It’s opening week at the new M16 Artspace, and stress is hanging in the air. The drill is whirring in the gallery, while workmen scurry about, putting the finishing touches on the building before Friday’s grand opening.
M16 Director Joseph Falsone and Exhibition Manager Janice Kuczkowski are worn thin, having been plowing through 60-hour weeks to get to this point. Though exhausted their passion for this grass-roots organisation is still intact, and Falsone drops everything to tour me around the new facilities. ‘It’s nice,’ he beams ‘after 25 years, people are coming in saying ‘this is the space we always dreamed of’’ ’.
It was 25 years ago that M16 Artspace was known as Leichardt Street Studios in Kingston; part of a bustling group of arts organisations in the area, in what was a boom time for visual art in Canberra. The name change came following relocation to a warehouse at number 16 Mildura Street in Fyshwick. There, tucked away in this industrial setting, M16 flourished, with 35 artist studios and three gallery spaces showing one of the most diverse and exciting program of exhibitions in town.
It wasn’t glamorous however. Hot in summer, cold in winter and off the beaten track, the going could get pretty tough. ‘It wasn’t the most comfortable or attractive’ Falsone laughs, about the space he spent his first years as Director. ‘It was hard to get your head around what was there’.
In 2007, with the sale of the property pending, tenancy at Mildura Street was no longer viable. So began a long hard road for Falsone, as he sought government assistance to relocate the M16 family. After extensive negotiations, months of promising highs and debilitating lows, M16’s fate was saved by the opportunity to utilise the Blaxland Centre in Griffith. Following a modest refurbishment the former school is a perfect fit.
The conversion includes the implementation of three slick gallery spaces: a vast main gallery, a dark space for multimedia work and projections, and a smaller project space. Community art classes are an integral part of M16’s program, with over 700 children, adults and people with special needs participating on any given week, so four practical workshop spaces have also been included in the new layout. Most enviable are the 28 artist studios, large, airy and home to list of tenants that reads as an illustrious who’s who of the Canberra art scene.
Natural light floods through high windows looking out onto the leafy suburb. ‘Isn’t it unbelievable?’ Falsone says, taking in the view. ‘The contrast is really startling. Everything was dark and dusty, and here it’s so clean and open. Now what we do is much more visible’.
That openness is especially important to Falsone, as the new layout encourages dialogue between tenants. ‘The sense of community and level of interaction has already changed. Because of the way the old M16 was set up the artists never interacted with each other. Now people are meeting each other who never met before’.
While the majority of tenants are emerging artists and recent graduates there are also a number of more senior artists in their midst. Falsone is quick to point out the number of Nationally and Internationally renowned artists who have been involved with M16 over the years, and a selection of these are the focus of the first exhibition at the new space.
The show, Audible Surface, features artists such as Kensuke Todo and Derek O’Connor and is being co-curated by Helen Maxwell, Canberra art world figure of note. Maxwell has been familiar with M16 since the early days, having shared the facilities at the old Leichardt Street complex while running her Australian Girls Own Gallery. ‘With Helen doing the inaugural show things have really come full circle’ Falsone notes. ‘With a space like this we can continue to grow the program. Next year is going to be really interesting – we’ve got some surprises we’re still working on’.
One of the greatest achievements of the new facility is the balance it has found between being a hard-working, functional space while also drastically improving M16’s accessibility and presentability. Falsone and the M16 tenants had a lot of input into the refurbishment design process – meaning the gallery spaces and studios are as user-friendly as possible. ‘It made it easy that M16 is an organisation that knows what it’s doing and has a clear idea of what its needs are.’
While the dream has been partly realised, Falsone is well aware the hard work is by no means over. M16 have only secured a lease on the building for the next five years, and there is barely enough money to pay one full-time staff member. The relocation project itself was done on a shoestring budget – its reappropriation of disused buildings and materials is a great example of sustainability and innovation in comparison with similar multi-million dollar projects.
For an organisation whose funding grossly falls short of the mark existence is never going to be easy, but then the arts have always survived on tireless enthusiasm and the smell of an oily rag. If it wasn’t for the dedication and determination of Falsone and his small team this year may have seen M16 closed for good. Instead, it’s re-asserted itself as one of the most important centres for art in Canberra, finally in a home that does justice to the plethora of talent it produces and presents.
M16 Artspace is now open at 21 Blaxland Crescent Griffith.
This article appears in the current issue of BMA Magazine, out now