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Melissa Loughnan of Utopian Slumps

Studio Visit

14th September, 2012
Lucy Feagins
Friday 14th September 2012

Melissa Loughnan of Utopian Slumps.  Photo - Jake Walker

Misha Hollenbach at Tokyo Art Fair 2012.  Photo - Melissa Loughnan

Venus 1, screenprint on paper by Misha Hollenbach 2012.

Buddhist Orange Banana Diptych, 2012 by Amber Wallis.

Amber Wallis at the Melbourne Art Fair 2012.  Photo - Jake Walker

Melissa Loughnan makes her own luck.  She is one of those incredibly hardworking, ambitious, self-made local success stories - and regardless of your interest in fine art collecting or curatorship, you honestly just have to tip your hat to this lass for simply GETTING STUFF DONE.  What could be more impressive, really, than having ace ideas and just making them happen!?

Melissa first established Utopian Slumps in February 2007 as a non-profit curator-run arts initiative, motivated simply by a drive to create a space where she would be able to curate exhibitions (she was just 24 at the time).  Before long, and without a great deal of planning or strategy, Utopian Slumps quickly gathered a loyal following in the indie / arty circles of Melbourne.  Following an incredibly successful three years, and a steep learning curve,  Melissa re-launched her business as a commercial gallery in Melbourne’s CBD in April 2010.  So now, she's a proper art dealer.  Very well played!

Melissa is not once to rest on her laurels.  Aside from building the presence of Utopian Slumps locally, she's also expanding to international markets, having exhibited at the Art Forum Berlin, Auckland Art Fair and Art Fair Tokyo in the past two years.  She regularly consults to private collectors, and curates various projects outside of her own gallery (such as the seasonal exhibition program at Circa restaurant in St Kilda).  Last year she self published a beautiful book, documenting Utopian Slump's early 'Collingwood Years'.  Currently, she is collaborating with Folk Architects on public art, foyer installation and other creative projects which operate under the moniker 'Utopian Folk'.

Under Melissa's direction, Utopian Slumps represents a stable of thirteen exciting Australian and New-Zealand based artists, including Rhys Lee, Misha Hollenbach and Amber Wallis.

MASSIVE thanks to Melissa for this insightful and super inspiring interview!

Tell us a little about your background – where did you grow up, what did you study, what path led you to founding Utopian Slumps in 2007?

I grew up in Melbourne, completing a Bachelor of Creative Arts, Postgraduate Diploma in Art History and Master of Art Curatorship from The University of Melbourne. While I was studying I interned at the Queensland Art Gallery and Ian Potter Museum of Art and completed a curatorial mentorship under Rebecca Coates at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA). In the final years of my masters I also worked in the Exhibitions Department at Melbourne Museum project managing design exhibitions.

When I founded the gallery I was simply looking for a space that would allow me to curate exhibitions in, as I was finding it difficult to break into the art world as a curator. I was offered an affordable space in Collingwood through a friend of a friend and thought that I would start a non-profit project space. I didn’t have a business plan, hadn’t spoken to any funding bodies - I was only twenty-four years old when the space first opened.

I’d met a lot of really talented emerging artists on install crews at ACCA and Melbourne Museum, and my first year of programming developed out of those relationships. I coined the space a ‘CRI’ or ‘Curator-Run Initiative’ – the exhibition program was curated along the premise of a craft or ‘of the hand’ aesthetic – rejecting slick installation and video art in favour of the lo-fi or handmade.

The name of the gallery came from artist Jess Johnson who was also an ACCA installer. I’d been brainstorming names for a while and she gave me a list of ideas, all of them amazing. One of them was ‘Utopian Slumps’ – which is the name of a painting by American artist Ed Ruscha that was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2005. The name had resonance for me as it referenced the experience of the Collingwood space – its entrance was via a dingy alley filled with skips, old mattresses, graffiti and pigeons, then up a pigeon-poo encrusted rickety steel staircase to a clean white cube. The name Utopian Slumps also represents to me the common plight of an artist or arts worker – its utopian ideals and the slumps of reality!

Can you tell us how Utopian Slumps has changed since the early days, starting as a not-for-profit space and emerging in 2010 into a commercial gallery? How have your goals and vision for the gallery changed over the past 5 years?

