How did The Narrows begin?
I started The Narrows as an independent project in 2006 with a few friends helping with the design and building the space. I didn't go into it with a considered manifesto, it was more a curatorial project that evolved over time. There was the idea that exhibitions would focus on contemporary art practices and graphic work - print media, print design, archives, collections - essentially it was working outside of the conventional application based, artist run model. I wanted to instigate and curate shows from within the gallery, yet having a small budget meant most of the shows came from private collections, museums or were sourced on Ebay. It was artist-run but the ambitions were equal to that of a small museum or gallery. Because the program evolved over time, some exhibitions worked and some didn't but the crossover was really interesting.
Did the exposure of this crossover come from a lack that you had identified?
I felt that graphic design was not represented in galleries and museums in Australia and was always envious of activities in Europe. There were exhibitions being staged in Switzerland, Amsterdam or London that made me think: why isn't there a platform here? Occasionally you would see a Polish poster exhibition or a furniture design show; exhibitions with established public interest.
There was a Design Centre for a while...
That annoyed me as that was really just a platform for local designer objects and was called the 'National Design Centre'. There were some shows but they didn't really have the curatorial edge that you would get at the Design Museum in London or the Max Museo in Italy where they're identifying these key figures in the world of graphic art...
And acknowledging the creative practice...
With the rise in DIY art and street art, things like illustration and design were being represented in a way that didn't really interest me. One of our first design shows was an exhibition on Ronald Clyne for Folkways Records, curated by John Nixon and Stephen Bram. This was the first real exposure for the gallery and subsequent versions of this exhibition were held at Art Space in Auckland and Gallery 5610 in Tokyo. The collection keeps growing and is now 120. Clyne designed around 700 covers for the label. After that show we approached Experimental Jetset to do a show on their posters. That was probably the time we crossed over into blog culture. We became interesting to a certain sector of Melbourne cultural community and we were blogged about through certain sites. From there it was about having conversations with people and being approached... I didn't really have the ambition to create a gallery that would be a centre for graphic art but by the time we left that space 5 years later it had gained a sort of worldwide notoriety, a profile as one of the few places that exhibited graphic art outside the big institutions like the Design Museum, but without the budget!
The Design Museum is very product based, whereas your focus seemed to be primarily on 2D, paper based work...
That was purely coming from my own interest, there wasn't an agenda not to include architecture or product design and certainly in the next stage or evolution of the gallery I can imagine that introduction of multidisciplinary practice. Our shows would include posters, books or record covers, flyers, printed ephemera and quite often that material is easy to display, easy to transport and is accessible - you could approach another museum, design studio or artist and ask to loan or buy a collection of printed material.
Posters being the ephemera commonly associated with graphic design history...
We did a show on Swedish graphic designer John Melin, who I found in an issue of Grafik and became quite curious about the posters he was doing for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Poster design in the 60s had a stronger relationship with contemporary art and more scope for experimentation and play. With larger institutions in Australia, which are comparable to the Moderna Museet like the NGV and MCA, their promotional material is quite safe. It's very typical to have the exhibiting artist's key piece as the main focus. Poster design has been led by cinema poster design - where in the 1950s and 60s you had very experimental, illustrative, graphic based posters for films. Nowadays the poster has the 'star' or key image up front in the same model used for most commercial advertising. If the name of the gallery or logo or key artwork isn't featured then it's not ticking the boxes from a marketing point of view.
What about the promotional material for The Narrows?
When I was studying fine art and practising as a graphic designer I was quite aware that the crossover doesn't always work and posters aren't always relevant in a gallery space. A poster on the street doesn't need to be framed and pulled into a museum because the context works in its original form. So as a way to bring graphic design into the gallery, I introduced A3 posters for all of our exhibitions. I also wanted a platform for my own work so I created graphic material that gave the gallery an identity through its printed material. We used them as mailers; it could accommodate an essay, it could act as a catalogue or just a promotional flyer or poster. They were pinned or pasted up around the city without the identity of the gallery being obvious. The format and the paper stock and the printing and the folding became the identity. In the beginning I remember asking a group of artists if a $500 printer's fee for the posters was fair to ask as a contribution if they were exhibiting (given we didn't have rental fees). And the majority said no - they were following the trend that you didn't need a printed invite - that things happened electronically. But that general opinion changed over time...
Once The Narrows had become better known?
Yes. It would often become a collaborative process in designing poster. The artists are not usually part of that process and it created good relationships and collaborative projects, which evolved into publishing. We've now published 6 books with artists.
It feels like graphic design is in crisis within the mainstream. It's somewhere between the artist doing what they want and the commercial artist doing what they're told...
The client has evolved and is exposed to the process now, whereas the process or skill 15 years ago was similar to that of another trades person - manual layout, typesetting and printing. Now people have access to software and know 'someone' who tinkers on Photoshop or simply designs in Microsoft Publisher... But the idea of a crisis?
I'll rephrase - specialised design and print is thriving, but the everyday designer, designing for the everyday person, lacks an assured position...
Well, it doesn't have a rich history either. It's hard to comment because you speak from a certain generation as well. Graphic design is a solitary process for the most part; you're working on your own without the performative element of fine art or architecture and the idea of celebrity doesn't really exist as much. On the one hand, a graphic designer who is working as a commercial artist is working with a public outcome. Then independently or for self promotional work or if they have a special relationship with their client, they can then create something more personal. Many designers will have the two sides - commercial and independent. I was always interested in the processes of both non-commercial and commercial artists, the similarities that they share. The collection of information and research, the application of an idea.
Do you have other curatorial plans, now The Narrows is closed?
When The Narrows closed down I wanted to maintain a curatorial profile. I realised these shows can still exist, just shown in an alternate location. Having contacts at the university and its facilities opens up the opportunities to having artist residencies and public lectures. There's a show I'm working on with Studio Vista paperback books and a residency at Monash University with a Japanese graphic designer, Toshihiro Katayama.
So The Narrows still exists, just not a physical address.
I would have loved to have kept going on Flinders Lane but a break has been interesting, if anything, to look back. When you're working on 12 or 13 shows a year there's no time to critically reflect on what elements work - when one show is up, you're already working on the next one. Ideally I'd like to open another space and there certainly was a place for it in the city. I like the idea of a permanent archive of graphic art which is one display. Most of the Australian design archives are boxed up in the Power House Museum, so unless it's someone like Martin Sharpe, most of that work doesn't get shown.
The Narrows website has a concise archive of past exhibitions, upcoming shows and a store of their publications.
Photography property of The Narrows and Double Days.