will be an example to other cities. We hope to come to Ballarat before long to visit you. 10/5/92″

The rental scheme for Arts Post was 1.5 metres of exhibition space for 1 week for every $5 paid into the bank.

Sept 91 – Aug 93. Expenditure for the whole three galleries was $93,000.

Many exhibitions were held over the two years that Arts Post was open. There were several rooms so there was plenty of space for temporary exhibitions, ongoing rented spaces .Peter Sparkman’s fascinating Blue Light exhibition was one that was very successful.

TheLiveChessGameUnfortunately it was learnt that the Post Office building was to be sold and this galvanized the arts community into action to organize the purchase of the building. All kinds of rental systems and loans were organized. Judy mortgaged her house to raise capital. A sum of $270,000 was needed to purchase the building and although an auction was held, with thanks to Kittelty’s Auctions, the amount of $22,500 in order to be able to bid at the auction was not raised and Arts Post closed down.

1993 Merle Hathaway established The Ballarat Arts Industry Board and from this came Strategic Arts: The Live Chess Game, created by myself and Lynden Nicholls. This terrific event was in the Drill Hall, which unfortunately is now Dan Murphy’s. As well Window Gazing – Art in Shop Windows was also held at this time. Geoff Wallis having a big input into the organization of both. During the opening weekend the Federal Minister for The Arts Bob McMullin came to Ballarat, enthusiastically attending the Chess Game and visiting all the other art events in town.

The next year, again spear-headed by Geoff Wallis, Excuse Me Sculpture in the Mall was held.


1994 – 96 The Open Fire Festival, initiated by Lynden Nicholls and organized by a dedicated committee. The idea was to highlight Ballarat’s notoriously cold winter and celebrate it with visual art and spoken word performances in venues that had open fireplaces. The catalogue shows the depth and variety of art that can take place in alternative spaces.

BAIB exhibition Fat Over Lean, 105 Sturt St July 13th – 21st 1996 for the Open Fire Festival. After that Tourism took over and it became the Winter Festival.

Merle left her position as Arts Officer to take a position at Dromkeen and Zaiga Svanosio became Arts Officer. For a short while Jane Ross was also A O.

1993 Grainary Lane was another grand project; that successfully lasted for over a decade. The large bluestone building had been a grain store and offices for a pastoral firm called Everingham and Greenfield. The building has a wonderfully interesting and connected history as the floor timbers that were used to support the floor had been retrieved from a huge brewery in Main Rd that had originally been the Charles Napier Theatre, one of Ballarat’s oldest theatres which was rebuilt in 1861 after the great fire.

Grainary Lane opened with a play by Chris Dickens titled Rebellion and produced by Barnstorm Theatre Company. Peter Tullock and many others were heavily involved. When Barnstorm had their funding cut a voluntary community committee was established called Community Theatre Project Inc and their aim was to encourage the production of new theatre works. Substantial grants were given, one from the Timken Foundation to purchase tiered retractable seats and the other from Arts Victoria for the replacement of the floor – $6,000. GL was a performance venue, a place for local bands and touring ones like Cat Empire, poetry events, plays and two exhibition spaces. The moody front bar provided a meeting place for many and at times for great music. It seems the final event was a local band named 23rd of Elvis Jan 2007.

2010 Arthur Gallery. Arthur is a not-for-profit artist-run space, organised by a voluntary committee. Emma Barrance has her own business practice that runs alongside the Arthur Gallery, but she is the Creative Director of Arthur. At 35 Mair St there are 2 designated spaces. The Arthur Gallery aims to provide a showcase for the artistically talented from Ballarat and region.

2010 Space 22 was established. The committee of Deb Hill, Claire Blake John O’Loughlin , Geoff Wallis, Cinda Stevens, myself set out to exhibit the best of local and regional art. Unfortunately after 18 months of exciting exhibitions the space was no longer available and Space 22 had to close.

The art world has changed so much since 1985. History shows us that ARIs generally last for 2 to 3 years. This cycle does not detract from the great opportunities that they have and will offer in establishing and supporting artist’s careers, allowing others to practice and hone their administration and curatorial skills and to involve, interest and inform local communities. There are now a myriad of commercial galleries in Melbourne operating along different business practices but few artist-run-initiatives are still in existence.

Rosalind Lawson