DOGGETT STREET STUDIO: AN OVERVIEW by Lynne Seear
DOGGETT STREET STUDIO: AN OVERVIEW
“Of course, many of those artists at present exhibiting in artist-run spaces aspire to commercial or public gallery exposure, but it is not just a simple matter of hierarchies and importance. Artist-run spaces are not training grounds or stepping stones. Established artists often take advantage of the artistic freedoms and challenges they can offer. Indeed, some of the best art being made in Australia today, (in some of the most exciting spaces) will never be accessible to those who take too seriously the self-promotion of the large institutions.”
- Richard Holt, “The third estate”, Art Monthly Australia, September 1995, p12.
This exhibition catalogue celebrates and surveys the first one hundred shows held at the Doggett Street Studio. The artists represented here have been selected from the more than one hundred and forty practitioners who have used the Doggett Street exhibition spaces, in solo or combined exhibitions, since October 1993. Several of them belong to a group which has intermittently studied, worked, lived and exhibited together since the late eighties. An assessment of the enterprise at Doggett Street Studio must take into account that earlier collectivist spirit based in friendships and shared goals, from which the space and its operating principles evolved.
Catalogue essays have not, to this point, been a feature of Doggett Street Studio activities. The system of documentation if streamlined and unflinchingly professional - exhibition notices, lists of works, the occasional CV and artist’s statement. This is not to suggest that the artists involved here are reluctant to speak of their work, or are indifferent to its formal appraisal. Rather, the economic demands and fast turnover of a packed exhibition calendar have so far left little scope for the production of text or commentary. In recognition of this lack, Allyson Reynolds and Scott Whitaker have embarked on a sensible and ambitious project to record and distribute a Doggett Street literary ‘package’: an exhibition history, a range of vital statistics, and a specially commissioned, but hopefully preliminary, critical evaluation.
I have to confess to some consternation at the scantiness of the critical notice the Doggett Street program has received. The exhibitions are popular, openings well attended, and yet rarely reviewed or authoritatively scrutinized. This is a puzzling omission, and given the intensity of the connection between art world visibility and critical patronage, one that warrants investigation.
It has become something of a commonplace to approach artist-run endeavors as spaces, which both of necessity and choice, exist outside a formally constituted system. The reality of course has grown far more complex. Certainly artists who choose to operate within self-managed initiatives do so in environments which appear to be relatively free of complicity and influence. Yet most of these artists also aspire to mainstream careers and to the building of professional reputations. These factors depend on the watchfulness of the network - curators, critics, dealers, educators, prize givers and policy makers. Many of the artists who utilize the Doggett Street Studio have successfully captured aspects of that attention. Some have won major awards (i); several have works in important public and private collections; others have embarked upon challenging post-graduate studies and/or attracted the interest of influential local and interstate dealers (ii). So what’s happened to the accompanying dialogue, the published accounts, the obligatory, historicising surveillance? Well, it hasn’t always been missing.
A number of the artists featured in this milestone exhibition have been involved in an informal support group which has encouraged continuing interaction since art college. I first started hearing about them in 1989, when a colleague of mine at the University of Queensland, Kate Ravenswood, was seconded to the Queensland University of Technology to teach a brief but galvanizing course on post-WW2 art to a class of undergraduates. It was an intense experience for everyone, and Kate has since kept a weather eye on the professional progress of this group, confirming her endorsement of their precocious talent when she curated Potential Space in 1992 (iii). This exhibition grew out of The Butterfactory Studio and Contemporary Art Space, established by a nucleus of young practitioners, led by Scott Whitaker as Honorary Director.
Located on the outskirts of Brisbane at Dayboro, this venture was received in the spirit of approval which seems to be automatically conferred on artist-run initiatives in Brisbane, as long as they are characterized by something called ‘political energy’. The evocative, funky environment of the old dairy factory certainly qualified. Given that art is almost never viewed without the context of its physical display impinging in some way, the perceived ‘alternative’ status of place and space in Dayboro set up a range of expectations which were unavoidable, and ultimately difficult to fulfil. Nevertheless the Butterfactory initiative was accorded both fanfare and respect.
“This process of artistic self-determination, when coupled with the flexible administrative structures so characteristic of these spaces, sees them posited within the axis of much fluctuating art practice. art-spaces such as the Butterfactory are a repository of contemporary art activity and for the dissemination of information about that activity.”
- Kate Ravenswood, “Curatorial Premise”, Potential Space: The Butterfactory Touring Initiative, 1992.
The old centre/periphery model was too appealing to resist, but in this case functioned as a creative inversion. The Butterfactory artists were profiled as young iconoclasts on the outskirts, defying attempts at categorization, stridently anti-commercial, intent on self-help.
Things have changed. Scott Whitaker and Allyson Reynolds made professional and personal decisions to move back to the centre. Others followed. The goodwill extended towards their efforts in Dayboro is still apparent yet the ongoing activities at Doggett Street seem beset by a few worrying perceptions, some specific, others more global. There is for instance a tendency (already) to historically discredit the conservative nineties, to track a “levelling off” of the “energy and vigour” which enlivened the art scene in the mid to late eighties (iv). Other analysts speak with concern of the inevitable shift from a cultural view of arts practice, to an industrial one, in which the concomitant opportunities to critique the system which advocates and prescribes ‘professional’ practice are becoming more limited.
Doggett Street operates in a crucible which is tested by these concerns. Totally and willingly unsupported by the drip feed of public funding, the space and its activities are driven by commercial as well as aesthetic imperatives. Though the work is undoubtedly the first consideration, Doggett Street Studio is in effect, a small business, offering a range of professional services and facilities to artists including, most significantly, affordable exhibition space (a compelling alternative to doing the rounds fo dealers with folio underarm). Prospective exhibitors are still elected according to the quality of the work presented, even though Reynolds and Whitaker frankly admit that the fiscal demands of an exhibition schedule which provides for a changeover every three or so weeks have not allowed for entirely robust selection processes up to now. Nonetheless the shows have been of a consistently high quality and have been across a much wider range of media than normally assumed, given that those assumptions seem to be based on the overwhelmingly ‘painterly’ practices of the group of artists regarded as the Doggett Street ‘core’. These artists like paint, they