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A Brief History of Artist-Run Spaces in Aotearoa

Sadly, illness prevented Emma Bugden from introducing a panel discussion on New Zealand artist-run spaces at this month’s Tuatara Open Late. We publish her text here.

Artists have always worked together to create spaces to show their work and to make work together as collectives. The Group, Christchurch, a loose grouping of modernist artists, which ran from 1927 to 1977, created gallery spaces to show their own work. There are also many histories of maker groups coming together to produce. But artist-run spaces are a particular construct that first emerged in the 1960s and 1970s in the US and Canada. 

People like to bicker over what was the first artist-run space, but one of the first was established by a familiar name to New Zealanders. Billy Apple set up his space Apple in 1969 at 161 W23 Street, New York, and ran it for four years ‘to provide independent and experimental alternative space for the presentation of my own work and the work of others’. Some people argue that 112 Greene Street, opening in New York in 1970, represented the first true artist-run space. More and more spaces started to sprout up, in New York and across the US, Canada, then through Europe and Asia. They were connected in their desire to give room for new ideas, but also developed regional differences that reflected their particular political and social contexts. 

Despite Apple’s New Zealand connection, when Frank Stark rented a space in Federal Street, downtown Auckland, in 1979, and opened a gallery he called 100m2—a literal description of its scale—he had no idea that there might have been a history of New Zealanders running alternative galleries. (Frank recalls that Billy liked the building so much he tried to snaffle it off him, to no avail.) At that time Auckland had only a handful of dealer galleries and the Auckland Art Gallery, and, while 100m2 didn’t describe itself as an artist-run space, it was established to ‘enable Elam students and research graduates to break into the Auckland art scene’.  

In 1980, the Women’s Gallery opened in Wellington. Run by a collective of artists, who showed their own work and the work of their peers, it looked on paper like an artist-run space, but, again, didn’t describe itself that way, probably because it was positioning itself away from the male-dominated gatekeeping of the art world.  

There were other gallery spaces in the 1980s that weren’t dealer galleries or public institutions—Closet Space, Cupboard Space (sensing a theme here)—but the first to call itself an artist-run space was Teststrip, which opened in 1992 in a warehouse in Vulcan Lane in downtown Auckland. Its eight founding members were frustrated at the lack of opportunities to show their own work. The original space was half gallery, half Daniel Malone’s bedroom, with a curtain dividing the two. Teststrip had swagger and style. It did fashion shoots, it was audacious. It banned people from attending its shows, such as Herald reviewer T.J. McNamara. It was suggested other art-world luminaries should be banned, including another familiar name, Robert Leonard.   

Another artist-run space opened almost simultaneously in Christchurch, High Street Project, and ran for many years. High Street Project was more democratic and inclusive than Teststrip, less self aggrandising and performative, and, perhaps because of that, played an important regional role, but burned a less visible mark on the national art scene.

At the end of 1996, beginning of 1997, three artist-run spaces opened almost simultaneously around the country, and in doing so, created a shift in thinking for emerging artists. All of a sudden there was a network of exhibiting spaces artists could move between.

The first was Fiat Lux. If Teststrip was cool, Fiat Lux was cooler. No white walls and restrained dealer-gallery typography for these guys, instead they honed a unique style somewhere between kitsch and bogan with blue walls and racy invites. Fiat Lux was edgy, exclusive, and gave a generation of new artists a spotlight. It was co-founded and co-run by City Gallery’s own Megan Dunn.

Rm3 opened in an office above Real Groovy Records in K Road, in a space too small for whoever was manning the gallery to sit inside, instead they had to wait in the corridor. The space was described by co-founder Joyoti Wylie as ‘perfect, because it had horrible carpet and a big glass window that looked down onto Real Groovy. It was so simple you felt that people could do lots of really different things in it.’ Real Groovy eventually expanded and Rm3 had to leave. They became Rm 212, then rm 401, and then rm 103, and then eventually just RM, which it has remained. It is now New Zealand’s longest running artist-run space.  

