• Gabby Bortolot

In Depth: A conversation with The Substation

The Substation is a multi-art space presenting a curated program of contemporary and experimental work, I interviewed CEO and Artistic Director, Brad Spolding.


Image: Yandell Walton Shifting Surrounds, 2019, Photo: Matthew Stanton


The Substation plays such a pivotal place for the arts in the west, can you tell us a bit about the space and what its role in the community is?


The Substation is an old substation. The building itself is over 100 years old, it was decommissioned as a substation in the 60s, and then it was abandoned for about 40 years. There's actually a double garage out the back, which is what became the substation. The substation that does the same thing is basically like a little suitcase bolted to the ground outside. It's a beautiful architectural building and it's a utility. It wasn't built to look the way it does, that's just how they built utility buildings in that period. There are other substations in Melbourne. I think there's four, but ours is the only one with the original interior architecture.


So about 20 years ago, a group of local community members set about renovating the building and turning it into an artspace. And then 10 years ago, the first director was appointed, Jeremy Gaden and it was named The Substation. So I am the second director to direct The Substation and I’ve been there about five years.


We program contemporary art, right across different art forms. We have a pretty big visual arts program and performance program, which includes quite a bit of music, and we're the only multi-artform space in the western suburbs that's dedicated to contemporary arts practice. There are other venues in the west, but they focus more on community arts rather than contemporary arts. So our program focuses on contemporary arts practice and the ideas around that. We're the only ones in the west to solely focus on contemporary arts, but we take a pretty broad view on what that means. In terms of our music program, we program right across the board from art music, new music, the Australian Art Orchestra, which is based at The Substation, all the way through to more club music, techno, experimental, and everything in between.


We’re funded by local council, state government, and the federal government and we're a not-for-profit organisation. We have a committee of management who appoints me and oversees the organisation, they're ultimately responsible for the organisation and they're all volunteers. The majority of them are local people who have skills and experience in running an arts organisation. In the local community, we're funded by the council, they're one of our key funders. We work with local artists, we have a volunteer program for local people and we have an overarching community engagement strategy, which includes hiring the venue for free to local, not for profit community groups, and we do around 15 to 20 of these events a year.


Would you like to talk a little bit about your role at The Substation and what it involves?


I am the artistic director and CEO, so I am also responsible for the entire organisation, but I have an amazing executive producer who runs the staff, finances, funding agreements, and a lot of our stakeholder engagement. As the artistic director, my job is to develop and put together the presentation program. However, I’ve never done that alone. There are many other curators who work on the gallery program, who work on the music program, and we collaborate with a lot of other promoters and collectives who put together shows with us and we have done since the beginning. So it's certainly not me, sitting back and selecting this and that, it's more about facilitating conversations with other curators and presenters, and then trying to make it into some kind of sense of the overall program.


We also don't have programs of anything, so we have a whole bunch of shows across the year. They're all equally valued. They all sit together. We don't have a female artists program for September, for example, or a program of culturally diverse artists. We actively prioritise female, non-binary artists, culturally diverse artists, First Nation artists all the way through the program and every show is as important as every other show.


I'm very involved in raising money, writing applications, dealing with stakeholders at local, state, and federal government levels. Raising money is a massive part of the job. We're not a commercial venue we’re a government subsidised institution, we’re a public space. In developing the program it’s also thinking about what creative development we're doing, and what artists we're working with, we have resident artists who have a studio or an office at The Substation, so who they are, and how they interact with the building. Last week we announced that next year there will be four new curators at large, so there's kind of a curatorial team now. My job is with them to develop the program as we go on from now, it was a way to formalise the sort of thing that was happening anyway.


Photo: Leela Schauble

What’s it like operating in the west of Melbourne? What makes it different?

I've worked in the west for 10 or 15 years. When I started at The Substation and began to develop the program for 2016, we made the decision that we would focus on contemporary arts practice because no one else in the west was doing it. There’s not that many places in the suburbs, certainly back then that were doing it. And, you know, some people when I started said that you couldn't have a contemporary art space in the western suburbs, because the people were working-class people, and they needed - this is literally what they said ‘a straightforward story told to them in a straightforward way’, which was pretty insulting and really off the mark. I think what we proved over the last five years is that it's a really dynamic changing part of Melbourne. There are tonnes of young people who live in the west and there are tonnes of artists in the west. That's how I ended up in the west, I used to live in the north and I slowly moved over. It's a really interesting and dynamic part of Melbourne, and that felt like a huge opportunity to do something. People were going from Newport and Footscray into the city to club shows, exhibitions, and contemporary performances. All we had to do was to get them to come the other way, and we're actually super close to the city, like 20 minutes from Flinders Street Station. I know there's a big sort of mental barrier for people who don't live in the west, but we have audiences from all over Melbourne. We did a piece of work with other venues in the west around audience data, and we had the biggest spread of any of the venues by miles and we were the only venue that had an audience south of the river. And that goes back to this idea of exclusivity but also that we have special one-off shows in a really special building and we want that to be the experience that people have when they come to The Substation. We try to program for as broad an audience as possible. We present contemporary art, sometimes it's complex in terms of the ideas that it's dealing with and our job is to present it in a way that allows people to access it in different ways. To be able to enjoy it, to be able to experience it, and to be able to really investigate the ideas.


Who are some of your favourite local artists at the moment?


I think we're extremely lucky in Melbourne to have amazing artists across many different art forms, particularly in music, I think that the electronic music scene in Melbourne is really undervalued. The electronic and experimental music scene in Melbourne is massive. It's like world-class. Places like MESS, the Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio are doing amazing things. A lot of those artists are really big international heavy hitters but because they don't play the guitar, they’re not so well known. One thing I would say is, my hope is that local Melbourne audiences really come out and support local Melbourne artists. We're really lucky to live in Melbourne, you know, it might not seem it right now, but at some point, this will be over. I just really hope that people really value the artists in this city, because it's a pretty good city to be in.


Image: Caterina Barbieri, 2019, Photo: Leela Schauble


The Substation

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