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For many Melbournians their first experience with the not-for-profit arts sector is with West Space, the influential institution that is now celebrating its 25th year of existence. Since its 1993 inception in Footscray, West Space has moved three times and is currently located in a council-run heritage listed building on Bourke Street in Melbourne’s CBD. Far from settled, the space will once again move in the coming year due to redevelopment. Current director Patrice Sharkey is quietly optimistic. “Where exactly we move is still in the works, but we see this as a key opportunity to further consolidate our evolution as a young, dynamic, artist-focussed organisation,” she says.

Not unlike many young artists and curators, I have been a beneficiary of West Space’s work.

Over the past several months I have been curating an exhibition, Wayfind, as part of the Next Wave x West Space co-commission. Sharkey and program manager Sabrina Baker have been mentoring me with extreme generosity. This has been an invaluable experience for me – an early career curator working in a city with few opportunities for professional development outside of expensive university courses or paid exhibition spaces. Far from being precious about making this a show about West Space as a fixed entity, Sharkey encouraged me very early on to explore the possibilities of curating in a non-traditional exhibition site as a way of maintaining a dialogue with the politics of architecture. As a result, Wayfind will take place in a council-run ex-maternity health ward in Edinburgh Gardens, 5-20 May

One gets the impression that Sharkey’s past and ongoing experiences of assisting senior arts professionals (she was assistant curator at MUMA from 2011-2014 and was subeditor of un Magazine volume 5) have shaped her current role as director. Reflecting on what she was looking for when she was appointed to the role in 2015 she says, “as a young curator, I was looking for an opportunity to learn about my own practice, as well as support and learn from artists who are my peers, making professional relationships that will carry on into the future beyond West Space.”

For Sharkey, who is West Space’s fourth director, it is vital that the space maintains significant input from artists even if it is no longer technically an ‘artist run initiative.’

“We have retained our artist-led ethos. Our board requires 50% of its members to be artists,” says Sharkey.

“Our core objective is still to invest in opportunities for emerging and under-represented artists so that they can test out ideas, take risks and increase the profile of their practice through exposure to a wide audience and the arts industry.”

Indeed, many former exhibiting artists, including Sanné Mestrom, have occupied important governance roles within the West Space structure. Mestrom joined the programming committee in 2008, after exhibiting several times at West Space. Recalling the significance of this role, she says, “It felt like such a great privilege to be invited onto the committee, it was such a wonderful experience being on the ‘other side’ of the whole application process, and being part of the behind-the-scenes nuts-and-bolts of the organisation.” Mestrom also highlights the unique social role that West Space has played. “Through the course of the four or five years I sat on the committee I met many other artists and arts people, and established a number of friendships that are still very dear to me.”

Simon Maidment, who is now senior curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Victoria, was the first director appointed after cofounders Brett Jones and Sarah Stubbs, who had been acting unofficially in the role since 1993.

Reflecting on his 2005 appointment he says that he was faced with the challenge of reorganising the entire structure of the organisation. “It was quite ad hoc when I started,” he says. “Morale within the organisation was low, hostilities at times high, and for all the energies and intentions of the group there were difficult dynamics at play.” Despite this, Maidment has fond memories of his time at West Space which came to an end in 2008. He reels off names of countless exhibitions and performances that were highlights for him, listing program coordinator Mark Feary’s Rules of Engagement 2007, and Rapt! Twenty Contemporary Artists from Japan, 2006, as ultimate favourites.

Artist Damiano Bertoli first exhibited with West Space in 2001 when it was located in Anthony Street in Melbourne’s CBD.

Bertoli observes that West Space has always “offered a high level of autonomy to artists, and allowed them to control their own display contexts and the public trajectory of their practice.” Concurrent to his ongoing relationship with West Space, Bertoli has exhibited at institutions including Carriageworks, Milani Gallery and Neon Parc, where he is represented. In many ways, Bertoli’s career trajectory is an ideal case study for the importance of West Space’s role in recognising the artists’ potential early in their careers and supporting them throughout the years. Furthermore, Bertoli’s contribution to several fundraisers demonstrates the reciprocal nature of the relationships that West Space establishes with artists. “The longevity of West Space is unusual among artist-run initiatives, and offers artists the benefit of having participated in a historically substantial project,” says Bertoli in a clear expression of his belief in the institution’s value.

Damiano Bertoli, West Space East, 2007.

Curator, writer and artist Léuli Eshraghi has been significant in the Australian arts landscape as an outspoken advocate for First Nations artists and arts workers. Eshraghi’s relationship with West Space has developed over the past years. “Being an early career artist and curator, I would occasionally attend exhibitions at West Space by friends or people I’d heard about,” he says, “but mostly I saw exhibitions that in no way spoke to me or my cultural priorities until seeing the Next Wave 2016 exhibitions by Yindjibarndi artist Katie West (Decolonist), and by Peter Johnson and Denise Thwaites (The Fraud Complex).” Certainly, Eshraghi’s work with West Space has highlighted the largely Caucasian beginnings of the institution and he has consistently worked to bring about change. In 2017, Eshraghi was invited to curate Poūliuli, “a living Indigenous space” that featured works and performances from First Nations artists. In so doing Eshraghi provided a model for the representation that he would like to see as a staple of West Space and he is optimistic that this will soon extend to “staffing, boards and display practices.”

With another move imminent, what will the space look like in another 25 years? Eshraghi observes “I think it will grow, and hope that means more sharing of space and platforms.” He also believes that West Space “is on the precipice of growing into more of a kunsthalle-type organisation.” Certainly, recent solo commissions from Lou Hubbard, Lisa Radford and Jason Phu suggest that large-scale commissions will increasingly become a staple of the organisation. “Danny Lacy had the brilliant idea to launch these annual series of whole-space exhibitions with an Australian artist,” says Sharkey. “These artists have a significant track record in terms of form and concepts, but perhaps have not had the space or budget to bring their work into focus for a broad audience.” All three commissions to date have been received with much affection. Many will remember, for instance, Jason Phu’s 2017 My Parent’s Met at the Fish Market, where visitors were invited to enter the exhibition via the mouth of a massive fish that was literally built into the gallery’s doorway.

Lou Hubbard, BRICK Hedging Edging, 2004.

One of the key challenges for any not-for-profit organisation is creating a structure that can sustain itself long after those who have created it have left.

For Maidment, the directors who came after him have a lot to do with West Space’s longevity. “I’m not surprised by its longevity because if you look at the individuals who have been directors subsequent to me, Phip Murray, Danny Lacy and Patrice Sharkey, they are all exceptional people who have brought their own insights and intensities to the organisation. As directors I believe we each try to leave the organisation in a better state than we found it in, so of course it’s going to continue from strength to strength if it continues to have great people associated with it.”

West Space are celebrating their birthday year throughout 2018 by posting images from their archive each week on Instagram.

Amelia Winata