Business confidence – a case of swings and roundabouts

By KIERAN FINNANE

 

If some businesses are closing in Alice Springs, others are opening and others still, adapting to the times. In the middle of the Todd Mall, former curator at the Araluen Art Centre, Kate Podger, is opening an art gallery in the venue vacated by Peta Appleyard.

There’s also movement on the corner of the mall and Parsons Street, at the site of the QC restaurant which closed some time ago following a fire.

On the fringe of the mall, in Todd Street, while a tourist business has recently closed, Rocky’s has opened a gelato bar, and while his internet cafe has closed, Cameron Buckley has refocused on his coffee shop, expanding its offerings, giving people more reasons to go there.

Kate Podger has gone into partnership with Thijl Duvekot (her life partner) and her Melbourne-based sister, Frances Dooley. The gallery’s point of difference will be working directly with Aboriginal art centres – going there will be like a visit to a mini Desert Mob. The initial response from art centres has been enthusiastic, says Ms Podger.

“We want to get everyone on board, from the high end, with art centres like Tjungu Palya, through the mid-range to low-priced but attractive works for the tourist market.”

There’ll be a few curated exhibitions, timed to coincide with events that draw culture-seeking visitors to Alice, like the Beanie Festival and Desert Mob. Otherwise, the intention is to offer “the big picture of central desert art” within a “good ethical framework”.

The look of the gallery will be “more action-packed” than the spare, elegant style established by Peta Appleyard but it won’t be a bazaar: large works will be given room to breathe and works will be hung to complement one another, rather than be grouped according to the source art centre.

The mezzanine, formerly used for administration, will be a display space with the potential to host small exhibitions. The initial focus will be on Aboriginal art, but further down the track exhibition opportunities will be offered to local non-Aboriginal artists.

Ms Podger is looking forward to a “gentle launch” within the fortnight, certainly in time for the annual Papunya Tula show on November 25, followed by a major launch next year.

The gallery, whose name is still under wraps, is a few doors up from Papunya Tula and right next door to Gallery Gondwana (at one stage thought to be closing but still open, with a renewed focus by owner Roslyn Premont). Ms Podger says the proximity of the three will create an appealing art nexus in the mall: people can plan a morning or afternoon around gallery visits and a meal or drink at the nearby cafes and restaurants.

She is looking forward to the revitalisation works in the mall, focusing initially on the northern end and Parsons Street. She says as vibrancy returns to the area her business will respond, staying open into the evening hours to cater for restaurant-goers and visitors returning from day tours.

She acknowledges the “tough economic times” but says she’s done her homework and is confident that the gallery will be a viable business, building on her good relationships with art centres and knowledge of the art and artists.

She says the market “has contracted a bit” especially at the high end but she points to the consistent sales at Desert Mob over the last three years. Her gallery, similarly to the annual art centre exhibition, will span “all the major price points”.  There will always be “swings and slides” in the market but “good art endures” and will maintain its value: “It’s work that is over-hyped that suffers dropping prices in times like this.”

While she has asked art centres to send her “fantastic work” for the opening, Ms Podger wants the gallery to work with emerging artists as well: “Getting a sale for them is important for nurturing their talent, giving them confidence in what they do.”

Down in Todd Street Cameron Buckley is coming up for air after working 50 hours a week, keeping open the internet cafe just across the way from his coffee shop. The business was paying its way but when the lease was up for renewal he opted for a saner lifestyle.

That’s given him the energy to do more at the coffee shop, which he opened five years ago. Till now it has made its name on just good coffee and a certain vibe – coming from a combination of look, music, reading matter, Mr Buckley himself and his customers.

Now he’s doing toasted sandwiches and (when his local cake maker is in town) cakes and muffins. If you buy a coffee, there’s free internet access on one of three computers. And there are DVDs for hire. Not just any old DVDs – Mr Buckley is a cinema buff and the range reflects his taste, with the aim being to add a new release title each week.

“A business is an organism,” he says, “it needs to be able to adapt to circumstances.”

The year to date has been like “one long off season” – with both tourist and local custom down – so now was the time to consolidate and refresh. He believes in keeping money in town and has always used locally-roasted DuYu coffee, owned by Doulton Dupuy. Now Mr Cameron is glad to be able to source local cakes and muffins.

It’s important to find “your niche”: rather than going into direct competition with a similar business, fill in “the holes”. He gives child care and storage facilities as examples – there are waiting lists for both.

He and joint venturer Cy Starkman last year put their toe in the water with an entertainment business, Pop Cinema, which combined film screenings with art display, live entertainment, food and drink. That’s been put on hold while they work on a permanent venue in George Crescent, which they’ve dubbed Television House. It should be ready to open early next year.

He doesn’t underestimate the challenges but is optimistic: “One thing that always succeeds in hard times is the entertainment industry.”

Pictured: Top – Kate Podger and staff member Peter Astridge working on the hang of large works from Tjungu Palya in the new gallery. Above – Cameron Buckley in his coffee shop (he’s holding a polaroid photo of himself in his coffee shop).

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