A discussion between Ashleigh D’Antonio and Mia Van den Bos, Co-Directors of Sister Gallery
Mia: I remember you saying early in art school that you would love to open an artist-run gallery one day. What gave you that drive?
Ashleigh: I think that the enthusiasm and drive first and foremost came from working for 7 - 8 years and finally deciding to study something I loved. I mean, I feel like I was pretty naïve about what kind of level anyone could take art to, especially in Adelaide, and then I heard about all of these kickass artists who had ran, were running or were part of an artist-run initiative. Knowing it was possible gave me the drive to make it happen.
Mia: Yeah totally, becoming exposed to ARIs at art school opened up a lot of possibilities in my mind too. I remember in first year when I first contacted FELTspace about wanting to volunteer as a sitter, and I sent my CV in and did a cover letter and everything, like it was a commercial job application or something [laughs]. It’s funny to think about now, that I had that hierarchy from the job world stuck in my brain and I applied it to ARIs too. I soon realised that everyone at the gallery was just an artist like me, trying to make their way and create a space for all of us. The aspect of community self-determination really appealed to me.
Speaking of ARIs, Sister Gallery is unique as a space that has been initiated with the in-kind support and guidance of Fontanelle Gallery and Studios. How has this ethos of ‘passing it on’ and mentorship affected your experience of taking on Sister?
Ashleigh: Oh, well... I like to remind myself continuously that we wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for our Art Uncle & Aunties Ben, Brigid and Mary-Jean. There was a lot of trust involved in the whole process, from trusting us with the volunteer coordinator role in the early years to when they decided to pass the torch. I think that we are incredibly lucky to have involved in Fontanelle and their mentorship has been invaluable. Sister would not have the successful few months we’ve had without their early and continuous input. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learnt from Ben and Brigid is an unpretentious hands-on approach to curating and managing a gallery. It’s all about community and community building and that means a lot to me. Obviously in terms of action, Sister has its differences, in the artists that we choose to show and our curatorial direction… but the idea of passing on something of value still rings true.
Mia: Definitely, I’ll carry this experience of being mentored by Fontanelle throughout my career. I don’t want to sound gushing, but, being personally invested in as an emerging artist and curator and mentorship forming the structural foundation of an ARI model has redefined a lot of preconceptions about the arts industry for me. It’s such a generous and vital experiment within Australia’s current funding climate. I think Adelaide has regrouped and maintained a healthy ecosystem of arts spaces despite the impact of the Black Monday funding cuts, what role do you see Sister Gallery playing in this environment?
Ashleigh: I have to disagree with the idea of a healthy ecosystem of arts spaces. Adelaide has had some fantastic ARIs, but it’s always been limited, despite the funding cuts. It’s amazing that we have some ARIs still kicking and some real good value major galleries, but hell… the struggle that many emerging artists face to get their foot in the door is poor.
In saying that, I feel as though Sister plays a role I can confidently say no other space in Adelaide does. In terms of the versatility of artists, who are primarily emerging, whether it’s still studying, just out of a degree or Honours… you just don’t see that in other spaces. Each space has a different focus and I understand the integrity that certain spaces have to uphold, though I really do think there are a plethora of super new, super young artists who are very informed, making some very pertinent work, out there.
Mia: Yeah, it’s just a different focus. We’ve both always been attracted to work that says something relevant about the times we live in. The ways emerging artists are grappling with the political, social and cultural chaos happening throughout the world and creating new visual languages to grasp a fleeting explanation. Whether it’s seen as a net positive or negative, the internet and new technologies have transformed our reach and means of communication... a lot of our daily experience is mediated globally. This is reflected in our first six month program which features artists from around Australia, as well as a select international artists, whose work speaks to these curatorial interests.
I think our direction was captured in the curation of [Sister Gallery’s inaugural exhibition] Optimal Prime Time. We got together a group of young SA born and raised artists whose work seemed to spring from current global discourses on visual art.
Ashleigh: I think we would both agree that, with Optimal Prime Time being our first major curated show, we wanted it to hit a home run. Among other things my main considerations were exhibiting experimental works and how they reflected the galleries ongoing theme of ‘lived experiences’. I wanted to show a strong and cohesive group of artists, from various backgrounds with things to say about contemporary life. It was important to consider artists that wouldn’t have necessarily had the opportunity elsewhere…for example incredible artists who are in undergrad and aren’t eligible in a lot of traditional proposal rounds. After all that’s part of the reason that we decided to model Sister in this way, we were given a chance and know how uplifting and empowering that is. It was really exciting to be able to get that group of artists we’ve long admired together in one gallery and to show new work and evolutions in their practices. Quite frankly I think we nailed the first show [laughs].
Mia: We collaborated at art school and put on our first exhibition together in 2014. How have these experiences of studying and exhibiting together prepared us to run Sister for other emerging artists?
Ashleigh: It’s the ups and downs, ebbs and flows that readied us for this. From the first proposal that we collaboratively worked on, to grants, shows and now running Sister... It’s all been an integral part of the journey.
Mia: Yeah, I don’t know if anything can completely ready you. You just jump in. Being emerging artists ourselves helps though. We have that drive to help in a practical and meaningful way, because we know how difficult it can be to navigate being an early career artist.