Up a flight of stairs above a suit-hire outlet in the Hay Street Mall, Perth’s latest contemporary art gallery is at the vanguard of a movement to pollinate dozens of under-used buildings with the buzz of artists, designers and other creative types.
The Moana Project Space, run by young artists turned gallery directors Dale Buckley and Kate Mullen, is one of several new creative ventures setting up shop in the converted century-old Moana Chambers at the east end of the mall.
Once described as the finest building of its kind in the Commonwealth, Moana Chambers’ spacious first floor has been empty for seven years, an example of the more than 17,000sqm of empty, often derelict upper-floor areas around the CBD.
The building has been rescued from a future of decay by its owners and the hard work and dogged determination of the leaseholders who have cut through a forest of red tape, building and fire codes, and financial impediments to make it happen.
The driving forces behind the project are head leaseholders and Post-Architecture’s Nic Brunsdon and Beth George, co-founders of the Spacemarket initiative which matches creative businesses with vacant or underused spaces.
Moana’s first floor has been refurbished to house working spaces, studios, the gallery and a cafe in an area that had been, over the years, a grand teahouse, speakeasy, ballroom and record store.
Mullen and Buckley are operating out of a gallery “pod” installed by Brunsdon and George in the middle of the old ballroom, where it is surrounded by several shared creative work areas, multidisciplinary studios and the new cafe.
The cafe, which opens in a fortnight, includes the only activated balcony overlooking the Hay Street Mall. The view through the trees to the nearby Perth Town Hall and down the mall is a distinctive attraction that must give other city property owners food for thought about how to bring some of their moribund upper storeys to life.
The Moana Project Space opened at the weekend with its debut exhibition Synecdoches featuring the work of Perth artists Caspar Fairhall and Matthew Hunt, and the Melbourne-based Simon Finn.
Buckley and Mullen say they are committed to exhibiting new, experimental and innovative work from emerging and established artists.
In the tough gallery market, they have been emboldened by a flat rent of just $100 a year, making it a loss-leader subsidised by rental income from the other first-floor tenants.
“The fantastic thing about having the studios out the back is that they keep the gallery in the black, which allows us to take risks. Art is not selling too well in Perth at the moment, so it is good if you don’t have to worry about rent,” Buckley says.
He and Mullen hope to give more exposure to experimental art, allow artists to present incomplete work for critical feedback and run such satellite activities as displays in vacant shopfronts in Perth’s pedestrian malls.
“It would be myopic or unrealistic to think that’s how all galleries should operate,” Buckley says.
“However, if these spaces exist it can only be of benefit to commercial galleries, if only as a divining rod to interesting artistic practices which may not have been seen.”
A 2010 city-commissioned report showed about 40 properties, half of them heritage buildings, had a total of more than 17,000sqm of underused upper-floor space, equating to between $5.23 million and $7.85 million in foregone annual rental income.
Brunsdon says the City of Perth contributed $18,000 in the early due-diligence phase of the refurbishment project, which took more than two years.
He hopes the Moana experience serves as a pilot project for authorities to create a more flexible and forgiving building code tailored towards the reactivation of old buildings.
“We identified a problem no one seemed to be doing anything about, so we wanted to get stuck in and do it ourselves,” Brunsdon says. “It is about creating a Perth that is hard to leave and attractive to return to.”
Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi said the City of Perth had been looking for ways to motivate and help property owners reactivate these spaces.
“These young and creative people are looking for affordable space to run their businesses and often share a love for our city,” Ms Scaffidi says.
“This is an intuitive way to attract and retain creative businesses.”
Synechdoches is showing from Wednesday to Sunday at Moana Project Space, upstairs at 618 Hay Street, Perth, until December 23. Details: moana-ari.com.