The Honeymoon Suite opened simultaneously in Dunedin, set up by three students from the art school at Otago Polytechnic, including myself. Located in a grungy space above the Prostitutes Collective and the Needle Exchange, the name was a wild fit of optimism, after rejecting our art school’s recommendation to work quietly in the studio for ten years until a curator discovered us. The Honeymoon Suite ran for two years before we gave it all up to get real jobs—two years being, I later realised, the average lifespan for an artist-run space in New Zealand.

Spaces began to emerge for brief flurries of activity rather than as formal galleries with regular programmes. CASKO was run by artist David Hatcher in his house, which wasn’t actually a house but a windowless chiller in downtown Christchurch. Each show ran for three fleeting days only, for a two-month period in 1998, but, despite the obscure location and difficult access, the shows were sponsored by Absolut Vodka.  

After the Honeymoon Suite closed in Dunedin, it was swiftly followed by the Blue Oyster Gallery, named after the Blue Oyster Gay Biker Bar featured in the movie Police Academy. Unlike the Honeymoon Suite, the Blue Oyster was set up to stick around, with a board of trustees and a paid administrator.  

And, in 2000, Wellington’s Enjoy opened in Cuba Street, set up by two artists, Ciaran Begley and Ros Cameron, and Ciaran’s partner Rachel Smithies, a policy analyst for MSD. Enjoy was named after a Coke campaign and bottles of Coke featured heavily in their launch. The first exhibition featured Ros and Ciaran removing the gallery windows, a metaphor for what they hoped to do to the rather stale Wellington art scene—let some fresh air in.  

Another space to follow in Wellington was Show, run by artists Jenny Gillam and Eugene Hansen in a warehouse in Kniggs Ave that was also their house and studio. Show was unusual in that it wasn’t aimed at emerging artists, but gave more established artists a space to experiment and play.

By now, artist-run spaces weren’t a novelty but a thing, and they were popping up around the country, too many to describe. When Gambia Castle opened in 2007, they were notable because many of its collective had been involved in other artist-run spaces—Teststrip, Special, Black Cube, Enjoy. So they were both more relaxed and bolder, describing themselves as both an artist-run space and a dealer gallery that sold work. Now artist-run spaces were no longer just rejecting the commercial art world, they were also attempting to beat them at their own game.  

Spaces began to open, like Newcall in Auckland, that offered artist studios alongside a gallery; an effective model where studio rental could subsidise exhibition making. In 2014, eight new artist-run spaces opened in a single year: PILOT and Casbah Gallery in Hamilton; Elbow Room in Wellington; North Projects in Christchurch; and LOFT JervoisF U Z Z Y V I B E S, Whau the People, and Rockies in Auckland. Artists-run spaces had become another art infrastructure, like art schools, dealer galleries, and public galleries.  

Hana Pera Aoke and Callum Devlin’s ‘An Almost Complete List of ARIs in Aotearoa’ acknowledges that the histories of artist-run spaces are often fleeting, unrecorded, and elusive. For every space that sticks around for years, like RM and Enjoy, there’s a dozen that emerge for a specific community at a specific time, then fold. The strength of an artist-run space is not whether it sticks around, but whether it activates and fills a gap, for a week or a month or a year.  

—Emma Bugden

Emma Budgen was a founder of two ARIs, Christchurch’s Black Cube and Dunedin’s The Honeymoon Suite. She directed Christchurch’s Physics Room and Auckland’s Artspace, and held curatorial posts at City Gallery Wellington, Pakuranga’s Te Tuhi, and Lower Hutt’s Dowse Art Museum. At City Gallery, she curated Prospect (2004) and Small World, Big Town (2005). She has just completed a PhD on artist-run galleries. She is based in Whanganui, where she runs the imprint Small Bore Books.