Audiences as artists: ACE opens doors for public programs

Contemporary art organisation ACE Open is using workshops to bring audiences closer to artists.

In 2017, celebrated South Australian artist Sera Waters hosted two embroidery workshops at ACE Open. The sold-out sessions complemented Waters’ exhibition Domestic Arts, and invited the general public to experience what it was like to be the artist whose works could be seen on display. The success of these workshops was greatly encouraging for ACE, which, at the time, was less than two months old.

Since its launch in July 2017, ACE has performed at an astonishingly high level. The organisation was established under slightly desperate circumstances, as a rescue operation for the Australian Experimental Art Foundation and the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia. While respecting its roots, ACE Open has quickly developed its own identity as a bold, responsive centre for contemporary art in South Australia.

While art fans would have been sympathetic had ACE decided to take their first years slow, ACE has done no such thing. Since its first days, the centre has been committed to a comprehensive program of exhibitions, public engagement, and professional development beyond any reasonable expectations. This is a small arts organisation doing big things.

ACE Open front room (Photo: Josie Withers)

The latest entrée into the world of ACE is their workshop program. The success of Waters’ sessions in August 2017 showed there was an appetite for interaction with ACE’s exhibitions. Since then, public programs coordinator Vivian Cooper has been working with artists all around Australia to develop a suite of interactive workshops for ACE. These are designed to bring audiences a little closer to the art they view. Cooper has a national reputation for audience engagement; as a producer, and in previous roles at Tate Galleries, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, she has demonstrated a keen interest in breaching the divide between education and art.

“One thing that’s very important to me is the different ways people learn,” says Cooper. “Some really flourish through hands-on, tactile learning, which is what workshops can provide. The workshops are also a social learning space, where we hope to encourage lots of discussion. There’s a really special atmosphere created when people sit and make together, and it’s that social, collaborative spirit that we want our public programs to foster.

“We want to deliver a comprehensive approach to contemporary art on a range of different levels,” says Cooper. “We do this with our artist and studio spaces, and through the exhibitions, but we also wanted to think about artists as audiences. Professional development and workshops that cater to the general public are part of this. What we want to achieve is to tie these workshops back to an artist’s practice: how they use their medium to communicate ideas and themes.”

The next chance to take part? Saturday 26 May: Graphics & Typography in Printmaking with Emily Floyd and Jake Holmes.

Emily Floyd’s work Icelandic Puffins is currently showing at Samstag Gallery for the 2018 Adelaide Biennial: Divided Worlds. This artwork is the latest in a suite of works Floyd has created to present different language systems. She has previously worked with Cyrillic script and the Kesh alphabet (visualising novelist Ursula Le Guin’s fictional, feminist language); Icelandic Puffins plays with the language surrounding the economic crisis that gripped Iceland in 2008–09. With her Cyrillic works, Floyd presented a workshop with a Russian translator; this time, she’s excited to work with Jake Holmes (creator of the C’mon Aussie C’mon poster campaign) to physically put words into participants’ hands.

“Workshops are a great way ‘in’ to an artwork,” says Floyd. “It’s a different way to experience the art. This workshop will ask the audience to inhibit the worldview of the work I have in the Adelaide Biennial.”

Telling Tales Workshop with artist Emily Floyd (Photo: Jacquie Manning)

Floyd explains that one-day workshops are helpful lessons for artists as well as the general public. “These one-day projects can be really fruitful. You set parameters and have to achieve something in a short space of time. You can try things outside your normal approach, which can lead to great shifts in your practice.”

Hosting a workshop is a valuable experience for an artist, too. “As an artist, you can have particular ideas about what ‘your’ art is and how it should look, so it’s tempting to want to control that. I want the participants to take control – to inhibit ‘my’ art and make something all their own. It can be difficult for artists to let that happen, but it’s good for us!”

With this autonomy, the workshops aren’t simply exercises in duplication or mimicry. The workshops are designed to be personal, informed by the participants.

To Waters’ workshops in 2017, participants brought along an object, image or phrase that had a connection to their home. “It was really personal,” says Cooper. “People brought photographs of their grandparents who had passed away, and things like that. With that additional level of meaning, that personal side, you gain an extra level of connection with the artist’s practice. You understand why they use that medium to tell those stories. You reach an artist’s practice in a completely different way.”

This personal approach will be revisited in June, when Brisbane’s Julie Fragar presents an oil painting masterclass at ACE. Participants are asked to bring photos and images from their personal archives; the pictures will be used to inform the painted works.

“There’s a lot of hard work in setting everything up, but there is so much reward in that work,” says Cooper. “Like anything, the workshops depend on how people react, and how the artists feel. Luckily, the responses have all been positive. ACE is evolving, so we’re able to take some direction from those responses. We certainly plan to continue running workshops, as the want is there.”

For future programs, Cooper is interested in reaching out to younger South Australians, and encourages teachers or schools to get in touch. “We’re hopeful to grow programming for all ages. We started with workshops for adults, as that’s the general audience, but contemporary art is for all of us. There’s contemporary art across all lines of culture, and I’d love to start connecting with schools and exploring those ideas with young people. It’s something we’re really interested in as we grow as an organisation.”

ACE Open workshops 2018:

Emily Floyd workshop, with Jake Holmes
Skill: Printmaking
Saturday, May 26 10am – 4.30pm
$149, includes all materials, artist presentation at Samstag and light refreshments
Book via aceopen.art

Julie Fragar workshop
Skill: Painting
Sunday, June 10, 11am – 4.00 pm
$119, includes all materials and light refreshments
Book via aceopen.art

Carly Snoswell workshop
Skill: weaving
Sunday, July 1, 11.30am – 4.00pm
$69
Book via aceopen.art

Header image: Telling Tales workshop (Photo: Jacquie Manning)

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