Art, Culture //

Collectivised art in the contemporary Inner-West

In conversation with Redfern’s art-space Duckrabbit — How can young artists afford to be artists, and what types of collective spaces make it possible?

Art by Amelia Koen

To anyone who has ever tumbled down the streets of Sydney’s Inner West, it is no secret that art and its galleries are dappled throughout. Communal spaces for artists to work, interact, and exhibit are the cornerstone of many artists’ early careers. Teeming within repurposed garages, warehouses, and terraces-turned-galleries — art of the community, and by the community, is an oft-overlooked lifeblood.

“I have always believed that artists get better results if they work collectively,” founding member of Sydney’s Yellow House Artists Collective, George Gittoes, told Honi. 

Residing in Potts Point, Yellow House Artists Collective (YH) was one of the city’s first and most influential artist collectives of the 1970s. Gittoes and his wife Hellen Rose — who started the equally seminal Gunnery Collective in Woolloomooloo — told Honi that they have “both worked with teams of artists all our life and do not support [the] approach of lone artists working in isolation.” 

Where the networks and ideas of solo artists are given the space to bleed onto one another, communal art-spaces continue to be collaboratively beneficial for their material and social outcomes. 

Though, obtaining a space large enough for multiple artists to practice and exhibit is an obstacle in itself. According to George, “YH was psychedelic era and we paid the rent — the Gunnery was Punk era and it was a squat in a building that formerly belonged to the Navy.” 

In today’s context, where rent is extortionate and squatting is less socially acceptable and feasible, artists face the challenge of affordability and accessibility. According to Domain, across the June 2022 quarter alone the rental price of a house in Sydney jumped by 3.3% ($620pw) and units by 5% ($525pw), setting a record for the steepest annual increase in 14 years at 11.7%. . During this current quarter, Newtown is sitting at $750pw on average for a house, Chippendale at $788pw, Marrickville at $778, and Enmore at $790, to list only a few. 

According to one source, the approximate average annual salary of an artist at the beginning of their career can be as low as $20,000; clearly, the numbers don’t stack up. How can new artists afford to be artists, and what types of collective gallery-spaces make it possible? 

To better understand the landscape in which artist-run-initiatives (ARIs) and not-for-profit (NFP) galleries are able to operate, I spoke to Redfern’s own garage-gallery Duckrabbit about their history, philosophy, and the largest obstacles in the contemporary art landscape. 

Duckrabbit / @duckrabbitart 
138 Little Eveleigh Street, Redfern

Located along the Redfern-run, Duckrabbit has been a USyd local for years. The converted garage space was established by Hugh Ramage in 2015 as an artist-run-initiative (ARI), though it has been a workshop space leased by Ramage for 15 years. Having established several other ARI spaces in the Inner-West over his career — including ‘Cog’ on Pitt Street in 1987,  studios in Chippendale’s ‘Chocolate Factory’ warehouse from 1992-1995, and studios in a former rag factory in Redfern since 1995 — Hugh utilises Duckrabbit as a space for artists at all stages of their careers to exhibit their work, no questions asked. 

I was fortunate enough to speak with Duckrabbit Exhibition Coordinator, Katerina Penko, to discuss the origins of Duckrabbit and its development over time as one of the only not-for-profit galleries in the area.  

FOUNDING 

Eager to better understand the genesis of Duckrabbit, I asked Katerina about the arts culture it was launched from, and how the space came to be established within the Redfern community. 

[Duckrabbit is] a part of that whole generation of artists who found warehouse spaces, moved in, set them up with little kitchenettes, rewired them, did a bit of plumbing and put up giant silks-screen printing tables and set up studios,” she told me.  

“Generally artists need to share the space with other people. When Hugh set up Cog, he lived there on the mezzanine and then he divided it up into four spaces. For example, he had the artist Richard Allan who created graphics for Mambo. That led him to establish the gallery as an artist-run space to show people’s work.” 

