For Ros de Souza, who in 2014 established the collective of Fremantle artists that hosts the biennial ArtWalk Freo, the Australian art scene has changed significantly in the last ten years. A decade ago, she says, it was seen as “tacky” if an artist sold pieces direct from their studio, and the aim was always to exhibit in established galleries. Now, events like ArtWalk – which returns on the weekend 15 and 16 June – instead celebrate the working home studios of local artists, taking people right into the centre of it all to encourage a renewed appreciation for art.
Ros describes a swift and far reaching shift in the Australian art scene; and she’d know. Her husband Ian has been a working artist since 1983, and together they’ve borne the tumultuous nature of the industry. One of many historical slowdowns, changes to superannuation legislation in 2016 made investing in art prohibitively expensive, and led to an outflux of personal and corporate art collections. According to Ros, the industry “took a nose dive almost overnight”, forcing artists to rethink their approach to success.
“The market was already in downturn, but the changes accelerated the closure of some of the more traditional art galleries,” says Ros. “It was the global financial crisis, and art suffered. And art always suffers, because it’s a luxury for some people. It’s the first thing to go. But the up-side of some of these established galleries closing was that artists had to really be resourceful. They had to overcome their shyness of dealing with the public, and take responsibility for their own management.”
Ros says that the major change rests in how artists organise themselves. “Now, artists have formed collectives, they’ve learnt more about marketing, and they’re mobilising together,” she says. “Which is a great thing.”
Ros’s humble local initiative, ArtWalk Freo is an embodiment of this. Ros brought together a group of four founding ArtWalk members in 2014, and this year they’ll host their fourth public event. It’s an opportunity for the public to see the working studios of some of Australia’s most successful artists.
In addition to Ian, who produces delicate works of ink on rice paper, those hosts include fashion designer and painter Megan Salmon, Australia’s leading ceramic artist Pippin Drysdale, and painter and sculptor Michael Knight. The hosts invite emerging and mid-career artists to join their studios for ArtWalk, meaning visitors can also see work from ceramicist Annemieke Mulders, painter and printmaker Harvey Mullen, photojournalist Tom de Souza and sculptor George Howlett.
While Ros says that the art scene at large remains relatively quiet, there’s something special about Fremantle’s artistic community that’s worth celebrating.
“To me, there’s an element of compassion in Fremantle,” says Ros. “There’s diversity, there’s an interest in community that I haven’t seen in other places I’ve lived. There’s a kindness. People are willing to do things for the betterment of the whole, rather than worrying about the self. And if there’s a problem – the Town Hall is full. The artistic community here is strong, and there’s a lot of artists working out of their own studios.”
ArtWalk Freo’s first event, which was produced on a limited budget and near-impossible lead time, saw 400 people through. In 2017, that number had increased to 2000. This year, Ros is expecting visitor numbers to grow significantly again, despite the introduction of a $10 entry fee for adults which will go into a collective fund to support the event in the future.
And a bright future it is, Ros predicts. “Everybody’s an artist now,” she says. “And that’s a great thing! People are creating a lot. Maybe the internet has had this effect of people desperately trying to get away from the digital world – whether it’s through cooking, or singing, or painting, it’s that need to be tactile.”
“Ian always says: “there’s no substitute for dedication.” If you ought to be the best you can be, you get up, and you practice,” says Ros. “He’s made a living as an artist since 1983. We’ve done better as the years have gone on, despite it all. This shows young people that you don’t have to be a starving artist in the garage anymore. Hopefully ArtWalk proves that.”
ArtWalk Freo takes place on the weekend 15 & 16 June. Tickets are $10 for adults and can be purchased online or at the walk’s entrance. More information and the walk’s route can be found at www.artwalkfreo.com.