KATHRYN FALUDI BALL
Letitia Street Studios, December 1998 - December 2004
Date: 10-Aug-2005 – 08-Sep-2005
Location: PLIMSOLL GALLERY, TASMANIAN COLLEGE OF THE ARTS, HOBART
This exhibition presented at the Plimsoll Gallery, Tasmanian College of the Arts, Hobart, was a collaborative project between CAST and the Plimsoll Gallery Committee. Michael Edwards was invited by the Plimsoll Gallery Committee to curate an exhibition that addressed the history and influence of the, now defunct, artist driven initiative at the Letitia Street Studios in Hobart, over the period of its operation from 1998 to 2004.
On Letitia Street stands the old Hobart High School, a collection of 1940s Post-Deco, freestanding masonry structures with the usual ex-Education Department inventory of classrooms, stores and toilets. Set against a backdrop of gum trees and casuarinas on the Queen’s Domain with the Brooker Highway barrelling alongside its footings, the decommissioned buildings’ outlook across Hobart’s inner suburbs is subject to shifting reflection under the city’s broody sentinel, Mt Wellington. Belying a stately institutional presence, the former seat of learning had come to house an ad hoc mixture of landlord (a funeral parlour) and tenants: Christian Assembly, a private art school, a spiritualist centre, a temporary Mosque and, according to rumour, probably ASIO. Former tenant, Steven Carson, was drawn to comment that in the context of this curious mix, the pursuit of a career in contemporary art was made to seem ‘completely normal’.
For six years until the end of 2004, Letitia Street Studios occupied the former science laboratories on the second floor, a provenance not lost on the resident artists, where the material environment signaled a residual promise of inquiry, experimentation and by implication, creativity. These studios rapidly became known as a centre for art production and activities generated by younger artists in Tasmania. Actively self-promotional, they were also quick to gain advantage from key events, with open studio days (Tasmanian Living Artists’ Week, the Australian Council of University Art and Design Schools’ Hobart meeting) and so on. Work presentations for visiting curators were conducted regularly, and occasional social and fundraising activities (Buffalo, 2000) directed at local community involvement were organised. Similarly, LSSp (Letitia Street Studio Space), a small project exhibition space for the presentation of site specific work was set up in an unused storeroom during 2001. Various members along with other artists also founded Inflight gallery, which was first housed in a larger classroom above the studios. Inflight soon attracted Australia Council funds to support Artist-Run-Initiatives and relocated its exhibition program at a more accessible venue in North Hobart. Speaking about local history, the gallerist Dick Bett identified the valuable contribution made by collective artists’ studios. He observed that whereas Bett Gallery had been grounded on a stable of artists from the former Chameleon studios in the old Blundstone building (Raymond Arnold, David Keeling, Barbie Kjar, Anne MacDonald, John Neeson and Helen Wright), it was artists from Letitia Street Studios (Matt Calvert, Neil Haddon, Meg Keating, John Vella and Kit Wise) who underscored the recent establishment of Criterion Gallery, in 2004.
Where we currently endow the term ‘Letitia Street’ with our knowledge of the particular site and the individuals it comprised, eventually it may come to identify a period, as it was also a product of its time. From the mid 1990s a new layer of expectation had entered the collective conversations of younger Hobart artists as they increasingly turned their attention to achievable opportunities outside Tasmania and Australia. One regular meeting place, Thursday night drinks at T42 (initiated by postgraduate students and staff loosely attached to the painting department at the Art School), encouraged the ideas and projects of various individuals and collegial groups. A regular at these soirees, painting lecturer Peter Hill, was key to the outward shift of aspirations – simply and effectively through the dissemination of information and provision of links with artists and opportunities elsewhere. In 1994 Matt Calvert was awarded a prized Anne and Gordon Samstag International Visual Art Scholarship (followed by Megan Walch in 1995, Julie Gough 1997, Matt Warren 1999 and Troy Ruffels in 2000), and over the period a number of successful Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Scholarships (Canada) and Rimbun Dahan Residences (Malaysia) were secured, along with increased project support for emerging artists through the Visual Art/Crafts Board of the Australia Council. Fuelled by a notable increase in successful awards, scholarship and funding applications in the national and international arenas, and bolstered by a new mantra – that art from the ‘periphery’ was now viable, younger artists went off to flirt successfully with international networks established through overseas residences and exchange programs, as well as through reciprocal programs such as the Scottish Artist Exchange Program.
