Samoa House at Auckland Art Fair. Image: Sait Akkirman.

A guide to some of Auckland’s best artist-run initiatives

In time for Auckland Artweek, Eloise Callister-Baker opens the door on a cluster of small Auckland art spaces, once off the beaten track and ephemeral, now finding cunning new ways to adapt and survive in the CBD property market. Auckland’s terrific documentor of art openings, Sait Akkirman of artdiary.co.nz, provides most of the pictures.  

As the price of living surges and gentrification creeps along K’Road (look out for those Teslas) it might not be long before most artist-run initiatives disappear from the Tāmaki Makaurau city centre. In response, a handful are using innovative means to keep their doors open or trying out new models entirely.

Artist-run Initiatives (or ARIs) are the pop-ups of the art world, often found in small, obscured cubbies in CBDs. They’re efficient users of spare space and counterpoints traditional dealer and public galleries. Interesting new ideas quickly take root here, and, perhaps most importantly, they act as gathering-points amongst expensive real-estate for people to come together and share knowledge. Writer and curator Emma Ng describes them as “…Frankenstein in nature: mutated organisations held together by the spit, love, tears and oily rags of many, who come together in shifting configurations”.

After my Upper Queen Street flat’s lounge was converted into a space called captcha, I purchased earplugs to block the sounds of drilling and hammering late at night (they didn’t work). In 2017 captcha was home to a pile of dirt, a stretch of plastic with glass, wax and poetry welded into it, metal coat hangers twisted into pentagrams, jars of colourful substances and numerous other sculptures and paintings.

Running a gallery from our lounge wasn’t sustainable long-term. As it drew more attention from dealers, collectors and artists, we could no longer balance personal-living space and artist-run space. The project separated and evolved. 

Below are some of the scene’s current mutations. They’ve moved beyond old expectations of an artist-run model. They join a roll call of exciting past ARIs with great names: Fuzzy Vibes, Ferari, Terror Internationale, Joybong, GLOVEBOX, Gloria Knight, Gambia Castle, Rockies and grandparent Teststrip, now long gone. Meanwhile, outside the CBD, check out ARIs Satchi&Satchi&Satchi in Parnell, Sosâge in Grey Lynn, pop-up Comet Project Space in Ponsonby and out in Ōtāhuhu, Vunilagi Vou.

Most artist-run initiatives have short, brilliant lives and then they fall apart. The rent increases; the funds run out; people can no longer afford to provide free labour; ambitions collide. But the need for spaces where people can freely come together to learn, share and critique persists. These spaces provide new models; ways to adapt to survive.  

Mercy Pictures

Mercy Pictures opening group show. Image: Sait Akkirman.

Captcha morphed into Mercy Pictures, 6B Little High Street (to get in, buzz 6012), a hybrid between artist-run and dealer gallery. “Perhaps shapeshifting is the point,” wrote curator and writer Emma Bugden of ARIs that adopt hybrid models. Mercy Pictures is run by artists Teghan Burt and Jerome Ngan-Kee. They had a show at the doc.expo in Paris last year, a stall at the Auckland Art Fair 2019 and a room with other dealers at alternative Sydney fair Spring 1883 last month. They regularly collaborate with both international and local artists. 

Mercy Pictures is so on the pulse it can be confronting. Teghan and Jerome are young and strategic hustlers – art world players to keep an eye on.

Strange Haven

Strange Haven. Image: Shannon Jennings

Strange Haven is hidden down the back of popular Malaysian restaurant Uncle Man’s at 281 K’Road.

In 2017, Samuel Walsh returned to Auckland. Without a place to meet and share ideas with others that wasn’t an office, he found it hard to readjust. With sister Gemma he set up a space “for things that don’t fit in anywhere else”. Soon they were renting out desk spaces to artists, writers and other freelancers. 

Strange Haven has developed an efficient routine of packing the desks down and clearing the space for screenings, exhibitions, poetry readings, gigs, launches, clothing sales, meetings and workshops. By the next morning, it’s as if nothing has happened. 