Notably, Katerina explained that Hugh views Duckrabbit as an extension of his own art practice:   “Living as a full-time artist and experiencing those challenges means he’s sympathetic to artists simply wanting to show their work to an audience — especially emerging artists who have little experience of how the art world operates.” 

“It’s very dynamic. It’s created opportunities for artists who wouldn’t have had those opportunities otherwise. It meant also that there’s been a lot of discourse, cross-fertilisation and connection with artists working in different genres,” she said. 

NO QUESTIONS ASKED 

One unexpected aspect of organising an artist-run exhibition space is that Hugh doesn’t request any exhibition proposal from artists wanting to show their work. Out of its 90 exhibitions, Duckrabbit has never asked to see artists’ works before their display, nor does Hugh determine if the works are appropriate. 

“Hugh does not vet an artist’s work when they enquire about showing with us… He just says yes and books them a week. The artist has complete creative control over how their work is presented and what constitutes their art practice,” said Katerina. 

HOW DO NFP/ARIs RUN? 

I ask Katerina how the role of Duckrabbit functions within the Inner-West and Redfern community of artists, hoping to unearth how such an active, vibrant NFP art-space manages to stay afloat. 

“To be clear, Duckrabbit is artist-run and not-for-profit but the artist exhibiting covers our rent for the week and other associated outgoings. We have received no grants for the opportunities we’ve provided to over 100 artists across 7 years of exhibiting. 

“We have a (not for sale) mailing list of over 2500 people that we invite to each artist’s show and our Insta/FB generates additional interest. We’ve so far managed to avoid the cost of setting up a website and other overheads normally associated with a commercial gallery,” she said.

Beyond practical operations, Katerina also explains that Duckrabbit provides a non-commercial space wherein Hugh’s leadership is openly provided to exhibiting artists; there are no managers or dealers.  

“The traditional format is to go through a dealer, and that involves either having to promote yourself to someone and there’s a lot more artists than there are dealers and galleries,” Katerina detailed..

“The bottom line is that dealers take anywhere from, back then it was 30%, now it’s between 40-60% commission on the sale of work. 

“[Duckrabbit is an] opportunity for artists to show their work, it’s not always for the purpose of sale but you sell your work to pay the rent, to buy more materials and so on.” 

Reflecting on one of their youngest exhibiting artists, Katerina recounted his first solo show: “He turned 17 on the night of his opening. We had a birthday cake and we all sang happy birthday…The works were only $30 to $50 but he had a sell-out show and made about $3000.” 

Such anecdotes illuminate the supportive, community-minded nature of Duckrabbit, while also highlighting that artists, even at the earliest stages of their career, can have a successful show given the space and support.  

Interestingly, one of the main pitfalls of becoming an established artist that works through a dealer, rather than with a not-for-profit, can be the “pigeonholing” of one’s work according to Katerina, “whether it’s abstract art, figurative or landscape.”

“There is an expectation that if you become known for beautiful giant flower paintings, that the market then wants that kind of work from you — and so the artist can be compromised in a way because the dealer obviously wants to sell [in-demand artworks].” 

I get the distinct sense that this is the exact opposite of Hugh’s intentions for Duckrabbit, whose own artistic aesthetics range vastly. The art-space enables artists to explore their individual aesthetic without the restriction of market demand. 

Echoing Katerina’s sentiments about the economically unsustainable nature of commission taken by dealers and galleries, the director/curator of St. Peters NFP ‘Tortuga’, H Morgan-Harris explained that: “In a shared, artist-run space such as Tortuga, the hire rates are low, commission is minimal, and because of the highly collaborative community we exist within, there is an established crowd of buyers.”

“Our community is highly organised, mobile and adaptable, and it operates without the restrictions of local government organisation,” said Morgan-Harris. 

OBSTACLES + FINANCE 

“Rentable, affordable space is the biggest obstacle in an ever-diminishing, inner-city, developing environment,” said Katerina, reaffirming the pains of staying afloat for small, independent galleries in the modern art landscape. 

