BY ALANNAH MAHER
Lesley Dimmick is more shocked than anyone that the not-for-profit gallery she ambitiously opened in the late 80’s is about to celebrate its 28th birthday.
“I’m a bit surprised myself, because I thought I’d just do it for a couple of years before I became a famous artist…”
With two art degrees to her name and “no galleries for people starting out” around at the time, Dimmick sought to open the Tap Gallery as a not for profit, artist run initiative to support burgeoning artists.
Almost 30 years later, the Tap has overcome many hurdles (they’ve been required to relocate twice since August) to earn a reputation as a friendly, welcoming and active community art centre.
The Tap has been making the most of their smaller new space, but have their fingers crossed to move to a bigger space in future, to allow them to resume the full breadth of their projects along with their successful independent theatre program.
In addition to solo shows, the gallery hosts several group shows every year, many of them tied to important cultural events such as Mardi Gras and International Women’s Day. Currently on show, the 20th Real Refuse exhibition is an opportunity for artists whose work was not selected for the Archibald, Wynne or Sulman prizes to go on public display.
As the curator of Nudes on Tap, the gallery’s annual nude photography exhibition which runs in conjunction with Head On Photo Festival, Marie Brokensha does not underestimate Tap’s value.
“Having this gallery as a non-profit gallery is fantastic, because its one of the only galleries in Sydney where you can exhibit nearly anything you want, its not judgemental… and its not thinking about making money out of the artists,” she said.
Arriving in Australia from France a decade ago, Brokensha began her relationship with Tap when she was looking for an inviting place to host photography workshops. She found that the tap was quite accepting to nude photography, which she considers quite a niche and often misunderstood practice.
“Through the Tap Gallery I could find a bigger audience as an art nude photographer and probably get a certain reputation in the photographic business as well.”
In September Brokensha will be coordinating a boudoir photography exhibition at the Tap, which she describes as “another way for me as a feminist to show[case] a sensual way [of showing] images of women in lingerie [whose bodies are] different to what you’ll see in glossy magazines.”
The Tap has been an essential stepping stone for many successful artists over the years. This year alone, two artists who held their first solo exhibitions at Tap, Nicholas Harding and Biron Valier, became finalists in the Archibald Prize and Sulman Prize respectively.
“It was certainly where I had my first commercial success in Sydney… People honour the prestige of Tap and the dedication of Lesley and the team there,” said artist Blak Douglas, another painter who hung his first solo show at the Tap.
Nowadays Douglas’ work hangs in some of the country’s most prominent galleries and he is currently preparing for the National Gallery of Australia’s Triennial next year, but as a contemporary Aboriginal artist who creates highly politicised works he respects the value of artist run spaces.
“There are constraints with more high-end commercial galleries, and having gone full circle in that experience, of course there’s much more freedom in an artist run initiative…generally you’re less likely to experience the confrontations that you can when you ‘stay in somebody else’s house’.”
At the forefront of the gallery’s steering committee, Dimmick considers herself an “anti-curator”. In her words: “I do not curate shows, I just assist artists in running their own shows.”
Jim Anderson is another artist who arrived at the Tap Gallery when searching for a space to show his work, being particularly drawn to Tap’s two annual LGBT focussed group shows.
Anderson returned to Australia in the early 2000’s after living overseas for 30 years, firstly in London (where he became entangled in a landmark obscenity trial as an editor for Oz Magazine) and eventually California, where he lived in a community (or ‘hippy’) town.
“When I came back to Sydney…I found that I could relate to Tap Gallery very easily because it’s a community gallery that is open to everybody and it was just the sort of support for my artwork that I needed when I got back here.”
“It belongs to an earlier Sydney in a way, a more bohemian sort of Sydney,” Anderson said of the Tap.
“One or two solo shows” at the Tap led to a career retrospective for Anderson at Tin Sheds Gallery, Lampoon – An Historical Art Trajectory (1970-2010), which has since travelled and will next be hung at the Maitland Regional Art Gallery. He continues to participate in the Tap’s group exhibitions.
“Galleries are important, [many] have disappeared recently because I think people take them for granted, but there’s a lot that goes on behind closed doors to run a gallery and Lesley taught me that,” said artist Mark Hanham.
Known for his brash large-scale landscape paintings, Hanham has been enjoying success since making the almost unprecedented move of opening his own solo gallery on Surry Hills’ busy Crown Street in 2011.
But when he was freshly graduated from art school he found himself in a slump and without an income. He ended up volunteering at the Tap through their ‘work for the dole’ program (which has been running for the better part of 15 years). There he was not only trained in backend gallery management but inspired and encouraged in his artistic practice.
“Lesley was just super nice and giving, and she helped out a lot of people who were really down and out, and gave them a bit of hope,” said Hanham.
“The thing I loved the most about Tap Gallery is that it’s very un-pretentious, it’s the real deal. Lesley’s showing art that is actually proper art, not necessarily commercial art.”
Hanham won the People’s Choice Award at the Tap hosted Kings Cross Art Prize in 2002, winning $2000 worth of Matisse paint. He went on to paint his 2003 Sulman Art Prize finalist painting, Time Square, with that paint.
“To simplify it, Lesley is the last freedom fighter. People have no comprehension that she’s done so much for the community it’s not funny,” Hanham added.
Dimmick’s contribution to the arts was formally recognised last year when she was awarded the Order of Australia Medal.
“For me that was an immense reward that I’ve actually put 27 years at the time of volunteer service towards other artists and running this space,” she said. “Because we’re actually providing those artists with an opportunity they didn’t have… to make money from selling their work… The joy of getting to know each artist as they come through, whether it’s a solo show or group show, they become friends for life.”
With a full program of group shows planned for the rest of the year, the Tap encourages individual artists to apply for their own solo shows.
Preparations are currently underway for the Tap’s 28th Birthday Group Exhibition and Party. For the big birthday bash the Tap will be taking their reputation for great opening night parties to another level, with dancers, burlesque performers and drag artists joining the throng.
Amongst the art on the walls will be Dimmick’s own ‘Archibald reject’, a portrait of her friend and well-known Newtown personality Norrie May-Welby. “I had to get rejected by the Archibald so I could hang it here,” said Dimmick, with a fiendish glee.
Her art career might not be quite what she pictured as a young girl, but there is no doubting that Lesley Dimmick and the Tap Gallery have made an unmeasurable contribution to the arts.
Tap Gallery’s 28th Birthday
Exhibition: Aug 2–7, 12-6pm. Party: Aug 6, 5-10pm.
Tap Gallery, 259 Riley Street, Surry Hills. Info: www.tapgallery.org.au