Ever wondered what it takes to start up your own gallery? Almost a decade ago, five friends were so fed up with the state of Melbournes exhibition scene, which, at that time, didn’t cater for their love of graffiti and street art that they decided to open what would eventually become a legendary gallery that formed a critical piece in Australian graffiti and street art history – Per Square Metre gallery. In this editorial, Pauly Bailer talks to the owners of Per Square Metre – ten years since they began the journey, and five years after it lamentably closed its doors. If you’ve ever wanted an insight into the gallery, or have ever had an inkling of starting up your own, read on for an amazing insight into a place that helped shape some of Melbournes finest artists …
Melbourne, as we are told, is a hub for street art, it is even referred to as the street art capital.
I guess the people that coined such a term had never been to Berlin, Paris or Sao Paulo. That being said, Melbourne does have a very strong creative community of passionate artists who see what they do as a creative outlet, not an industry. Many of these likeminded folk wish to eke out a living doing what they love and find themselves competing for limited avenues. There are many who choose not to go down the graphic design or advertising rout, as they wish to retain creative control of their output.
Trying to enter the art world, like most established industry can be hard for an outsider.
Tired of trying to penetrate the almost impregnable art world, many local artists choose to do things their own way.
Per Square Meter was an art studio, gallery and dwelling located on Johnston street Collingwood.
It was an affordable artist run exhibition space that became a regular hangout spot for local, street-artists and graffiti writers. Sadly PM2 no longer exists, but I managed to catch up with the crew and glean some info about the ins and outs of running a gallery/studio. Anyone looking to step out on their own and start up something special might find this article helpful.
The crew consisted of Darren and Em, now known as Dabs and Myla (DM). Sam Sear (S), Bernard Romerona (B) and Jimmy DV8 (J).
Thanks guys for giving me the opportunity to share the knowledge you all gained from venturing into the unknown.
Who came up with the idea to start pm2, and what were the reasons?
(B) For what I remember the idea of Per Square Metre started up with Em, Sam, Darren and I drinking daiquiris at the Clarendon Hotel in Newcastle in 2005. I couldn’t exactly say who said what but from what I remember, it was a consensus that we all wanted some studio space and all needed a place to live, so why not find one together. We’d seemed to be working well as a team as part of an exhibition for TINA (This Is Not Art) Festival at that point and thought we could make something of it.
As a gallery, pm2 came out of necessity. We wanted a space that was big enough to work in but we needed ways to pay the rent so we looked for spaces that would accommodate studio space and the possibility of some gallery space. In the end we found that and pm2 was born.
The name itself Per Square Metre was kind of an off-the-cuff comment about selling paintings by the square metre. Can’t really remember how that was going to work but that’s where it came from.
(S) The 4 of us met at NMIT while studying illustration. Having similar interests and influences, but different styles back in those days, essentially we were told that our independent styles were not ‘general’ enough for the Australian illustration market and that we’d have to go overseas to sell and exhibit our work to anyone as the already existing gallery scene in -Melbourne particularly – was too exclusive and wanky to just step into as new comers on the scene – in a nut shell- you couldn’t show your work here unless you had an established name within the traditional art community …or went to VCA ;) …
So we decided collaboratively to change and test the Australian market by creating a space where we could make and show our own style of work and where others who were starting out could get their work seen as well. An INCLUSIVE creative space and gallery. PM2 was very much rooted in the DIY ethos of punk rock, hip hop and independent life styles and was just an extension of our backgrounds and mindset. An ‘if they won’t let you – DON’T ASK PERMISSION and just DO IT YOURSELF’ kind of middle finger flipping to the established art ‘scenesters’ if you like.
How did you get it started? Was it difficult?
<p “>(S) We decided what we were going to do without knowing what or how we were going to do it. We sold cars. We left partners. We moved houses. We left and gave up everything we knew and just ‘JUMPED’ because we wanted to. Without knowing the creative impact this would have on ourselves and a lot of other people – we just did it. We found a space. We built walls and bathrooms and bedrooms. We painted 5 walls white and called it a gallery. We moved in – made some art, had a show and the rest just kinda … happened. We just never thought it couldn’t, was how it started.
(B) I think the 4 of us were “do-it” kind of people. If there was a task directly in front of us we’d just do it. If something needed to be done it would be us pooling our skills and our resources together. We had help from friends who were builders, plumbers, printers and what not.
The most difficult aspect was getting the money together for the initial outlay. We managed to do it somehow though. I remember Em and Sam selling their cars.
