Last week I travelled to Gallerysmith, a contemporary art gallery in North Melbourne, to speak with director and art curator Marita Smith about Gallerysmith’s 10 year anniversary, 200th exhibition, and the importance of art curation in modern society.
I met Marita at the Gallerysmith exhibition space on Abbotsford Street, and was immediately drawn in by the architectural detail of the building, the polished concrete floors, crisp white walls, and of course the striking selection of artwork by three current artists thoughtfully displayed across the building’s footprint.
Gallerysmith opened in 2008 and was founded by Marita, who had recently moved on from 10 years as a curator at the Victorian Arts Centre where she managed a major public art collection. As a curator for a public institution her focus was on the preservation and display of our artistic and cultural heritage to ensure that it was available for future generations. In contrast Gallerysmith allows her to take a more direct role in the development and refinement of local and international artists, giving them space to exhibit their works, while encouraging them to reach their full potential.
Rather than simply purchasing and exhibiting individual pieces or collections, Gallerysmith maintains a relationship with their selected artists, and offers them an ongoing platform to develop their practice over several years. Featured artists will typically exhibit multiple times every 18 months to 2 years.
It’s not just about putting art on the walls. I want to see where an artist has come from, what they’re doing right now, and where they’re going in the future. That’s really important – to have that consistency and growth. Each time they exhibit with me I want to see the next stage in their practice, I want to see their practice developing, growing and evolving, and strengthening over time.
I was struck by the beauty and logic behind the progression of works and their placement throughout the gallery space. Each work forms a cohesive part of the exhibition as a whole while also drawing you in and standing on its own merit. As you move through the space the different works give you an understanding of the artists’ themes and aesthetic while allowing you to pause and consider each work individually and imagine it in your own home or environment. When I ask Marita how she does it, she explains that they very carefully plan out and develop the layout of the works until they’ve got it exactly right.
I will sit in the space with the body of work and ensure that it works as a collection. I also look at every single artwork in isolation to ensure that if it comes out of the exhibition, as it will if it goes to a collector, that it holds itself. It’s very important to have both those things happening at the same time. It’s probably the most important part of putting an exhibition together. Sometimes we’ll spend half a day doing a layout of eight works, we’ll move them around and relocate them, and all of a sudden it goes “POP” and that’s it.
In terms how Marita and Gallerysmith select their featured artists, they tend to select artists with a strong curatorial sense of their own practice. Marita is also drawn towards artists who are interested in the environment, human rights issues, and socio-political ideas. This ensures that the featured works have depth and a consistent quality and purpose. This can be seen through their now decade-long exhibition history and will no doubt continue to show through in the future. The majority of the artists featured so far have been from Australia and South East Asia, the provenance of the artists themselves is never the deciding factor, rather it is the quality of their works.
The majority are Australian but I guess what I’m interested in is not necessarily local art - I’m interested in the best art.
MM: How do you describe your days usually?
MS: Busy. What you see in the gallery space is only a small proportion of what we do. A lot of our work is outside of the gallery space, we are involved with artists showing in public galleries, and with curatorial projects elsewhere. It’s quite expansive. My day can entail anything from speaking with clients, working with artists, talking to freight companies, managing the staff, catching up with admin, hanging artwork, moving lights, putting proposals together for designers, and talking to curators about exhibitions that are happening by our artists in other locations as well.
MM: What do you do to relax?
MS: I read, I run and I hang out with my kids.
MM: Any nearby recommendations?
MS: North Melbourne is fantastic, it’s the closest country town to Melbourne and it’s awesome. Beatrix just around the corner is the best place for cakes and coffee in Melbourne. Martin Fella for vintage designer clothing, and there’s a little place around the corner called Radical Yes - they’re new, and they design and make great shoes. Also Joe Taylor wine bar.
MM: What are your plans for the future?
MS: I’m a facilitator, I want to continue to facilitate artists to make their best work and reach the height that they want to reach in their career. I want to be here for another 10-15 years, in this building at least, and then go somewhere else and do it all again.