Team finds success in basement

The West Australian

You enter down an escalator to a basement world without natural light. At the base of the escalator, a lamp illuminates a desk and its attendant. As your eyes adjust to the darkness, it’s clear this is indeed a wonderland of contemporary video works everywhere you look.

Two smaller galleries and a performance space on the periphery of the main gallery, offer an invitation to explore further.

This is Success, a moniker given to the space as a tongue-in-cheek dig at the failed department store whose building it inhabits.

The dark, vast and cavernous basement in the old Myer building in Fremantle is the newest space on the visual arts block. Coming in at a whopping 2800sqm overall — up there with the Art Gallery of WA’s 3915sqm and big enough to fit more than a few, average-sized Perth houses — the artist-run initiative sets new precedents in WA, both in size and in its cutting-edge program.

The masterminds behind Success is the team behind the comparatively tiny 24sqm Moana Project Space, which opened in 2012 in the Hay Street Mall in Perth. 

Artistic director Dale Buckley and program manager Guy Louden say they’ve had an open invitation to use the basement for the past couple of years, but there were no grants in place to fund capital works.

The pair gained funding from the Department of Culture and the Arts after the launch of a grant for new projects last March. The City of Fremantle has also made a contribution to the project.

Buckley says transforming the basement, not open to the public since the late 1990s, was a massive undertaking.

“There were 12 cubic metres of carpet to move out, along with old retail displays,” he says. “Other bizarre artefacts from its past life included wheelchairs with beer cans strapped to them. There was also a hospital bed. Someone had started to set up a bar, but never completed it. Everything was just abandoned.”

Neither Buckley nor Louden has drawn a salary from their curatorial roles for the last three-plus years. Louden says it’s a sacrifice they make to present the best works they can find, in the best way possible and to build their experience.

“Money isn’t a prevailing concern in what we do,” Buckley says. “Performance indicators for us are purely curatorial outcomes.”

And, turning the commercial art gallery model on its head, there is no fee to exhibit, but rather artists are paid. Buckley was tight-lipped about exactly how much, saying it depended on many things, such as the cost of installing work, freight and flights — all negotiated with the artist before their exhibition.

“It’s fairly unprecedented at the moment, but we’ve always endeavoured to treat practitioners with respect. Whenever Moana has been the recipient of funding, around 85 per cent has gone directly to paying artists and the rest to freight and flights. Attached to the one-off grants from DCA and City of Fremantle are funds for this, and there are other funding opportunities for which we can apply.”

He says there’s a rigorous process involving critical discussion within the team to select exhibitions, which are currently locked in for the foreseeable future. “It’s never a case of saying to an artist ‘here’s an empty space — do what you will.’”

An expanded team of eight others — Lyndon Blue, Dan McCabe, Jack Wansbrough, Emma Buswell, Guillermo Kramer, Hannah Powell, Sophie Weedon and Evana Tanner — are all volunteers and artists, like Buckley and Louden.

They manage different aspects of the project with the perk being studio space for them — if they ever have time to use it. Buckley says the scale of the space makes every small task enormous. “It takes eight hours to sweep it — but we found an old industrial vacuum cleaner here, which makes it much easier,” he says.

The first major show at Success is No Confidence, featuring contemporary video art, and is part of the Perth International Arts Festival program. In it, video artists explore the current status of democracy. This ranges from film showing an empty parliament in Greece in 2012 while crisis raged outside, to video both staged and documented showing US politicians grooming proteges in the strange art of political ascension, including how to hold eye contact, lie and feign regret.

Louden says shows planned in the future will continue to relate to contemporary culture. “With No Confidence we wanted to connect with the current political zeitgeist and what people are thinking about politics and our mission statement is to curate shows which create discourse.”

Music and performance events at Success will be sympathetic to the exhibitions curated either in-house or by guest curators to further early-career artists, or by Buckley and Louden who will focus on bringing works by national and international artists to WA.

The redevelopment of the building is certain beyond 2017. Buckley says with that in mind they intend it to be a short-lived project. “It’s an opportunity for us to put on shows on a scale only available to institutions, but to do it as independent curators, with none of the responsibilities and obligations institutions have to meet.”

Louden says just getting to this stage of the project has been exhilarating. “When I look down there, I think ‘did we actually do that?’ It’s been very exciting.”

No Confidence is on show until April 10 at Success, 2 Newman Court, Fremantle.