In an interview for a 2018 infrastructure analysis by WSU, Hugh expressed that the only reason Duckrabbit has been able to survive is precisely because it is a NFP organisation. The paper notes that the $30,000 annual rent of the space is “well below market value” because the landlord (the Esperanto Society) chose not to raise the rent. 

According to Domain, the current average weekly rent for a house in Redfern is $850 — meaning that Duckrabbit is saving at least $14,200 per year due to its uniquely affordable tenancy. Though fantastic for the artists and community it serves, this is not a financial luxury afforded to all ARI spaces in Sydney. 

Hugh also acknowledges that “he would not be able to afford a similar space in the area, and it would mean moving out of the city into a regional centre.” 

Similarly, Morgan-Harris told Honi that affordable space is an often insurmountable challenge for aspiring ARIs. 

“We need production space (IN1 industrial zoning), 24/7 access, hoists, high ceilings etc. Old warehouse stock is ideal, but we are increasingly losing this to gentrification and development,” said Morgan-Harris.  

“Not-for-profit communities such as ours rely on affordability to exist and run-down industrial areas offer this. As they go, so do we”.  

WHITE CUBES 

Over the course of my conversation with Duckrabbit, it becomes clear that their mode of organising is highly polarised to that of traditional and large galleries with extensive funding, who meticulously plan exhibitions years in advance. 

I asked Katerina about the importance of maintaining non-commercial spaces — like garages such as Duckrabbit — as an option for artists rather than traditional ‘white cubes’. 

“Galleries like Duckrabbit provide unbiased access to all, whether as exhibitors or viewers,” she said. “An important aspect of Duckrabbit’s role is to demystify the experience for an artist who is putting on a show. For the general public we aim to provide accessibility — removing intrepidation for the viewer and providing a non-intimidating environment for them to simply walk in, engage with the work and the maker of the work.” 

“We also see it as enormously educative in that the artist ‘event-manages’ their show for the week — hanging it, promoting it, engaging with viewers/collectors. This all comes under Hugh’s mentorship. He has had more than 25 solo shows so he advises and guides artists to ensure a successful outcome. We support trans-generational artists — the youngest was 17, our most senior 85, and artists from diverse ethnic and gender backgrounds.” 

Morgan-Harris also noted that institutional ‘white cube’ galleries are frequently not the correct fit for many artists, unlike the “grassroots perspective” offered by Tortuga.  

“The great majority of our artists would be unlikely to find representation in a white walled space, not because they are not incredibly talented, but because the gallery/exhibition environment in Sydney generally caters towards artists who already have a public profile or following.”

Beyond creating a welcoming space for both new artists and viewers, Katerina explains that the physical space of galleries like Duckrabbit is equally as important. She points to the versatility of the space: it can be constructed to have intimate corners or vast open space, depending on the artists’ personal practice. 

From an architectural point of view, “it’s the roller door which is really critical to [Duckrabbit]; people look in, and feel really comfortable walking into that space.” 

“We’ve all gone into a gallery where it’s glass-frontage and sometimes you even have to buzz the doorbell, someone’s got to let you in. That is very off-putting, it doesn’t nurture a relationship between the viewer and the art,” Katerina said, explaining that the rolling garage door remains wide-open whenever a show is on to create ideological, social accessibility to the space. 

GOING FORWARD

Clearly, spaces like Tourtuga and Duckrabbit are pillars of the Inner-West art community. Without them, many artists would’ve had no space or support to put on their first solo show, nor the opportunity to learn from someone as established as Hugh and his team. 

Now, perhaps even more so than in the era of the Yellow House, or Hugh’s 1987 art-space Cog, artists rely on not-for-profit, collectivised spaces such as these in order to get their start. 
The seemingly rapid art-extinction unfolding throughout our city due to extortionate rent, inaccessible art-environments, and intellectual exclusivity might just be surmountable through more gallery formats like Duckrabbit and Tourtuga. So, next time you’re on your way to USyd or Redfern Station, stop by the roller door and stick your head in — you never know what you’ll find @duckrabbitart.