THE DEN is an artist-run space located on the ground floor of 181 High Street. Opening in December 2020 it was established by four graduates/ post-graduates from the Ilam of Fine Arts: Sophie Ballantyne, Tessa McPhee, Jamie TeHeuheu and Rupert Travis. Its exhibition programme comprises the agendas of both an artist-run space and dealer gallery, characterised by an attitude about the bigger picture of how the visual arts function, encompassing emerging artists, curators and writers.
Over the past three years artist-run spaces have gained in presence and significance in Aotearoa, with Auckland the initial centre for their revitalisation. THE DEN describes itself as ‘one of a network of small galleries helping to build the art scene within Ōtautahi Christchurch’, and fundamental to its presence is also the city’s ongoing regeneration, noting that High Street connects them to popular assumptions about the ‘innovation precinct’.
Jamie TeHeuheu recalls that THE DEN is the outcome of them all needing somewhere to display their work. ‘Rupert knew the landlord and we were close to the end of our degrees. They gave us the space for three week. We moved in and as painters, we are interested in the commercial side of the art world and its accompanying challenges as a graduate. In many places where artists exhibit, commissions are high and rents are as well. Many young artists question what to display to cover this cost and not be out of pocket, and if the gallery is fulfilling its duties, doing it yourself can be rather empowering. With an artist-run space we can keep our overheads low. I strongly believe that all many young artist need is a sale, an opportunity to display or supportive feedback from outside their peer group to justify what they are doing’.
Sophie Ballantyne also notes the critical role of the city’s galleries in acknowledging career development. ‘The whole idea for THE DEN came around when we were at art school as very few people are picked up by galleries leaving art school. Sharing studio spaces at the School of Fine Arts and spending those years together with other students was central to THE DEN opening. All our meetings about the gallery were in our studio. We talked about it for a year and then it happened’.
Rupert Travis sees THE DEN as an encouraging space for an artist’s work to be represented in. ‘Artists need to work out how they are going to enter this field and part of the idea is in allowing them to sell, and an artist’s installation can allow them do that as well. We allow artists to exhibit without charging them a fee, permitting them to put up their work without having to empty their pockets’.
Travis also notes that although they are ‘still getting there’, their regular visitors are part of a community of supporters, and there is further room for projects like THE DEN in Ōtautahi. ‘What is amazing is going around and asking for spaces. There is a slump in retailing and a lot of opportunity for artists to give things a try’. TeHeuheu agrees, and further maintains that THE DEN and other artist-run spaces are essential, addressing wider concerns about ‘the need for systemic change in the arts community’.
181 High Street
Wednesday – Saturday, 10am to 4pm or by appointment
- THE DEN, inaugural exhibition, Collective,December 2020. From left; work by Sophie Ballantyne, Jamie TeHeuheu and Rupert Travis. Photograph: Rupert Travis