Photographer Anke Stäcker, image from city in Poland

Caption: Stäcker’s images refashion city remnants such as this plump sofa outside a ruin that is still habited in Poland’s Władysława Hinterhof district. Photography ©Anke Stäcker

Art in the city: the joy of discovery for Anke Stäcker

I love going to galleries and thoroughly enjoy the tours of contemporary galleries that I have done with photographer and art lover, Anke Stäcker.

Going around galleries was always an important part of my travels, mixing the must-see nationals with as many smaller, independent ones that I could find.

Gallery opening hours in Sydney though often elude me – different days, different times each day, with long walks from the nearest public transport (or parking spot in the choice suburbs in which galleries are often located). At least I get to know Sydney’s backstreets, and backstreets, as I have found, are home to many an unlikely exhibition.

For directionally challenged people like me, attending Discover Sydney’s Contemporary Art Galleries tours, run by the WEA for the last few years, is a huge help. No longer on my own I reach the outlets, well-known ones and others down those backstreets and laneways, meet gallery curators, artists, learn a thing or two about their history and current exhibits, and mix with other art-lovers also on the walks.

The WEA tours are taken by Anke Stäcker, a photomedia artist who also calls herself “an urban explorer”. She came to Australia from Germany in the late 1980s and has led tours since 2010. Over the several years I have visited galleries with Anke I have learnt the joy of discovery. Her eyes light up when she tells us about a new gallery that’s opened in Sydney’s hidden corners. In contrast, her face creases up in disappointment when she relays news of a closure, the last about the dearly departed Watters Galley. But there will always be another avenue, another renovated industrial warehouse, another staircase to climb within many of these character-filled outlets.

Why did you decide to run the WEA’s city gallery tours? Had you run any other similar tours before this?

Anke: It was a coincidence as a friend of mine was running tours through the WEA before me and we often talked about it. When she went back to live in Germany, she passed the contact on to me. I applied with a new course outline taking into account the newest changes in the Sydney art gallery scene.

I like to show people the variety of art galleries in different neighbourhoods. Apart from the art, they also enjoy the experience of being in parts of the city they may not have seen before.

Have there been any standouts for you and your students over the years?

Standouts are usually when a few things come together. From my experience these are:

  • Special events, like the Sydney Biennale or other bigger events at Carriageworks or the National Art School Gallery, but also the discovery of hard-to-find galleries.
  • Talks by artists, directors and gallery managers to the group.
  • When the people in the group are enthusiastic about the art and galleries, and they see and interact with each other and the tutor.

How important do you think it is for a city to have many smaller, private and/or cooperatively run galleries and not just the more establishment ones?  

Smaller privately or artist-run galleries are important, because they indicate that the city is alive, that there are people with ideas and initiative. However, some of these enterprises can’t survive, often because of high rents and low income as many of these initiatives are driven by showing cutting-edge art and not by making a profit. On the other hand, the establishment, larger scale ones are contributing enormously to the art scene in Sydney. I am personally impressed with Carriageworks, located in the old Eveleigh Rail Yards in Redfern. They bring outstanding international and Australian contemporary art to Sydney.

For a decade or more the grungy, working-class Chippendale and adjacent Darlington had been the best-kept secret to find small alternative galleries and artist-run initiatives. After the redevelopment of the old Carlton Brewery into Central Park (in 2010), a new phase began with the establishment of the Chippendale Creative Art Precinct. This not-for-profit organisation promoted Chippendale as a creative cluster and cultural hub and sponsored new galleries. One of them was the Kensington Contemporary in Kensington Street where I had a solo exhibition in 2016. Then, in 2017, the precinct folded and subsequently their sponsored galleries closed. However, a new commercial gallery opened in the same year and I am sure other initiatives will follow. And, of course, there is the amazing White Rabbit, a philanthropic enterprise with thematic exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art. It is still worth going to Chippendale.

For a long time, East Sydney only had the Watters Gallery, then two others followed. All of them were a bit too far apart to do a walk in that area. Now there are so many that you can’t include them all in the one walk. Damien Minton was the gallery manager of the former Watters Gallery. Visits were particularly interesting as he took the group to the extensive stock area and talked about the history and mission of this gallery with its legendary directors having run it for over 50 years and nurturing artists along the way. Other galleries in the area are equally welcoming. 

Watters Gallery closed at the end of 2108 because Frank Watters and Geoffrey Legge, the founders and directors, retired. While this is the end of an era, East Sydney is still one of the most vibrant art environments in this city. These developments show the fluctuations and dynamics of the art scene in a big city. Therefore, it is essential for a gallery tour guide to be alert about these changes and it is almost impossible to predict six months in advance which galleries will be visited.

What do you hope to instil in your students?

I hope to excite and inspire and make them go back to the places we’ve visited. I want them to know where the galleries are and realise that they don’t have to be intimidated to enter a gallery, and that they are also welcome to go to the openings.

Does taking the tours feed into your own work?

It does in that sense that I want to see what other artists do and I also want to be up to date about the galleries.

NB: It’s not a coincidence that other classes Stäcker takes have a city bent. I have been on a photography class where we took photos of city streets from different points of view and specific approaches such as blurring, colour contrasts, lines and circles. I also went to Forgotten Female Artists of the Weimar Republic, which included Jeanne Mammen, who observed Berlin through its streets, cafes, cabaret (including Toulouse-Lautrec like dancers), androgynous fashion, and what she called “new women”. Having survived World War II, she then thrived during periods of post-war creative expression.

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