ROS de SOUZA is a “woman on a mission”.
The respected Fremantle arts administrator has launched a new initiative to create pop-up galleries in the city’s empty shop windows, but the ethos behind Street Gallery #1-8 runs deeper than just showing off some art.
Ms de Souza and her fellow volunteers are a hive of activity each week, making sure the ‘gallery’ windows are clean and the surroundings are spick and span; she wants retailers and landlords to take heed and apply some of their own elbow grease to make Fremantle more enticing for visitors and shoppers.
“Do you recall in the ‘80s and ‘90s how Mrs [Giovanna] Tagliaferri Snr, aged 85, used to scrub the Interfoods shopfront and pavement every morning with hot soapy water and a straw broom,” Ms de Souza says.
“There was no dog wee or grubby pavement on the Cappuccino Strip in those days. Everyone did the same, encouraged by her example.”
Ms de Souza says she’s “deeply sad and angry” at how grubby some shops have become, but said the response from locals seeing one of their elders wielding a squeegee and creating a pocket of beauty has been encouraging.
“[It’s] the joy it gives people; street people talk to me and the locals going past saying ‘you are doing good, girlie’,” she said.
While some ‘window art’ initiatives attempt to block out the empty space behind, Ms de Souza deliberately makes sure it’s still visible.
“We want the lessees to see the potential of the shops, so we don’t want to fill all the windows.”
While touring Street Gallery’s eight sites (see below) with Ms de Souza, the Herald bumped into landlord Sandro Monaco, who’s trying to find a tenant for his building opposite the town hall following the departure of Best & Less.
He gave up some window space for Street Gallery and is now hosting artist Benjamin Kontoullas’ neon work Heavy Industry and Benjamin Mitchell’s mixed media Surfers 2022.
Mr Monaco said the artworks helped lift the look of the building, which was important for attracting tenants.
“We want to get someone in here. It’s a great site, but we’re putting up with some bad behaviour,” Mr Monaco said, gesturing to a smashed window. Ms de Souza says proudly that since the first artworks went in nine months ago, none of the buildings involved has been tagged or vandalised.
Mr Monaco agrees attractive surroundings help attract customers, and warns he’s been banging on to the council to fix the paving in Paddy Troy Mall behind his building for fear recent and planned upgrades won’t be effective.
Sonia Fairhead from Norfolk Commercial is trying to find a tenant for Mr Monaco and says after seeing Street Gallery she’s been encouraging other landlords to participate.
“She even put my ‘for lease’ sign up on a pedestal, so she was really thoughtful and made it look very professional,” Ms Fairhead said.
The property agent has been fielding an increased number of queries from companies looking for office space in Fremantle since Covid hit, saying many were looking to relocate from “soulless” suburbs.
“[Freo’s] food and beverage scene has definitely helped, as you’ll even see they come to do an inspection and then they go ‘right, we have to go for lunch now’,” Ms Fairhead says.
She says retail space is still a struggle to fill, but many landlords can’t get their head around repurposing their shops – it often entails time and investment commitments they can’t afford, while there’s the issue of having to accept reduced rent.
Street Gallery is a joint project between Ms de Souza, Fremantle council and Artsource, whose members get to have their works shown for up to a month – if a tenant turns up in the meantime the space can be cleared in 24 hours.
Ms de Souza says they’ve been incredibly appreciative of the exposure, with their works under lights all day and night thanks to the landlords who pay for the lighting; the cost “approximately a cup of coffee a month per partition”.
Earlier this month they also sold their first artwork, Helen Majewski’s Untitled, which was displayed at the William Street entrance of the Fremantle Malls.
“I was in Freo with a friend who wanted to see my drawing and rather than walking long William Street we came along between the library and Fomo, seeing it framed in the distance. Thank you so much for a perfect spot – I really appreciate it,” Majewski responded to Ms de Souza after seeing the work.
All the works are for sale, though for safety there’s a QR Code to scan to get prices.
Gallery windows are at 13-19 William St, 6 William St and 197 High St.
by STEVE GRANT