What were the associated costs, where there any surprises you where not expecting- such as needing permits or things of that nature?
(B) Costs at start-up? First month’s rent plus 3 months bond. That was a surprise. It was around $10,000 just to secure the place. And Outgoings! Always find the exact figure of what the outgoings are and make sure it’s in the lease agreement as to what the outgoings will entail! Having $3000 bills pop up isn’t very fun. Aside from the standard real estate stuff it was mainly building materials for gallery walls and lighting that when it came down to cost.
(S) There are plenty of awesome costs that accompany commercial properties like outgoings, insurance, your basics-electricity and gas etc. The rest is incidental, like marketing and advertising. We decided from the beginning that we either paid for a visible space and relied on word of mouth and human curiosity or we got a less visible space and paid for advertising everywhere we could. Lucky we went the first route as I don’t think we would even know where to start with advertising- although I’m sure we would’ve started with photocopied flyers and just blanketed the world in them! We never worried about permits and tried to live by our “If you don’t ask-they cant say no” motto the best we could and we managed for the most part this way. Occasionally we would purchase a temporary liquor licence for big shows later on- but we found ways around most things. You’ll have to work them out for yourself!
What did you guys do at pm2?
(S) What didn’t we do?! We lived there which not many people know-all 5 and 6 of us. (My daughter, Raven was there the whole ride as well! Shout out!) We made our own artwork individually and collaboratively. Em and Darren became ‘DABS and MYLA’ there.
(DM) All 4 of us ran the gallery and also worked out of the studio there. Running the gallery involved a lot more than what we expected. It was a business … and it took a lot of work like any business does. We tried our best to stay on top of that kind of stuff as best as we could. But as far as the paper work, bookkeeping kind of stuff it was pretty hard. We had shifts for all four of us to man the gallery. So each of us would need to be in the gallery about 3 days of the week when a show was up. We also had to help with the set up of each show and the take down. Our shows ran for two weeks so there were a lot of take-downs and set ups!
(J) We also provided studio space for local artists and walls to paint for local/travelling writers.
Why do you think it was so popular with the street art/graffiti crowd?
(DM) I think it was popular with graffiti writers in particular because some of us were writers, and so in the beginning most of the people we knew where writers and so we reached out to them for the first shows. And then it just set the tone for the style of art the gallery was going to be showing. Also, I feel that at that time in Melbourne there weren’t really many galleries that had graffiti art shows. There were plenty of spaces showing street art but not really any that were for writers.
(J) Cos we rule! Basically we were coming from a background of graff and art already so we had the respect from the peeps from the start. We understood how to treat artists and customers because we are artists and customers. We gave the opportunity for people who would normally never get to show in a gallery the chance and therefore got to work with some artists who people were hanging to see work from.
(S) I think because of our own friends and networks as well as the way in which we ran the space. Both Darren and Jimmy have been in the graff scene since the 90s and it’s a tight network. When you’ve got a respected writer as part of the crew it helps. We were one of the first galleries to exhibit and ENCOURAGE writers to put their years of work on some canvas and take the credit they deserved and get paid for doing what they love finally. Changing the way writers viewed themselves and their artwork – because it IS ARTwork and giving them a space to feel safe putting their stuff out there. We always protected identities when needed too, which helps. ;)
What do you think worked- and what would you change if you could do it all again?
(S) I don’t know that I’d change much. Maybe having shows every 3 weeks instead of 2- it was A LOT of work but we loved it and got bored if a show stayed too long. I would’ve tried to get a rent contract that didn’t increase by so much every term maybe as that’s what killed us. I guess I should say that I would have charged more so we could have made any kind of profit but I wouldn’t really-that kind of defeated the purpose that we were intended for.
(B) I think the whole haphazard nature of the place is what made it work. As much as I’d have liked to changed the way things ran just to satisfy my own sense of order, I don’t think the place would have been the same. Things that I would change? I’d like have done more as a studio rather than a gallery as I think we might have been able to create something that could have lasted longer that was self sustaining and more gratifying.
For me, the gallery took on a life of it’s own and had to be fed in order to generate revenue. That would take up a lot of time which slowly put a strain on my life outside of pm2. I think it’s part of the reason I was the first to leave
(DM) I wouldn’t change anything about the way we ran that gallery. We definitely made a lot of mistakes in the time we were there … but we learnt a lot in the process! I think what worked was that we knew nothing going in to it, so we did it our own way! Which is always the best way to go about something, then you create something new and unique!
How did you generate revenue?
