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Roar Hijacked

Recollections on Roar Studios and Brunswick Street 1982 - 2000

Richard Birmingham

There is so much to say about Roar Studios.

Roar had its genesis in a studio in Green Street Prahran which I set up in 1979 the year after I graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts.

I needed a studio to work in and my search led me to Chapel Street. I thought the ideal studio would be a space above a shop so I began asking the local traders if they had such a space.

Finally after days of walking the street I went into a dress shop called Credo Modes on the corner of Chapel and Green Streets. The owner said there was a room available upstairs. It was a very large space but full of second hand doors leaving only a tiny area to set up an easel, but I took it. The previous tenant was a second hand dealer who sold the same bath to two different customers and hadn’t been seen for weeks. There was also a second hand bookshop on the ground floor run by Kate Ahern.

I moved some of the doors out of the way, worked there for a year with Savas Antoniou, another VCA graduate then left only to move back in again a few months later to share with Tony Mighell also a VCA painter. Tony had a unique grasp of art history and the issues surrounding painting and drawing so this 12 month period in Green Street proved to be fruitful. Tony then won a scholarship to study at the New York Studio School.

By this stage all the doors had been removed so I asked David Larwill, Peter Ferguson, Wayne Eager and Mark Howson to move in and share the rent.

David Larwill was a charismatic character and often had five or six people visiting just to watch him paint. I liked David but found the constant stream of visitors distracting; people would have to walk through my space first to get to David. So after 12 months of this I decided to move out and set up a studio at home. Home was just around the corner from Green Street so I kept in touch with David and his crew and was involved in the plans to set up the Roar Gallery in Brunswick St Fitzroy.

I remember Wayne Eagger telling me the opening show was on and to bring my work along for selection for the first Roar exhibition. Roar promised to reinvigorate expressive painting and drawing.

The opening was spectacular. Over 1000 people turned up and I sold a painting. It was packed and noisy. The energy level was off the scale. Betty Churcher, hoisted up on a table, gave the opening address. She urged people to “Buy the work”.

Much of Roar's early work was expressionistic showing paintings infused with feeling and emphasising the sensory over the theoretical. The language of Painting was explored and along with drawing, used to express personal feelings and ideas about the world.

Many people came forward with work to exhibit and most got to show their work, however a selection committee had the final say. Essentially Roar studios was an inclusive organisation whose aim was to provide young non-mainstream artists the opportunity to exhibit their work at a subsidised fee.

Art auctions kept the doors open. They were wild affairs with Henry Maas and Andrew Phillip improvising songs between bids to a cool beat from Toni Edwards on drums.

Roar's major contribution was in launching artists who up until that point were unable to show their work in Melbourne, which in the early 80’s was dominated by a selective, inadequate and stagnant gallery system.

Roar also championed painting and sculpture at a time when French theory and conceptual arts practice began to get a foothold in galleries and art colleges across Melbourne.

Roar Hijacked

It is important that history should be presented in a truthful way but this has not been the case in recent years regarding Roar Studios.

There were many influential players at the beginning of Roar, people with diverse ideas and styles who together forged a method under which the collective could function. These people are now largely overlooked in the history and include Richard Birmingham, Russell Cook, Bruce Earles, Maggie MacNamara, Stephen McCarthy, Chiara Goya, Trevor Hoppen, Tony Mighell and Gwenda Wiseman. All were prominent around Roar and during meetings, pitching in with ideas for fundraising, new exhibitions and social events. All have been erased from the official history.

History has been hi-jacked under the banner of Roar to suit the present gate-keepers, who comprise both artists and promoters. This unholy alliance has flourished for many years and has advanced a skewed and untruthful version of Roar Studios history. This version of history has become entrenched in the minds of the Melbourne art public at the expense of important contributors, who have been marginalised or ignored, in order to advance reputations, protect sales and subvert Roar’s original aims.

Roar began as a not for profit artists collective with a very diverse set of people and ideas and has ended up as something else.

Around 1983-4 the first split appeared in Roar. David Larwill had left his studio at Roar along with a substantial debt in unpaid studio rent to have his first commercial show at Chandler Coventry Gallery in Sydney. The show was a sell-out and “Channey” the Gallery director then wanted to organise through David, a group show of Roar artists. However they believed the Roar brand could only sustain a limited number of participants if the show was to be successful. The culling began. When I asked David about this show he told me there were already too many people. If you weren’t a mate you weren’t included and in David’s words you just “Lucked out”.

This first exhibition at Chandler Coventry Gallery, under the banner of Roar marked the beginning of the Roar Brand being manipulated in the service of a few individuals and their careers.

This was the antithesis of the left wing collectivism that underpinned the beginnings of Roar and demonstrated how greed and self- interest could subvert historical truth.

Roar 2 emerged as a new and positive second wave and in 1992 a ten year anniversary show was held. Everybody was included and it provided a temporary reconciliation.

2012 once again saw a small selective group of artist’s exhibit under the banner of Roar Studios. This time artists were paid by developers under the Roar brand to show their work at a gallery in High Street Malvern.

Roar was always much bigger and more diverse than is suggested by these few artists and the missing people who were part of Roar have a right to be acknowledged and not robbed of their history. Let’s present the evidence truthfully and let history judge the merit or otherwise of individual contribution.

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