Interview: The Lock Up

At the end of Hunter Street, towards Pacific Park, a regal building stands. It’s unique; from 1861 to 1982 The Lock Up served as a police station; now you can walk into the old cells and through the yard while experiencing a contemporary art space. The Lock Up isn’t only visual art but extends to performance, music and other creative disciplines. Jessi England Sideris, director of the Lock Up, sits across from me in the staff room. I can still see bars behind her, presumably from an old cell. Many people visit the building to experience the history, “people who have no interest in contemporary art practice come through the building for its history, for its amazing cells and through that view amazing contemporary art practice – introducing people who might not step into a contemporary gallery.”

The Lock Up is a heritage building, therefore not many changes can be made inside. Jessi elaborates on what this means for her team, “we can’t drill into the walls or stick anything on the walls. We have to think of very clever ways to use the bars in the windows or the track lighting that is in the ceiling to suspend things from and work with the elements in place.” Though the Lock Up space could be considered quite macabre with its cells, artists look to more than the space for inspiration. “The challenge with the space is for artists and curators not to speak to that history all the time because it can get tired really quickly. It’s like, how do you work with this as not an empty canvas but one that has a lot going on. How do you actually push out of that very direct reference point.”

Over the past year, Jessi and her team have worked tirelessly to change the way the Lock Up runs; moving from a by application gallery to a curated program where the team could engage with artists more directly. It’s created a massive change for The Lock Up team, “We’ve moved to this model where we are a curated program and we can build the lock up as this contemporary artist space where amazing things happen consistently. In doing that we’ve had to change the funding structure, whereas in the past the artist has had to pay for the space and the tools, the onus is now on us. In a lot of ways we’re a completely new organisation, we’re building the ship as we’re sailing it.”

For such a small team there is a lot happening, especially considering the Lock Up only has two part time staff, a casual install coordinator and a handful of volunteers. Volunteers are responsible for the front desk and educating visitors about what’s on exhibit. A lot of love and dedication has been put into the Lock Up, all the team members are proud of the space. This small staff was one of the reasons for the change in programs, “we’re a tiny organisation trying to do too many things. It was a bit of a schizophrenic identity.”

So what does the Lock Up offer? They have their curated arts program but they also have an artist in residency program. The Lock Up put out an annual call for artists on both Australian and International residency websites. The artist submits a CV of sorts with their practice to date, or perhaps examples of their previous work. The Artist in Residency program gives the artist the opportunity to come and practice, rather than having to put on an exhibit. The program requires a public outcome, so even if there is no exhibit they may do a public talking or something beneficial for the public. The cool thing about the program? It’s very flexible.

“Often once artists reach a certain level of practice there’s a certain expectation of what they will deliver. Their experimentation might happen in the studio but we want to be a place where they can take that experimental work into a public space where there isn’t that pressure of a really established arts organisation or gallery but they’ve still got that public forum to show their work and get the audience response.”

Jessi is very energetic about the program; it is a program that is recognised throughout Australia. There are some big names that come through the doors, from local artists to national or international names. “The strength of the residency program was something we looked into when deciding where we are going next. The quality of the artists that come through the program, as well as how well known the Lock Up was within the broader arts community is amazing.”

So what can you expect from the Lock Up? Quality, history and inspiration from local and international artists. Upcoming exhibits include:

Re: Location, an exhibition presented by Critical Animals as part of This Is Not Art (TiNA) festival : October 2-25

Exhibit A : October 30 – December 6 “Exhibit A examines the topic of crime and criminality while presenting a fertile conceptual ground for artists”

LOOK SEE 2015 : December 11 – January 31 “Annual exhibition featuring a premium selection of contemporary artists and designers from around the globe, each offering up a very special kind of art that packs a punch”


Interview by Jodie Millard on behalf of Culture Hunter.

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Category: News
Region: Newcastle
Artform: Visual Arts New Media And Design,

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