There’s a touch of déjà vu in visiting Waldemar Kolbusz at Kolbusz Space in the former industrial Claisebrook precinct on the fringes of central Perth. Tucked away in Gladstone St, the refitted space is light and airy, with a connecting studio space for Kolbusz to continue his practice. Twenty odd years ago I was chatting to him in another gallery he had just started – the now closed, but long running, Gadfly Gallery in Dalkeith. Similarly to Kolbusz Space, he was also painting on site. Kolbusz says he was too young and naive to know what he was doing at the time. “I started it and had it for about two years. Initially Anna Kwiecinska, who ran it until it closed in 2014, wanted to become a partner, working on the gallery side so I could focus on painting, but within a day of her proposal I said ‘I’m in over my head, and I don’t think I’m doing a good job of it, so just buy it from me.'” He sold the gallery for $5,000, which included a mailing list, and the lease on the building, with rent at around $120 a month, astoundingly low for the times and the area. “It was a win-win for everyone,” he says.
This time, he has experience on his side. With regular exhibitions nationally and internationally since his somewhat tentative foray as a gallerist so many years ago, Kolbusz says he now feels better equipped. “I understand how it all works,” he says. “My priority is still my full time practice, and its nice to have the space to spread out all my works when I have a show on. It’s a beautiful space to work in, and in between that give younger, emerging artists an opportunity to show somewhere as well.”
The question is, why open a gallery and switch studio spaces when his home studio seemed more than adequate? He says there’s no a romantic answer to the instigation of Kolbusz Space, but a family necessity. When his aged parents split, Kolbusz’s mother came to live with him. “They left Poland after the war, and who knows what trauma my father went through. They never talked about it. It was this stoic attitude, but mentally unravelling in old age, there was depression. My father, who died more than a year ago, didn’t want to live, so there was this whole bag of sadness at the end. Mum moving in was a really great thing because she’s independent and quite happy, but I decided it would be good for me not to work from home any more.”
Kolbusz rented a space in West Perth for a year, but the high cost drove him to think of another solution. “I’ve spent more than a decade with a busy exhibition schedule over east, so I’m at a stage where I want to start branching out and do some experimental work. I went back to Uni to study digital design and visual culture to develop some ideas, and stay engaged with everything. Initially I thought about a space where I could show my own work, but very quickly I thought I should share it with other artists.”
He sees the space as a hybrid somewhere between an artists-run initiative and a commercial gallery. With just 20% commission on sales, Kolbusz says he’s in a position not to charge commission if an artist sells little. “I want to be really flexible. If an artist is doing something I think is really good, and they really need a break, I may not charge commission. I don’t want to represent people either, or have a physical stock room. And outside of their exhibitions I’d much rather put buyers directly in touch with artists.”
Kolbusz has been in no rush to pin down a gallery program. He had a show of his own work at the space last year, and last December, a group show with artists including Sam Bloor, Matt McVeigh, Annette Peterson, Eric Hynynen and Amanda Benn where an astounding 34 works sold. The pace is picking up with shows now scheduled into mid April. “Up until now I’ve been a reticent about going full pelt with the gallery side of things because it could end up taking all of my time, but I’m really happy with how much I love doing it all. I was worried it was going to become one of those ‘what am I actually doing?’ moments, but it’s been the opposite. If I make a sale, I’m so happy for the artist, and so exited to pay them. It’s a really lovely process to get involved with each artist, growing their experience and confidence and learning from them. For me, part of having a gallery is to beef up my own practice, and to be included in the local art community. It’s kind of dumb to be an artist in isolation, and it doesn’t work for me. I think you have to engage with people, your collectors, and other artists, otherwise your practice is not going to be sustainable.”
In a change to the commercial gallery model, or indeed an artist-run space model, Kolbusz sees no need to have the gallery open to the public past its opening night and first weekend. He says it’s the expensive part of running a gallery. “It also takes me away from my practice, and most of the time the artists don’t want to sit here either, so it’s open by appointment after that.”
He has the greatest admiration for commercial galleries like Stala Contemporary and artist-run spaces like Cool Change Contemporary. “It was sad when Turner Galleries closed. Helen had put so much into it – she really deserves a saint-hood!,” he says. “She was really selfless and had shows with artists who wouldn’t normally come to Perth. As an artist, to see these shows, was amazing.” Kolbusz shows me the wine glasses he uses for openings purchased from Turner Galleries when it closed. “It’s so nice to have them because they go right back to the beginnings of the gallery.”
He says he’s in no hurry to prove anything to anyone. “I’m in a position to help, and it feels like the right time to give back to the industry I’m so passionate about. I’d be an idiot if I didn’t do this when I could.”
LYN DI CIERO
Matthew McVeigh: RORSCHACH opens 27 February at Kolbusz Space, followed by Joana Partyka: SUPPOSE YOU BROUGHT THE LIGHT INSIDE OF THE BODY opening 16 April. Visit www.kolbuszspace.com for more information.
Kolbusz Space at 2 Gladstone St, Perth.