After every closure, an opening: an interview with Emily Devers
Meanjin/Brisbane-based artist, designer and facilitator Emily Devers has been grounded in the local arts scene for more than a decade. It was this long-standing local engagement that laid the foundations for the Third Quarter Gallery (TQ), an initiative she founded in 2018. Like other galleries and ARIs (Artist Run Initiatives), the combination of successive government arts funding cuts with pandemic-era strictures has profoundly impacted TQ. Despite these constraints, the initiative continues to evolve with Devers as director. Shortly before the most recent Meanjin/Brisbane lockdown, she spoke to us about the local arts landscape, the healing power of music, and staying true to a project’s founding principles while responding to new challenges.
How did you start out in the local Meanjin/Brisbane art scene?
Emily Devers: In my last year of uni I launched a creative studio with my partner at the time. It was an analogue-focused studio with a slant towards branding, hand-painted signs, graphic design and murals. Since I was little, I knew I wanted to be a public artist; my heroes were the genuine innovators like Keith Haring. I watched artists who made art for the people, not institutions, closely. In my early twenties, I looked for ways to explore my own practice while keeping my hands in the commercial public art realm, which included festivals, events and facilitation.
How did this time lay the groundwork for the Third Quarter? What observations during that period contributed to TQ as a unique project?
ED: I’m so convinced that TQ appeared at the perfect time—for me and for Brisbane—and everything I touched before TQ contributed to what it grew into. My first freelance role was as a workshop facilitator at Brisbane’s longest-running ARI Jugglers Art Space. I facilitated their Emerging Artist Development Program which saw young people who’d been punished by the judicial system for graffiti expand their practice into a gallery setting.
These young artists, who were accustomed to being prosecuted for expressing themselves, had an opportunity to see their work valued and celebrated with a different audience. That definitely informed my approach to how I chose to support artists through TQ. Aside from that, I think years of client management certainly helped me to feel prepped in an operations role at the gallery and so many connections formed during those studio years popped up in that new setting.
What has the pandemic meant for you and the Third Quarter as well as arts in Meanjin/Brisbane more broadly?
ED: For me, last year meant a total re-calibration. I had spent my adult life on a pretty unhealthy cycle of huge projects and then huge burnout. Although I was good at it, it wasn’t sustainable. I slowed down properly for the first time in 10 years, I reconnected deeply with music and prioritised things that felt more crucial like friendships and family. For the gallery, it meant going back to scratch… which is a test of character, if nothing else (laughter).
More broadly, there’s been a steady decline in federal spending on the arts since 2017, so it’s bleak. Almost half of Australia’s creatives are in perpetual casual roles, the industry that thrives on audience interaction and community has no security. Here in Meanjin, I witnessed a lot of creatives suffer, but as always, we’re the ones who collectively step up, show up and support each other to thrive.
Was there a particular creative outlet that proved a saving grace for you personally last year?
ED: DJing and spending time with music saved my life. When I was isolated and having a really hard time I turned to my records and explored music with a full heart. I also did some casual work for catalog record store, helping them to build their business, and honestly, my favourite part of my job was just grading and listing records. There was a quiet joy to the slow process of researching the music and appreciating records as objects. It gave me great joy to shift my focus away from my own projects, and help someone meaningfully build theirs. I also have a tonne of gratitude for Warehouse25 who’ve continued to welcome me in every few weeks to light incense and get in the zone. Those guys really know how to make you feel like family.
What events/exhibitions have you organised under the Third Quarter name since leaving the brick-and-mortar gallery?
ED: Our first post-Petrie-Terrace event was an exhibition by Brisbane ceramicist Bonnie Hislop at Felix in the CBD. This was the perfect event to shake me out of the trauma of shutting shop— Bonnie’s work is so colourful, and the opposite of serious. My co-curator Soph came up with a media package that would allow us to have a tonne of fun with the shoots too. After restoring a little confidence through that event, we hosted Meanjin artist Justine Wake at Wandering Cooks, and participated in BAD Festival by doing a full takeover at Little Street Studio. This was a special one for me as I’d been wanting to expand TQ more confidently into the realm of sound and light, and I had the pleasure of working with established Gold Coast artist Jay Jermyn (previous TQ exhibitor) and emerging Meanjin artist Nadeem Tiafau. Both artists confidently traverse contemporary art and sound, and it was unreal seeing them explore that in Brisbane’s most forward-thinking recording studio.