After running Utopian Slumps for three years in Collingwood I was slowly coming to the realisation that relying on government funding was speculative at best. Funding bodies asked me to operate the gallery under an artist-run model, and for my program and board to incorporate more ‘well-known’ artists. Facing having the way that I operated prescribed, and not happy about the potential institutionalisation of the space, I opted instead to go completely independent and moved to a commercial gallery model.

I moved to Melbourne’s CBD in early 2010, starting with a stable of nine artists, which has now grown to fifteen: Steven Asquith, Lauren Berkowitz, Fergus Binns, Starlie Geikie, Nathan Gray, Misha Hollenbach, Thomas Jeppe, Rhys Lee, William Mackinnon, Dylan Martorell, Sanné Mestrom, Mark Rodda, Caleb Shea, Jake Walker and Amber Wallis.

In the Year 2525, 2011 by Nathan Gray at Utopian Slumps.  Photo - Melissa Loughnan

Representing artists as their dealer means that the artist-gallery relationship has changed. I’m now more focused on my artists’ career trajectories – helping them with residency, funding and prize applications – as well as having curatorial involvement in their exhibitions at the gallery.

Utopian Slumps now operates as what I like to call a curator-run dealer gallery. My goals and vision have changed in that I operate with the bigger-picture in mind, and with my artists’ interests at heart. One aspect of these interests is satisfied by exporting my artists’ work overseas through participation in international art fairs. So far we’ve exhibited at Art Forum Berlin (2010), Auckland Art Fair (2011) and Art Fair Tokyo (2012) and am currently investigating fairs for next year. This opens my artists up to attention from international curators, dealers, critics, and other artists, so that they can have a relationship with and understanding of the art world abroad, and be considered for inclusion in high profile museum exhibitions and biennials.

Where I am now is definitely not where I thought I would be five years ago. When I first opened the space I was considering it training for a curatorial position in a museum in Australia or overseas. I never expected that I would become an art dealer, but I love where I have ended up and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Works by Mark Rodda at Utopian Slumps.  Top - Valhalla, 2012, Bottom - Sleeping Giants exhibition, 2011.  Photos - Jake Walker.
What have been one or two defining moments for you in recent years?

One of my first defining moments was participating in Art Forum Berlin in 2010. This started my thinking that the gallery could operate on an international arena, beyond my initial Melbourne bubble. It was also an eye opening experience for me financially. I should have learned not to rely on funding bodies by that point but was given an indication that the project would be funded, and after paying a significant non-refundable deposit to the fair organisers I learned that I was ineligible for funding due to a technicality. That was an early learning exercise!

Another defining moment was to begin thinking outside of the gallery space with my work and my artists. I have started collaborating with Folk Architects under the name ‘Utopian Folk’ and we were recently awarded a tender to reactivate the Docklands Harbour Esplanade with a major community activation project. The project will involve the building of a glass house with a plant installation from one of my artists Lauren Berkowitz, a café serving seasonal, sustainable produce and a series of community and cultural events. This has already been a rewarding project to take part in and I’m looking forward to working on more public art and multi-disciplinary collaborations with Folk – hotels, corporate foyers, private homes… we’re already getting a lot of requests.

'In The Gardens' curated by Misha Hollenbach at Utopian Slumps in 2011.  Photo - Jake Walker.
Can you give us a little insight into the inner workings of running the gallery? How many people do you employ and in what roles, and what significant tasks do you outsource?

At this stage it’s just me as a constant at the gallery, aided by my casual Gallery Assistant Justin Hinder and a roster of wonderful interns – Charlotte Cornish, Edward Sainsbery, Giselle Laming and Oskar Slifierz. I’m also currently working with Brooke Babington as my Assistant Curator through a NAVA Mentorship Initiative (thanks NAVA!). The significant tasks that I outsource are my graphic design and photography – good documention of exhibitions and the gallery’s visual identity are among the most important things for me. Tristan Ceddia from Never Now takes care of my graphic design and artist Jake Walker does most of my exhibition photography.

What does a typical day involve for you?

My days aren’t very typical, sometimes I’m installing, other times I’m doing the not-so-fun work like cleaning, filing or book keeping. I usually communicate with at least one of my artists once a day, and often help them with their applications and decision making, as well my own.