(S) Haha! We didn’t really. We hired out the gallery space and we took a commission on sales but tried to keep it minimal as we as artists know that it’s a hard slog at the best of times and didn’t want to be taking the money from the artists. We substituted sometimes with hiring the space for fundraisers and private functions.
(DM) Any revenue we made came from commissions on painting sales and gallery rental fees. We didn’t really make much money at the gallery?..Actually..we didn’t really make any! … But we did make enough to subsidise our own living and studio expenses. All 4 of us lived above the gallery, and we had a nice sized studio, and so any revenue would just cover the cost of the whole building, which meant that we could work as artists and have the luxury of low living costs.
(B) It was mainly from hiring the space. We were cheap in comparison to a lot of other places and we had a fairly large space. Second would have come from sales then third from jobs we did together. If we fell short for rent and bills that month it’d come out of our own pockets.
If we ever had gaps to fill during the calendar we’d do impromptu exhibitions that were open calls for anyone to join based on a theme picked out of a hat. There were a few of those.
Was it sustainable – or did all involved need alternative revenue streams?
(DM) The money from rental and commissions would cover most of the costs of the space, but usually not all of it. A lot of the time we would have to make up the difference to get the bills paid. But it was usually only a few hundred dollars a month from each of us. Sometimes it would be none at all if there had been a successful show, and sometimes it was a lot more from our own pockets if it had been a slower show.
(S) It was just starting to pay for itself and be fully sustainable at the 4 ½ year mark – we even would have started making a profit! But then the landlord screwed us and upped the rent causing our eventual demise. Up until then we all had to work other jobs and pay our shares of the rent and bills like any other house.
(B) As it was, it wasn’t sustainable we all had to have another form of income coming in. On months we did make a profit it’d all go back to the place anyway. Having said that, the fact that we lived there was a kind of income in itself had we been paying a set amount of rent we may have been able to give ourselves token payments which would’ve amounted to nothing much at any rate.
Did you find it hard making a living in the creative industry?
(J) Always a struggle when you work for your self but it does get easier. The last few years have been a lot more consistent with work which is good! I think graff and street art are pretty trendy at the moment but not sure how long it will last?
(S) The creative industry is work like any other industry. Its only hard if you don’t love it. We were all very lucky I guess to sell our work regularly whether it be at our own gallery or elsewhere.
(B) Making a living in the creative industry was easy. Doing what you want within the creative industry and making a living is the hard part. At the time I was working 3 days a week as a Graphic Designer which I’d been doing for the last 5yrs so it wasn’t something I wasn’t not used to as a way of making money. Finding that exact thing you want to do creatively, is satisfying and make a living was always the task that you should aim for.
Did you work out any other unorthodox ways to generate cashflow such as auctions of unsold works, donation of coins for food drink etc?
(DM) We did make money sometimes form other ways. We had been approached a few times by advertising agencies to use the space for TV commercials … which was always great because that would usually help make up for the months when not much money was made. We would also put together events when there was a gap in the schedule or curate shows to try and help.
(B) We did the standard donations thing for drinks etc. One of my personal favourites was some guy coming off a train of party buses (which was basically a weekly Saturday thing due to a certain neighbouring pub) paying $20 to use the toilet while his other mates pissed all over the street.
Was it hard to collect monies – after exhibitions?
(DM) Yes! Always! That was a really hard part of the running of the gallery…chasing up people to pick up work and pay remainders!
(B) On occasion, but most people were pretty good about paying. Just hopeless about getting there to pay it seemed. You’d get the occasional “I’m drunk so I’ll buy that” person that realises what they did and never show their faces again.
(J) Most of the time it was good mates that were the hardest to get cash out of ;)
Did you chose artists who you thought would sell?
(S) We were never exclusive nor did we ever choose artists to exhibit at PM2. We put it out there that we were available to hire and we let them come to us – we didn’t ever chase anyone. Doesn’t matter if you are COPE 2 or Joe Blow – you are treated the same. Making money off the artists was never the motivation behind PM2 – maybe that was why we were in such demand.
(J) We were more focused on showing people that we thought deserved it, or who were cool people, rather than big sales. There are enough galleries trying to do that. We would rather have art the normal people could afford to buy.
Did you enjoy living working and doing art in the same place?
(DM) Yes most definitely! Of course it could be hard at times, without space from your work, but worth it for the amount of fun that was had each week!
(J) Had it’s good and bad points. But mostly positive. It was a really productive time for me graff wise and got to meet a whole lot of awesome people. However I now have my studio separate from my house which is a nice change and definitely a good thing for my marriage!
