In 2017 we started something small that unexpectedly grew into something amazing. We had no idea that when we started that we would touch so many people, that we would start conversations about what it meant to be a community, and that we would make a little pocket of our town feel alive again.
But let’s back up.
Urunga, if you don’t know it, is a sleepy Australian coastal town – the type that is almost forgotten now as similar places rush to build McMansions. Urunga feels like the place where time slows down. It’s not a pretentious place – it’s a good place for families, and retirees. It sits at the mouth of a gorgeous river and it feels like a place on the outskirts.
The locals call it a tourist town. On a Saturday night you could throw a rock down the main street and you wouldn’t hit anyone… but you might hit a bunny. (In the carpark behind the main street, which is only 4 blocks long, live several tiny wild bunnies, that once upon a time used to be pets.)
In 2016 they built a bypass around Urunga and now you have have to go there on purpose. When the bypass went in, some of the businesses closed. The shops stood empty. One such shop was bang in the centre of town – Council owned, they had been renting it to some local butchers. It had huge fine windows and a good aspect. One day, it occurred to a local photographer, Gethin Coles, that it would be a fabulous place to hang up some photos, as a cheeky sort of ‘pop up’ gallery.
He asked the proper people and got a set of keys… and went in. Can you see him standing there, in the space, looking around and thinking? It would need quite a bit of work. And quite a bit of paint. And a few friends to make it work. So he stood there, and he pondered. And then he made some calls… I can’t even remember where we got the paint from, but we painted that space, and transformed it into a huge, dazzling area full of light. We had a big, empty room ….
Now we needed to learn how to be a Gallery. Who did we know that might be a painter, a photographer, a ceramicist or a sculptor? We slowly got together a small crew of mostly local artists working across vastly varied mediums, and we pulled together the exhibition. And as we did so, we realised that the challenges weren’t just about logistics – that was kind of easy in the end. Our challenges turned out to be a bit different.
Since we had started at the very outset with the idea of a sense of ‘we’, we had to ask ourselves, what kind of art did we want to show? What kind of art is right for Urunga? If art is a conversation about ourselves – what kind of conversations did we want to have with each other and the greater Australian community?
How could we keep a sense of diversity and quality at the heart of every show?
How could we encourage new artists to join us every time?
And how do you judge art? What makes it into a show? What is “good”?
So we formed a curation team – with changing members, and we set up voting structures and governance ideas and we talked about these ideas at length, with very different people. When People came into the gallery we asked them – what energises you in here? When the people from the cafes next door came in, we asked them – what has meaning for you? When people came in on their lunch break or mums came in with their kids, or the taxi driver popped in because he was pulled up and waiting for his habitual customer, we talked about art. And people talked to us.
We learned two surprising things about having a gallery.
One is that when you talk to people about which piece in any particular show moves them the most, the replies are never the same. Different people love different pieces – so when people visit us, at least one thing will usually delight them. We stuck to our core values from day one -diversity, quality and joy- and people loved it.
The second thing that we learned about running a gallery is how to get along. The core group of artists driving every show were by no means a homogenous groups of people. We were very different. We were forced to talk to each other, to solve problems together and figure out how to make it work. And we did. We are a lovely bunch of weirdos, and we get things done.
In the first year were able to show the work of more than 80 Artists over 6 shows.
As the year rolled around, it almost seemed like we could actually pull this off… that what had started as a pop up gallery could actually be an Art Gallery run by Artists to promote gorgeous new art. We now have 10 exhibitions a year with around 120 artist exhibiting year round. We are striving to keep going so support the gallery in any way you can – come in, become a member, buy a card or better still buy an artwork.