It rained the day Verso met Penny Griggs and Kate Moskwa - the team behind the South Australian Living Artists Festival (SALA). As we waited in the lobby of their office (sponsored by Fisher Jeffries), we greedily drank in the exhibition on show - new glass work from the JamFactory. We hurriedly whipped round to view every piece before Penny came down the stairs. For such a varied and large festival we were surprised to walk into a small, bright office and see the whole SALA team - all two of them - settling in ready to begin the interview.
Verso: Can you give us a brief run down of your organisation?
Penny: SALA was founded in 1998 by Paul Greenway and Sam Hill Smith. The core aim for this festival was to connect and build audiences within the visual arts. The first year there were a total of 41 exhibitions and the festival ran for one week. Last year we saw 600+ exhibitions and approximately 5000 artists participate in SALA. This year we expect there will be even more.
Each year we have different regions and communities who plan and look forward to SALA beyond the CBD. Its fantastic to see the non-traditional gallery spaces that also get involved - the local butcher, café and bottle shop have exhibitions - everyone gets involved.
SALA allows the wider community to acknowledge the role artists play in their communities.
Verso: How long have you held your roles here at SALA? Were you involved beforehand and how did you become involved?
Penny: We are both employed full-time at SALA all year round. We also have just hired a part time admin assistant, and we are funded through the State Government. This is my fifth year as SALA’s General Manager.
Kate: This is my fourth year as Program Co-ordinator. I’d also run a panel discussion for emerging curators a number of years ago. Prior to working at SALA was at the Fringe, so another open access festival using the registration model. My academic background is in art history and theory and arts management.
Penny: I have twenty five years in arts management and marketing. I had worked for the Festival Centre before this.
Verso: What makes SALA unique?
Penny: Primarily it's open access nature, the fact that any artist can be involved. From professional artists to hobby artists to art students, there is nothing else in Australia that is comparable. Even globally, we’ve yet to hear of another festival that showcases purely visual arts and living artists. It’s this democratic nature that means not only do we have artists at all stages of their careers exhibiting during SALA but at a range of traditional and non-traditional gallery spaces.
That overlap of the professional arts sector and the community aspect means there is a broad level of ownership of the festival regardless of the level of participation. The general public, I think, feel connected to it and recognise it as a peak time to exhibit and experience visual arts.
This festival is also relatively young in comparison to other festivals like the Adelaide Fringe and Adelaide Festival. But, the brand is really strong.
Kate: SALA gives people permission to explore their community through art. The venues are so diverse there can be a great sense of discovery. You might accidentally see a SALA exhibition while getting coffee. The venue sticker as well helps strengthen the SALA brand.
Penny: Yes! Some businesses even forget to take them down at the end of SALA. They end up displaying the stickers for every year they have been involved. They end up being a real badge of pride. It’s great to see small businesses embracing the festival in that way.
Verso: To our knowledge there aren’t any festivals like SALA interstate - so what do you think makes it work in SA?
Penny: Certainly the size of the population. In big cities, festivals get lost. I mean, the Fringe is a good example of this - while there is a Melbourne Fringe and a Sydney Fringe - the Adelaide Fringe can really take over the city and become unavoidable. It’s the same with SALA.
Adelaide is also very walkable. People will get out the SALA guide and maps and choose a part of the city to explore or walk from one end to another.
Kate: It's really accomplishable in one day or a certain time frame in Adelaide. More than that, Adelaide just seems to be a real festival state! There is a real openness to try and explore. In the metropolitan area people often explore their local communities but additionally our regional areas are really close too. You will often here of people seeking out a few wineries and café’s in the Barossa or Fleurieu during SALA and making a real day of it.
This way people discover new venues as well as artists. It’s really experience driven entertainment. We need to bring those number plates back you know? The ones that say “SA - the festival state”!
Penny: It’s the same with the Venice Biennale though. They use the same theory in that the festival is all in one contained space.
We also have the benefit of this festival being one which engages the locals with their local community. People need an excuse to get out and engage, especially in rural communities. We often see that participation in SALA initiates street parties and in this way brings people together to connect.
Verso: Why is it so important to celebrate ‘living’ artists?
Penny: [laughs] Because they still need to live!
Perhaps the best celebration we have of the living artist is the SALA Monograph. This is a publication on one South Australian living artist which is produced each year and is funded by Arts South Australia. So far there have been sixteen editions.
This really came about with Paul Greenway acknowledging that twenty years ago there were only really two books of South Australian living artists available. This wasn’t good enough. As a result he, alongsIde SALA, decided to honour one artist from South Australia a year by producing this book through Wakefield Press.
This publication and festival is a big part of valuing artists. Australia as a country is not good at acknowledging the contribution of artists. Which is strange considering that Europe is so good at it and we are build on a European model. But sport really seems to take priority here. However, there are so many people who work as artists and it is important to celebrate them.
Verso: How do you choose a SALA feature artist?
Penny: Artists apply through Arts SA and then a panel chooses who they would like to feature through the SALA monograph.
During the last four years of SALA we have also featured that artist on our posters and through our marketing. Many artists who’ve been featured say it’s not only a boost for their careers but also acknowledges that art can be a career.
Not only do the artists get good publicity, but it’s a good hook for SALA. It makes the festival more identifiable (by aligning the featured artist's work with the media campaign). You want the featured artist's work to be recognisable and by tying it all together, the monograph, the cover of the catalogue, keynote speaker and the posters - it acts as an anchor for the festival.
