No Ordinary Gallery
It’s a gallery with white walls, concrete floors and well dressed staff in an inner-city location Upstairs is a hive of artists, busy creating sculptures, paintings and all manner of artworks. The only slight difference is that all the artists have an intellectual disability.
Arts Project Australia was created in 1974 by Myra Hilgendorf OAM and Cheryl Daye. Hilgendorf had a daughter, a talented artist with an intellectual disability. She set out to collect artworks from other artists with disabilities and held exhibitions for them around Victoria. Soon after, Cheryl Daye engineered a program with the government’s help, to nurture artists like those seen at the exhibitions and Hilgendorf's daughter in a more professional and work-like environment that would give the artists a better sense of value and purpose by creating a studio-cum gallery.
Today, there are over 130 practising artists working at the Northcote studio on a rotating basis. When I visited the large, sunlight studio I was overwhelmed with the creative industriousness in the air. There would have been 30 plus artists buzzing about creating, researching in the library, designing and chatting amongst themselves about their projects.
This is not a casual, drop-in centre for creative people but a business that is clearly supporting and mentoring artists with an intellectual disability how to refine their craft mentally and physically. There are trained art practitioners in the studio, on hand to assist the artists in all areas as well as facilities for painting, drawing, digital art, painting, ceramics and sculpture and in-house framing/exhibition displays to round it off. Acclaimed artists like Ricky Swallow have visited and sat for portraits there on occasion-this is a serious business.
The side of Arts Project that impresses me most are the people running it. Currently, they are holding a Fundraising dinner ‘Dining with Art’, with the likes of Moira Finucane, Mama Alto and Clare St Clare performing with Brian Nankervis providing entertainment for 60 VIP guests. Together with governmental and private support, Arts Project are able to attend and present at international seminars and conferences such as the European Outsider Art Conference in the UK, hold exhibitions every 5 weeks, employ staff to run the bursting-at-the-seams stockroom (open to the public to purchase), occupy space at the Melbourne Art fair, Spring1883 as well as have one of their artists work’s emblazoned on a Melbourne tram. The team can arrange commissions as well as art leasing and gallery hire. They also have an online shop and accommodate people wishing to see more of a certain artist’s work, by appointment. It’s no surprise they say that they “go above and beyond what a ‘normal’ gallery do”. And it shows.
Most importantly, the staff, like Myra, are there primarily for the artists. They invest more than just the logistical effort required to run a gallery. They know all of them intimately and in some cases, encourage the artists to help with the curation and business side of exhibiting art. They don’t see any reason why the artists cannot be aligned with ‘mainstream’ art prizes and entities and strongly promote each artist’s’ artistic ability and not their disability.
It is most likely this last observation that has resulted in the reach of Arts Project. It’s big. Some of the artists like Alan Constable is represented by Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney and DUTTON in New York. Others are showing at none other than MONA in Hobart and can be seen in the prestigious Wyndham Art prize. Some are collected by leading art collectors in Australia and overseas and all are richer for being part of this amazing project.
So, while it appears on face to be an ordinary high street art gallery, the amount of ambition and affection Arts Project have for their artists is anything but ordinary.
If you want to know more or become involved go to www.artsproject.org.au