Letitia Street Studios’ rental lease commenced on Monday, 14 December 1998. The agreement was signed by Matt Calvert on behalf of Rod Stennard, Larissa Linnell, Neil Haddon, Richard Wastell and Jane Stewart, and cited Stephen Carson, Emily Jones and Jane Barlow as ‘the other artists’. Stennard and Linnell had identified the site a few years earlier and had made a number of failed approaches (connected to high rental costs), but with persistence, the co-option of Calvert, a reduced rental and an arrangement to undertake some internal renovations, an agreement was struck: initially $8,400 per annum and no artwork was to be hung in either the stairwells or the studio windows. Barely had the artists cleaned-up the space and constructed internal studio partitions when, after the serendipitous fallout of another project, came an opportunity for a group exhibition at CAST Gallery; Cache – Artists’ work from the Letitia Street Studios went on display in July 1999. In a remarkably short period, and following interest generated from the wide distribution of the striking metallic blue Cache exhibition catalogue, the brand ‘Letitia Street’ had some national presence. The Studios were soon to be written into the itineraries of visiting arts professionals, ranging across Artbank representatives to curators, including the Biennale of Sydney’s Isobel Carlos.
The abiding strength of the Letitia Street Studios was the maintenance of this strong profile coupled with the informal collective of artists that sustained it. Letitia Street was independent from funding support and artists had to ‘pay their way’. Decisions were made by committee and usually in the best of humour. Individuals were responsible for finding replacement tenants, and if studio members didn’t agree with the recommendation it was then up to them to fill the vacancy. It was the overriding characteristics of individual members aligned to a determination to develop and establish a professional practice that drove the enterprise. Mutual aims made the group sound and were underscored by common levels of respect, trust, generosity and to a lesser degree, friendship. In all, 30 artists rented space and worked from the studios over the six years. Only Matt Calvert and Neil Haddon were resident across the entire period.
For individual members however, Letitia Street was usually a place where they went to make artwork and to be professional artists: a place of focus and of experimentation and reflection, of deadlines for exhibitions as well as for applications, to document their work and be an address to receive their mail. Occasionally, it was also a short-term place to live, or a storeroom or an office. When asked about their time there, invariably what they most frequently described was the interaction with other resident artists. Across the period, indeed at different times across the day and into the night, different artists talked. Their conversations ranged from informal working critiques, across gossip and information exchange on materials and opportunities, to the specifics of particular application criteria. While most of this exchange was grounded in prosaic, day-to-day banter, underpinning this was the operation of a mutual support system – the recognition and reiteration of shared aims and experience. Inevitably these artists often were competing for the same opportunities and were, to a lesser degree, in an imaginary contest to establish their careers. Acknowledged generally, this essentially private motivational strategy was usually harnessed to positive effect and, of itself, makes evident the strongly supportive culture within the studios; more than one artist laughed while describing the dilemma they experienced in assisting others to complete funding applications after finishing their own.
For many artists seeking studio accommodation in Hobart, Letitia Street was rumoured to be ‘a closed shop’ or a ‘boys’ club,’ the inference of exclusion was never far away. For younger artists and recent graduates, such as Marcus Prince, acceptance into Letitia Street Studios was a badge of honour, an entrée into professional studio practice based loosely around an idea of the ‘atelier’ tradition, or it offered a kind of apprenticeship in being a professional artist – as one wag offered, a finishing school. Yet for more established artists relocated from elsewhere, (Neil Haddon, UK/Spain; Steven Carson, QLD; Kit Wise UK/Rome) the perceived hierarchies within the studios were much more horizontal and fluid: a group of artists coinciding at a particular moment in time; collaborators who shared an affirming companionship, along with their utes, their tripods and lights. With this also came a proximity to others whose work provided a comparable context in which to think about their own work. For some artists, as their careers became more established and hectic, their focus returned to the studio as being primarily a site of production while, conversely, for others Letitia Street was as much about being in that particular place in the world and at that time.
The Studio’s time was over by the end of 2004, a predictable pattern repeated with other clever artist-run-spaces. Invisible economic forces and insecure leaseholds had conspired to make another initiative necessary in another place and at another time.
ABOUT THE EXHIBITION:
Letitia Street Studios, the exhibition, is a broad consideration of works by twenty-nine artists from the studio membership. Here the works are presented in spaces that reflect the rooms and corridors of a shared studio environment. Artworks produced at the Letitia Street Studios sit alongside more recent works-in-progress from elsewhere, while a number of artists with strong local exhibition profiles have used the opportunity to include new and experimental works produced outside their usual practice.