It also helps artists to feel valued by acknowledging them in their own state. We’ve had feedback from previous featured artists that they are in fact better known overseas than in their hometown. Being the feature artist means something different for every artist. Also coincidentally, this year's featured artist Christopher Orchard, was involved in the first SALA back in 1998.
Kate: Yeah, it’s going to be really interesting having Chris as the feature artist. He is so well known in the arts education sector. Many people will know him from having been taught by him at Adelaide Central School of Art. We’ve had lots of people tell us about their personal connections to him through art school over the years.
Verso: SALA has just begun the SALA Festival Patron’s Art Writer’s Award - why do you think it is important to acknowledge writers in a festival that’s all about visual art?
Penny: It’s really about encouraging arts writers to write about South Australian artists. We want to maintain the core value of SALA, by encouraging a dialogue about South Australian artists and building an audience for that.
The media for sharing arts writing has changed and in the last few years there has been a lapse in good critical arts writing. But we are now seeing a resurgence particularly through online platforms. Which is excellent we really want to encourage good arts writing.
It’s the Patrons Art Writer’s Award and so Paul Greenway is generously supporting it.
The award also serves to combat the false perception that artists can’t communicate in any other way than by making art.
Kate: Absolutely! Some of the most interesting an in-depth conversations I have had are with artists. That’s why I like working in the arts. Artists think about a range of subjects in curious and unpredictable ways (not just about the arts), and it’s not acknowledged outside the sector.
Verso: Its 20 years of SALA - What do you think has made SALA so successful?
Penny: I think we’ve covered some of that already but it really allows anyone to self identify as an artist. I mean this can be both good and bad but it means that everyone knows someone who has been a part of SALA.
Kate: SALA allows all these pockets of the visual arts scene to come out and celebrate together. Some identify very comfortably with the arts community and others feel they are more outsider artists; there are so many different parts of the ecosystem.
Verso: In what ways has SALA changed in its 20 years?
Kate: It evolves organically every year. Each year we see unexpected themes come out of the festival as a whole. We also have an artist advisory group. This is a group of artists who advise us on public programming. They advise us on how to keep the festival relevant to them as active members of the arts community.
For instance The SALA Forum is in in it’s fourth year now. That was borne out of consultation with the artist advisory group.
Penny: They also endorsed a Pecha Kucha night last year. We team up with the Mercury Cinema as well for SALA On Screen which allows established artists to engage with the general public outside of exhibitions. Open studios have also grown quite popular with our audiences.
Kate: People love seeing art behind the scenes.
Penny: But there were also plenty of public programmes organised in the beginning of SALA that were just as exciting. There were arts breakfasts and trips to the APY lands.
But each year the event are rolled out differently. There are different local councils who create events and experiences that mean they no longer need to be run by SALA. For instance the last couple of years we have run SALA in the garden but now there are a few local councils running similar programmes so we aren't doing that this year.
Verso: How many SALA shows (approx) do you go to each year?
[Penny and Kate look at each other and laugh]
Kate: One hundred?
Penny: One hundred and fifty each I’d say.
Whats the most we’ve done in one night?
Kate: Ah, seven. Seven openings in one night. But we try to get to as many as possible.
Penny: We even do regional day trips. Though we don’t often tell people who we are. We go to a lot of openings. I also open a lot of exhibitions.
Verso: What’s the most rewarding part of SALA for you / what are you looking forward to this year?
Kate: The privilege of enabling artists to do their work. To be a part of that, almost like a fan club, is so rewarding.
Penny: I love that I can help artists find audiences to engage with ... and of course engaging with the artists themselves.
I am looking forward to the Pecha Kucha forum. The Holy Rollers Studio also have an exciting exhibition which is bookended by an opening and closing performance. ACE Open is having their official opening with an exhibition by Sera Waters on the 20th of July to run through SALA. Chris Orchard’s drawing exercises run in conjunction with Adelaide Central School of Art.
Kate: Samstag have Trent Parke &Narelle Autio Michelle Nikou. GAGprojects is showing Julia McInerney I’m also really looking forward to The Great Suffragist Dirigible exhibition celebrating South Australian womens' contribution to the State. And I’m looking forward to The Department of Non-Corporeal Affairs at Art Pod - they might even make an appearance at the SALA Forum.
Penny: Oh, and FELTspace has South Australian artist’s in all three galleries this year. FRAN festival also kind of abuts SALA as it starts on the 25th of August so there will be lots of female South Australian and non-South Australian artists showing at key spaces around that time.
Verso: Tell us something most people don’t know about SALA.
Penny: [laughs] That there are only two staff! That our office is so small! Um, probably that we don’t organise all six hundred plus exhibitions.
Kate: I mean, we do organise some shows and events but mostly we just work on the democratic system.
Penny: Maybe our engagement with China? Through the State Government's China Engagement Strategy we are able to take five painters on an exchange to a painting academy in Shandong. This year we took Deidre But-Husaim, Thom Buchanan, Louise Feneley, Luke Thurgate and Damien Shen.
Or maybe our artists in residence programs? These were developed four years ago to connect artists with unusual spaces. These residencies happen for SALA but also outside of the SALA period. We have residencies with Country Health in Whyalla and Berri for local artists, as well as residencies in the Festival Centre, Glenside and SAHMRI.
The rain clears and conversation drifts. We take some photos and mull over the SALA posters from 1998 to today. There are common connections, artists or venues who have shown since the beginning, and we all consider what it takes to stay active in the arts for 20 years. We wonder to ourselves if Verso will still be running 20 years from now.