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In Conversation with Abbotsford Convent’s c3 Director Jon Butt

We chat to Jon Butt, Director of the Convent’s c3 Contemporary Art Space, as he reflects on the last ten years at c3, the power of community-driven arts, and the Convent’s plans for the gallery’s future.

Have you volunteered, exhibited or installed at the Convent’s c3 Contemporary Art Space since it opened? If so, you’ve contributed to ‘A Decade of Lingering Gestures‘ – a covert accumulation of unseen moments, details and labours at the gallery over the past decade. The exhibition celebrates c3’s 10-year history and involves work by c3 Projects, Sarah crowEST, c3 volunteers, Adam Cruickshank, Behn Woods and Torie Nimmervoll.

We chat to Jon Butt, Director of the Convent’s c3 Contemporary Art Space, as he reflects on the last ten years at c3, the power of community-driven arts, and the Convent’s plans for the gallery’s future.

Congratulations on the 10-year birthday of the Abbotsford Convent’s c3 Contemporary Art Space. How has the organisation changed over this time?

When I started at the Convent, there were only five of us running the entire site and around 100 tenants. Much of the site had yet to be restored; it was a bit of a ghost town. There was a real sense of the possibilities, but also the scale of the project and the commitment required to take it on was daunting. The Convent’s decision to start a space like c3 with little resources and one gallery staff member was a risky move considering the ambitions I had for c3, but then the whole Convent project was like this. I remember some people in the art world thought I was a bit nuts!

‘A Decade of Lingering Gestures’ pays homage to the many people who contributed their time, skills and passion to make the Convent’s c3 the gallery it is today. What prompted you to create this work? How does this exhibition celebrate and reflect c3’s vision and journey over the last ten years?

Adhering to the vision of the Convent, c3 is a space built by and for its community. We have had 1,200 artists work on over 1,650 projects that have engaged with over 300,000 visitors. These numbers are very significant for a small non-profit like the Convent’s c3.

The commissions for our 10th birthday centre around the accumulation of unseen or hidden incidences, moments and traces of community occurring at the gallery over the past decade; echoes of these 1,200 artists working away on mostly self-funded projects with the support of the Convent. This is a collective journey that is undertaken by people who have a shared vision to develop a safe, open and lively space for both artists and viewers. This vision requires a huge amount of energy, but it’s one that is achievable because of the dedication and generosity of our community.

Did you think back then that the Convent’s c3 would still be thriving ten years later?

My experience with working in the Artist Run Initiative (ARI) scene for seven years [Jon was previously one of the founders of Fitzroy ARI Seventh Gallery] taught me that small arts organisations are often at the mercy of real estate market forces and gentrification, something that the Convent almost fell prey to, before the public campaign to save it. The decision by the Convent to establish c3 was a clear strategic shift away from those forces. I really wanted to develop an ARI model that could work at a sustainable pace, financially and curatorially, with an eye on long-term strategic planning. The great privilege of working for the Convent is that the team is fully supportive of the ARI ethos and actively support risk, experimentation and the professional development of arts practice. When we developed the foundation of the Convent’s c3, we always believed in a kind of ‘ideal’ place of arts practice. It’s a very practical utopia and one that we can actively grow into a hybrid way of imagining an ARI.

As Director of c3 since its birth ten years ago, your time, energy and emotional contribution towards this gallery is significant. What does it mean to you personally to see the gallery reach ten years?

I am immensely proud of this achievement and of the space that c3 now occupies in the art world. The Convent, with our team and Board, have got here through the passionate commitment of all the artists (exhibiting or otherwise), our great volunteer team, c3’s curatorial board, and the people who have supported the gallery. I think the relationships that we’ve built through this process are what have the most impact for me. How we have worked with people defines us as an art space: the way we trust people’s practice and take risks together and we strive to create an environment that is simultaneously safe but also challenging.

As we head into the next phase of our life-cycle, we are in such a great position, both on an organisational and curatorial level. The Convent’s c3 is reaching out with a national perspective, to link with artists and art spaces across Australia. We are developing very supportive professional programs for artists; we have a focus on inclusionary tactics and are able to remain true to our original vision. There is a lot to look forward to in c3’s future.

Like the broader Convent audience, the c3 audience comprises a diverse range of people including artists, those within the arts community, and those who have never before stepped foot in an art gallery.
How do you shape your shows so that they are accessible and engaging to such a varied audience? How do you communicate each show to the different audiences?

We don’t think of it in terms of whether a show is accessible: all good art is accessible, even challenging conceptual works. It’s more about how we can provide an access point to the work. Our experience is that it’s usually the visitors who haven’t had much experience with contemporary art who are often the most engaged and excited. When we devise the exhibition program, we think about the narratives in each artist’s work and what happens when you put that artist’s work with another’s: what new ideas come from these connections? Having six gallery spaces that are traversed in a circular flow allows us to create a very connected passage through the space. How exhibitions relate to each other can build up a more cohesive understanding once you have seen the entire show.

What do you see in the future for the Convent’s c3?

At the 10-year mark, this is such a great question to ponder. How can we take what we’ve built and make it more active and nimble? How can we pursue growth and still provide personal, committed support to our artists and our audiences? We will be focusing on strengthening our position as a key support structure for new arts practice by developing programs that are ambitious in scope and which continue to foster a nurturing environment for a diverse range of people and practices.