(B) Personally no. I like to be able to get away from the things that would need doing without it staring you in the face the whole time. Rolling out of bed and walking into your work space isn’t that pleasant at times.
(S) Living and working in the same place is always hard as you never stop working- especially when its working doing something you love…which in turn takes its toll on other things such as personal relationships etc. I personally love it and have lived most of my life in communal situations and just see it as being an extension of family really-you laugh, cry, fight and laugh again. But I can see how it might not be ideal for others and know it took its toll on our partners. Darren and Em had it sweet because they became partners, but I guess that had its own dramas as well…like I said extension of family is all.
If someone reading this article was interested in starting their own gallery or artist studio what are some tips you could pass on?
(S) Just do it. Don’t worry about the fancy shmancy stuff other galleries have-if you don’t have it now-use something else until you do. There are no rules unless you make them. Feed off each other in good times and give each other space in not so good. Support your fellow artist and no matter how ‘big’ you get-NEVER forget where you came from. If someone else or a machine made it-so can you. If you build it- they will come ;)
(DM) Working with other like minded artists is a really great way to gain inspiration and is really healthy way to get feedback about the work that you are creating…that was one of the highlights working in a studio with other artists and I think is something that is really important so your work can develop!
(B) Know what you really want before you commit to it. Less frustration in the end and it’s easier to get there with a clear goal.
(J) Start small and don’t act like a twat. The only way we could afford it was to live above the space. Otherwise would have been impossible. Location, location, location! We had a dope spot with massive big windows facing a main road that traffic banks up on every day! You need to be able to have some random foot traffic as well as people who are coming directly.
Did you find networking with other creative’s helped to open avenues of artistic endeavour? Also, was networking helpful in generating new revenue streams?
(B) That just goes hand-in hand it seems. Jobs get passed on. You start doing more collaborations. Your name gets put around, so yes to both.
(S) As always and in other avenues of life- it’s not what you know but who you know. One person can open a hundred doors and other clichés…all true. Networking is ESSENTIAL in generating everything- from other revenue streams to interest.
(J) Always! Its all about the promo. The more people are talking about the show the better. Also big ass crowds make for great promo pics.
I guess I know a whole lot more street artists and weird art collectors than I knew before, and a bunch of scene rapists? Not sure they have really changed the way I paint though.
How did you network? Do you have any tips?
(J) Don’t be arrogant. Be respectful to people. You never know who it is your talking too and how they can help your business.
(S) Be open-minded. Don’t judge books by their covers. Be nice- as everyone knows someone.
Why did per square discontinue?
(DM) We left the gallery to move to Los Angeles and also because we were finding it hard to find enough time to work on our own work and do a good job running the gallery too. The gallery and studio kept running for another year or two after we left.
(B) I can only answer why I left. For me it was a personal thing and I wanted my life back. This wasn’t what was most important for me so that’s where it ended for me.
(S) Per square meter discontinued for a few reasons. The gentrification of the inner city suburbs made greedy landlords push rent to ridiculous, unmanageable heights. We couldn’t keep our fees down and still cover our costs and charging the artists more was’’t really an option as it defeated our purpose. Also our personal lives were changing and the business was taking its toll on our relationships.
I regret giving it up though, as I miss the chaos.
Did you learn anything from the experience?
(DM) One of the most important things we learnt about running the gallery is the other side of the gallery which is something a lot of artists don’t experience. It’s a whole lot of work to run a gallery and it’s something we don’t take for granted with the galleries we have exhibited at.
(B) I think the biggest thing I learned from the whole experience is that it’s easy to get something done if you just simply do it. I know there are other factors involved that need to be considered but when it comes down to it if you know your target it’s not that hard.
Do you still generate your income in the creative industry?
(J) Yep. I now paint murals and commercial artwork with my company Graffix Creative.
(DM) Yes! The only income we make is by creating our work!
(S) I still make and exhibit work around Australia and do commercial illustration, artwork, do workshops and murals privately and commercially to make the majority of my income. Of course because its creative work it is also sporadic so I do compliment it with a slave job occasionally. Plus it keeps me real and gives me inspiration for my creative work … at least that’s what I tell myself. ;) ha ha.
(B) At the moment I’m taking a break from design. Just getting back into painting and drawing again and doing things I want to do creatively. I still freelance design to make ends meet but I try to do as little of it as possible.
I guess there are just more important things, I’d rather be doing than making an income from something creative that’s not satisfying.