On Mondays and Tuesdays when the gallery isn’t open I’m often in meetings, doing studio visits or installing offsite. I curate the seasonal exhibition program at Circa restaurant in St Kilda and curate private homes and collections for clients. I really like working closely with clients – it’s wonderful to take someone through my stock room for an inside peek at the gems that lie behind the gallery walls.

I also like to start or end my day with a run if I can, it helps to clear my mind – I often make my most important decisions while running.

Can you name for us 5 resources across any media (i.e. 5 specific journals, magazines, websites, blogs or other) which you visit regularly for a bolt of creative inspiration, or just to be kept in the loop!?

My previous assistant curator Helen Hughes (who I dearly miss but has moved on to greener pastures) publishes an important new art journal called Discipline, which in my opinion is helping the case of legitimsing Australian art overseas. It consists of long-form essays looking at predominantly experimental and emerging art forms.

Internationally, Mousse and Texte zer Kunst are good for some serious art reading.

One of my next biggest interests alongside art is fashion, so I have to admit that I love reading Vogue. Lucky Peach and Pop are pretty important cross-discipline publications as well.

Can you name one or two emerging Australian artists to watch right now?

I’d have to say two of my newest additions to the Utopian Slumps stable, Thomas Jeppe and Sanné Mestrom. Thomas works across painting, installation and sculpture, and at only 27 he is represented by commercial galleries in Melbourne, Mexico and Hamburg. Sanné works across sculpture and installation. She makes beautiful ceramic, marble and woven tapestry works and is already showing in a number of institutions.

What are you most proud of professionally?

I self-published Utopian Slumps: The Collingwood Years last year. It is a hardcover 224 page book of the exhibitions that took place while the gallery was in Collingwood from 2007 to 2009. It was designed by Stuart Geddes of Chase and Galley and contains essays, illustrations and artist pages from a number of leading Australian writers, curators and artists.

'Utopian Slumps - The Collingwood Years' book - photos by Chase and Galley

'Utopian Slumps - The Collingwood Years' book - photos by Chase and Galley

I also really enjoy working with new collectors and people just starting to think about art. The process of educating new clients on art and seeing their excitement grow is really rewarding for me – showing them through the stockroom and my artists studios is sometimes a process of discovery not just for them, but for me as well.

What would be your dream creative project?

I would love to work on a large-scale public art project in Melbourne. In some ways that is coming to fruition through my Docklands project, but I hope that it is the start of bigger and more rigorous public artworks to come.

What are you looking forward to?

I’m actually really looking forward to my summer break. My partner Simon Griffiths and I are going to hike the Overland track in Tasmania just after Christmas, then end up in a beautiful house high in the hills on the East Coast of Tasmania for New Years Eve and a couple of days after that. It will be nice to get away from the telephone and internet for an entire week, and maybe we can squeeze in another MONA visit as well!

Melbourne Questions

Your favourite local neighbourhood and why?

At the moment my favourite suburb is Fitzroy, where I live, as I like being close to home and there’s lots of places to go and things to do nearby. I love the vintage shops, restaurants and cafes on Gertrude Street – specifically Moustache, Curve, Industria, Puff n Stuff, Enoteca and De Clieu. The fine dining options are great for special nights out too.

Where / what was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?

I’m actually quite spoiled – Simon is an amazing cook! He’s about to open a non-profit café and bar called Shebeen and has been doing a lot of menu testing at home.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Typically I’m eating breakfast at home with Simon and our cat Gustov – we’re going through a boiled egg and Vegemite soldier phase at the moment. If I’m going out for breakfast I like Cibi in Collingwood or Sonido on Gertrude Street. Saturday mornings are quite precious for me as the gallery opens at midday, so I like to have a little sleep in and a good meal before heading to work.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

Lerderderg State Park is a special place to go for walks and feel like you’ve escaped from the city, and is less than an hour’s drive away from Melbourne. It’s also close to the Boyd Baker House near Bacchus Marsh, which is a very, very special place.

My other favourite place, but perhaps not so secret, is the Heide Museum of Modern Art in Bulleen. I love the 1963 limestone Heide II building, the kitchen garden, the sculpture trail, and if it’s a nice day – picnicking by the Yarra!

Utopian Slumps exterior, 2012.  Photo - John Deer.

The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email