Our most recent event was a group exhibition of 60 artists called Mutual Intent at the Brisbane Powerhouse to launch The Design Conference. The premise was to connect creatives from different disciplines—animators with dance choreographers, ceramicists with illustrators, textile artists with architects etc—and invite them to open a visual dialogue around their personal experiences of surviving the last year. As the lead curator, I invited emerging curatorial collective YETI on board as my collaborator to deliver the event. The entire process was exactly what I needed to reconnect with my community.
What new possibilities has the mobile format opened up?
ED: Adjusting to a mobile exhibition model has meant we’ve been able to link up with unconventional venues across Brisbane—my favourites being those you wouldn’t typically associate with art or exhibitions. I get a great deal of joy out of problem-solving and responding directly to space with the choice of artists, mapping the way people explore and interact with space, and watching venue owners view their space within a new context.
How has the local community responded to TQ’s new format?
ED: Brisbane has really backed us on this. I was terrified at our first pop-up in the height of COVID restrictions, thinking no one would show up. But people put in the effort and made the time, they booked viewing sessions and congratulated us and the artist. It’s been so validating to feel how invested people are in our recovery.
You’ve tried to include people who might be outside of local art circles in TQ initiatives. Can you tell us a little bit about TQ Selects?
ED: Absolutely! TQ Selects was developed as a sub-brand of TQ and allowed us to curate emerging and established DJs to activate some of our events like courtyard markets and exhibition openings. We set up a radio, and had exhibiting artists take up another role in the space by becoming selectors. I’m currently thinking about what the next version of this will be for TQ.
What was the founding philosophy of the Third Quarter and how did it previously structure the gallery’s operations?
ED: It was a concept I was sitting on for a while, recognising that there was a significant gap in Brisbane between grassroots ARIs of the Queenslander garage ilk and fine art galleries which exclusively served collectors. I’d been a professional painter for 10 years and never had a solo exhibition in Brisbane because I didn’t feel like there was a space that could showcase my art in a really professional manner while ensuring that I felt welcome and supported.
Once that gap was spotted I was committed to filling it with a gallery that made art accessible to everyone. The name Third Quarter comes from the 4 aspects that the gallery responded to, the third of which being “social”. In a physical sense, the third quarter of the gallery floor plan at Petrie Terrace was always dedicated to hosting marginalised artists—those who exist outside the professional art realm because of disadvantage, disability, or marginalisation—It was free to hire, with the same service that professional paying artists received alongside additional mentorship.
A standout exhibition for me was by a First Nations artist who, previous to exhibiting at TQ, had experienced long-term homelessness and an ongoing relationship with alcoholism. This was his first professional gallery exhibition showing these works and he was celebrating a huge sobriety milestone. A few weeks after his exhibition opening I ran into him on the street, and he hugged me in tears and shared that he’d finally found a supported accommodation setup that allowed him a studio to paint. Through his tears, he thanked me and said he could for the first time in his life paint uninterrupted. This was huge for him and huge for me to have played a small role in his journey. That’s why TQ exists.
How are you continuing to honour this founding philosophy as TQ evolves?
ED: This is a great work in progress question for me. As we exist primarily online now, I’ve been contemplating ways that we can continue to support emerging creatives while still earning an income. It’s tricky, and I’m still working it out, but some initial thoughts I’ve had are around an ethical online retail experience that supports emerging creatives to launch a small merchandise range. Watch this space!
How can people support TQ now?
ED: The best way to support us is to show up to our events, but you can also browse our online store and stockroom which features a range of artworks from previous exhibiting artists.
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