Musician Frank Zappa once said that the most important thing in art is the frame, for without it you can’t tell where the art stops and the real world begins. Extending that logic, the art gallery itself is a frame where art is displayed, bought, sold – and for many, effectively sealed off.
Kat Roma Greer (MA(Res) ’14 MA ’14), founder of the travelling art festival Micro Galleries, aimed to break art out of its frames and take it to the streets. Starting from the chaotic precincts of her base in Hong Kong in 2013, her aim was for “people to stumble over it. That’s when they begin to shift their perceptions and believe they should have access to art as well,” she says.
Since then, Micro Galleries has exhibited everywhere from Kathmandu to Cape Town, using local and international artists to blur the line between street art and ﬁne art and bring a sense of wonder to unexpected, often disused and neglected spaces. Along the way, she’s touched thousands of people who may otherwise never set foot inside a gallery.
One of them was Robbie, a street kid from Denpasar in Bali. In exchange for meals, Robbie cannily worked his way into the Micro Galleries crew, starting by stirring glue and minding the equipment, which he became obsessed with. By the end of a 10-day tour, Robbie had learned so much about the works on display that he was giving guided tours to other kids.
Roma Greer understood that if you live in poverty or disadvantage, even public art venues can feel like inhospitable and remote places. Her idea was informed by her own upbringing in the Illawarra region, on the New South Wales south coast, during the recession of the 1990s, when both of her parents found themselves unemployed and living in housing commission accommodation.
At her school, art wasn’t a priority: the resources weren’t available. “I really wanted to do music, and my school didn’t offer the subject,” she says. Pursuing glimpses of another world meant “my English teacher staying back after class to continue unpacking Yeats with me, or my music teacher taking less of a fee because we couldn’t afford to pay more.
“But it was those sorts of intersections that gave me a really positive adolescence, helped me access subjects I maybe couldn’t have understood as well, and gave me a huge support network … Without that I probably wouldn’t have gone on to have a nicely successful career. I want to provide those opportunities for other people.”
Roma Greer moved to Sydney with her partner in 2003, then went to Hong Kong in 2010, completing her Master of Arts at the University of Sydney externally, graduating in 2014. Though not Indigenous, her focus was on First Nations Peoples. Learning more about Indigenous performance increased her interest in the limited opportunities for artistic exposure, both for creators and consumers.
“It reﬁned the way I engaged with and thought about dealing with minorities and disadvantaged communities and understanding the exceptionally privileged position that I come from,” she says.
In Hong Kong she met Bess Hepworth, who was curating a TEDx project which she wanted to culminate in a low-budget art project. Hepworth commissioned Roma Greer to devise something that would engage the community more closely than other art installations and galleries in Hong Kong. Micro Galleries, driven by the overriding idea that art was for everyone, was the result.
“There are a lot of high-end art galleries here that are very pristine, with great curatorial teams and wonderful resources, and at the other end of the spectrum is the Hong Kong Art Fair. So there’s a huge industry here in terms of art and phenomenal artists, but the people who are accessing the art are usually educated, resourced, and they have the time and the ability to physically get there.”
By comparison, in Sham Shui Po – described as a “down to earth” neighbourhood on the Hong Kong Tourism Board’s website – “people still live in cage houses,” says Roma Greer.
“They’re not going to the art fair and they’re certainly not going into art galleries. And if they are, I’m sure they don’t feel welcome, and there’s possibly no way for them to engage on a level that is potentially useful for them.”
Roma Greer has just returned from Kathmandu, in Nepal. “It’s one of the poorest countries of the world, but it has a dynamic art scene,” she says. It was an intense few days that included murals, stencils, photography, painting, installations, sound art, projection art, live music and performance, and showcased the work of local artists and others from as far aﬁeld as Finland, Norway, Indonesia and South Africa.
“The best way I can explain the experience is ‘epic, and depleting’, meaning we do a lot, intensely and in a short space of time. Like most non-proﬁt organisations, we are under-resourced but still trying to do everything we dream of.”
The community where the Kathmandu art event happened has kept the dream going. A week after the event, Roma Greer was sent photographs showing how the local people had used some of the art elements to turn their laneway into a garden.
It’s all about bringing art to the places that need it most, including the disadvantaged communities where Roma Greer herself grew up. In 2015, she brought Micro Galleries to one of those places, Nowra, a town she says people “drive past to get to the beaches on the other side of it”.
“It went from a town that was very confused as to why we were there to being excited and fascinated. We had to beg people to allow us to use their walls – but by the end they were maintaining the works themselves with pride. Later, a radio station declared Nowra the artiest town in New South Wales; the local MP talked about it in parliament.
“Art historically has been set up for one institutionalised purpose or another – religion, patronage or for commercial purposes. Micro Galleries is a disruptive process. It’s about providing artists with opportunities, and being in communities in a way that can have a meaningful impact.”
First published in Sydney Alumni Magazine, 10 April 2019