They also have another new focus: Strange Goods, a beautiful book shop with Aotearoa-made zines, magazines and books (as well as other sculptural and miscellaneous items). The additional income became a necessity when the rent went up. 

RM

Java Bentley, Kirsty McNeil, Robyn Walton, I Lean You My Support, RM Gallery. Image: Sait Akkirman.

Established in 1997, RM may be Aotearoa’s longest-running ARI. Up a steep flight of stairs from a carpark on Samoa House Lane, behind K’Road, RM “seeks to engage with the practices, discourses and modes of presentation that aren’t well-supported or easily accessible in Auckland”. With the support of Creative New Zealand funding, the RM Collective organises monthly exhibitions, as well as residencies, workshops, performances and screenings, both on-site and elsewhere. It has a wonderful archive that would make any professional organiser hot under the collar.

Longevity in any creative pursuit is admirable and RM provide the perfect entry point for those venturing beyond the public and dealer galleries.

Window

Rozana Lee, (Be)Longing, Window gallery. Image: Sait Akkirman.

In 2002, Elam students Stephen Cleland, Michelle Menzies and Luke Duncalfe founded Window Gallery, motivated by a desire to connect Elam and its attendant art community to larger audiences. Window Gallery is literally an internal window space in the foyer of the University of Auckland’s Central Library. Openings involve hovering shoulder-to-shoulder over cheese platters or pizza and eyeing up students coming and going from the library. Operating with a tiny budget, three curators – typically Elam students or graduates – organise monthly shows for the physical space and website.

Window has had a quiet year with fewer shows, especially online shows, than in previous years. However, over the past decade, many artists’ exhibitions at Window became their crucial first entries under ‘Exhibitions’ on their respective CVs. Always worth popping by.

Mokopōpaki

Roman Mitch, Girls! Hit Your Hallelujah, Mokopōpaki. Image: Sait Akkirman.

Nestled between Daily Daily and a laundromat at 454 K’Road, Mokopōpaki does sell art, but its brown-walled exhibition space playfully disrupts the usual dealer gallery paradigms. Jacob Raniera, Mokopōpaki’s Associate Director, and his whānau contribute to exhibitions and insist exhibiting artists consider Mokopōpaki’s kaupapa and approach to the production of artwork. That is, it seems, to create exhibitions and artwork that consider the welcoming, inclusive (and often laugh-out-loud funny) spirit of the gallery and the Māori ideas and values at its core. Mokopōpaki is involved in numerous collaborations, including a special collaboration with Mokopōpaki’s anonymous, “über-cool-girl” artist PĀNiA! with Te Tuhi. PĀNiA! also had work at the Auckland Art Fair this year.

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Samoa House Library 

Image: Kathryn Aucamp, Samoa House Library.

Located on level two of the iconic Samoa House building, 283 K’Road (just two doors along from Strange Haven), Samoa House Library is an art project, gallery and community space for studying, learning, sharing, and critiquing. Over 2,700 texts are arranged on wooden shelves designed by Alex Laurie and built by Olyvia Hong and Josh Harris. Artists, writers, galleries, publishing houses and supporters have gifted these texts. But, in an abrupt departure from usual library organising principles, texts are organised by donor. A gallery space has also recently opened. 

The Library has emerged from the University of Auckland’s decision to close the Elam Fine Arts Library. In a “whirlwind” a group of Elam students created a library of their own. In three weeks finding a space and sourced funding (primarily from the Chartwell Trust) for Samoa House Library’s outgoings for several months. They arranged themselves into a board (a dedicated group of about 10 volunteers who run the Library) and formed a list of Library sitters. Then they raised $10,000 from 124 donors on Boosted for rent costs for the rest of the year. 

With rent sorted for the time-being, Samoa House Library has been able to focus on growing and organising its library, gallery and studio spaces, running workshops, an education series and numerous collaborations with local and international projects. They started Curriculum with the help of Creative New Zealand funding: first steps towards learning and teaching in the space using a non-hierarchical structure. They had a stall at the Auckland Art Fair where they had a pop-up library and sold works that artists had made about a text of personal significance to them. The proceeds went to purchasing the texts for their collection.



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