Melbourne Art Travel Special: Interview with Alexander Mitchell from Backwoods Gallery
As part of our art travel special edition, we invite our readers to take a virtual journey across the globe. This time, we are speaking about Melbourne, with Alexander Mitchell, who is director of the Melbourne’s Backwoods Gallery. We have already written about Barcelona, Culver City and Berlin, and had interesting talk with Jesse Cory and Dan Armand of 1xRUN, who introduced us with Detroit art and culture scene. We are now directing towards Australia, to Melbourne, in order to explore what this beautiful city has to offer when it comes to art. Australia is sometimes unfairly on margins of the art news, but this country and its cities do have a lot to offer. Melbourne, for example, is not just a beautiful city with friendly people, but also a city that has quite vivid and interesting art scene. In an attempt to find out more about the most important spots of the city’s art scene, we talked with Alexander, who gave us few hints.
Alexander Mitchell is a director of the Backwoods Gallery. Founded in August 2010, the gallery exhibits Australian and international artists with a focus on urban contemporary art, street art and illustration. We spoke with Alexander about the position of Melbourne on international contemporary art scene, about city’s street art, galleries and artists. Alexander was so kind to give us some recommendations – so if you are travelling (or planning to travel) to Melbourne in near future, read the interview, and prepare yourself for an amazing trip to this wonderful city. And if you are an artist, you should definitely consider travelling to Melbourne; as Alexander says: “Melbourne is a good place to be an artist.”
The Position of Melbourne in Global Contemporary Art Scene
WideWalls: Many people living in Europe or North America are not very familiar with contemporary art scene in Australia, and in Melbourne itself. Usually, we say that Belin, New York, London, Hong Kong and some other global cities are global hubs of contemporary art. Would you put Melbourne on the list? How would you (in short) describe contemporary art scene in Melbourne today?
Alexander Mitchell: Melbourne is an incredible incubator for art. It has a close knit and accepting art community which is very focused and hard working. The art scene is also the nucleus for the cities culture. The bars, cafes, clubs, parties and galleries – all really celebrate our artists. Melbourne is a good place to be an artist.
I think, were it not so isolated, most people would list Melbourne as an important city for emerging contemporary art.
The problem is that there aren’t that many opportunities for artists in Melbourne once their careers start to take off. It has almost become the expected trajectory for an artist to leave Melbourne and look for opportunities overseas once they’ve reached a certain point.
I think it’s telling though that the ones who do really well always maintain a Melbourne studio and look forward to coming home.
WideWalls: When it comes to contemporary art, which city has more to offer: Sydney, Melbourne, or maybe even Perth?
AM: Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney all have a lot to offer. When it comes to contemporary art, it’s impossible to give a quantitate distinction between them. Personally, I feel like the culture surrounding the art is much stronger in Melbourne and that it’s a more inspiring environment.
Melbourne Street Art Scene
WideWalls: For those who already visited Melbourne, Hosiel Lane is a well-known place where some great street art can be seen. Are there any other streets or neighborhoods, where amazing street art can be found?
AM: I’ll be honest with you. Hosier Lane is a total joke and a source of endless embarrassment to the Melbourne street art scene. In the mid 2000’s the Melbourne City Council attempted to control graffiti in the city by herding it into a single lane, the result is a government approved cluster fuck and a poor representation of how great Melbourne’s street art can be. Some people have even theorized that the lane itself is damaging the quality of street art across the city, IMO they make a convincing point.
Walk Collingwood, Fitzroy and other parts of Melbourne city, you’ll see some great work. Avoid Hosier like the plague.
WideWalls: I read somewhere that Melbourne was once labeled as “stencil capital of the world”, since stencil art was embraced at an early stage. What about today? Is Melbourne still worthy of the title?
AM: In the early 2000’s, Melbourne experienced a really remarkable explosion of young artists. It was a very exciting time, people making up their own rules, experimenting, bombing every night and forging lasting friendships.
The explosion produced a few generations of great artists before it died down. Artists like James Reka, TwoOne, Ghostpatrol, Miso and Fred Fowler emerged from the fervor. Eventually the movement lost steam, and these remaining artists consolidated their work and matured, each of them going off in their own direction.
I think, in review, my curatorial work sort of follows the same pattern as the artists. I started as the self-taught curator to this movement, very much producing shows ad hoc with absolutely no idea about the art scene. The focus of my shows was on street art and it was all embarrassingly youth oriented, but as the scene matured so did the projects and the focus shifted away from the streets and to new ideas. This is why Backwoods sits in that unique space between street and contemporary art and so do all our artists.
WideWalls: If an art lover is coming to Melbourne for the first time, where would you suggest he or she should go first?
AM: First go get a coffee in the city, somewhere near Flinders Lane. Check whats on at ACMI and the NGV, Tolarno Galleries and then Backwoods.
Walk from the city to Collingwood, once you get to Fitzroy pretty much any path you take will present some good examples of the Melbourne scene. In Collingwood come visit Backwoods, feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know that you’ll be visiting and ask for more information about whats on.
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On Present and Future
WideWalls: You are a director of one of the most renowned Australia’s galleries. How much traveling does your job require?
AM: I’m not sure how renowned we are, but hey, i’ll take the compliment. Thanks.
I spend all my time traveling, I think in the past three years i might have spent 2 months in total in Melbourne. At the moment my time is divided between Paris, Lyon, Tokyo, LA and then back to Melbourne for big projects.
The time that I spend in Tokyo has been really valuable for the gallery. We work with a lot of Japanese artists.
Backwoods Gallery has a really great team, our curator Sean Carroll and gallery manager Tom Groves really take care of 90% of the workload. In the last year i’ve started feeling pretty redundant.
WideWalls: When it comes to personal travels, unrelated to your work, what’s your favorite destination? Where are you planning to travel during the next season’s break, if that’s not a secret?
AM: I love Tokyo and take any excuse I can to be there. I’m currently trying to launch a residency program in Daikanyama.
WideWalls: Finally, what are the Backwoods Gallery next projects? Are you planning something interesting in the near future?
AM: For me, Backwoods is more of a business than a curatorial program. So what really gets me excited is the idea of refining our internal systems, training the staff, slowly growing, being more financially secure and expanding our market. But that’s not very interesting interview material.
We recently opened this very unique project space on a rooftop in the center of Melbourne which we hope to use to produce satellite projects for our main exhibition program, those should be really interesting.
We’re also currently sniffing around Tokyo to open a space, but that’s still up in the air.
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Melbourne (courtesy of calicultural.com.br
Australian Center for Contemporary Art in Melbourne (courtesy of wikipedia.org)
Dirty Harry stencil, Melbourne street art (courtesy of wikipedia.org)
Backwoods Gallery during the exhibition A Study of Hair, detail (courtesy of gallery’s facebook page)3