The fee issue
Melbourne is famous for its many artist run spaces. This situation corresponds to an urge: many art schools, many artists, few public institutions, and few good commercial galleries. The majority of these spaces doesn't receive any funding. Like in European alternative spaces, everything is more or less based on enthusiasm and voluntary work. But unlike Europe (and US), they apply a very awkward rule: each artist has to pay a fee, from 150 to 500 Euros, in order to have an exhibition. This is the way to pay the rent and survive I was told. I really find it problematic. From my experience of the art system, most of artist run spaces survive upon two conditions: either they were lent the space for free, or they may receive a small grant that covers the rent and small expenses. Then artists have to pay for the production and the installation of their work. Basta. So what's the problem with this fee issue? First it might lead the artist run spaces feeling obligated to 'fill' the exhibition space in order to pay the rent. Therefore it might blur the understanding of its aesthetic orientations and its contribution to the critical debate. To be strong and challenging, the art scene needs to have different aesthetic families and currents that can be clearly located. One might argue that the role of an artist run space is to help as many artists as possible to show their work. Of course. But this only can be considered as the first stage in the development of an art scene. Then things have to be more conceptualized.
Second problem: if the artists are paying fees on the top of spending a lot of dollars to produce their work, they might not be urged to be completely experimental. One always has to worry about selling something in order to get some cash back. So most of the shows I have seen in artist run spaces are object-based. The 'hit and run' phenomena as they call it here.
Of course some spaces have tried to change things. Ocular Lab, which is located in Brunswick far from the center, doesn't ask for fees and concentrates on inviting artists from abroad through international funding. Conical Inc. (which requests fee) is nevertheless trying hard to show works that are process-oriented and site-specific. As a result, Conical's 'line' is the most coherent and therefore appealing. Since they lost their space that they had for free, the artists of Clubs Project Inc. have engaged into a series of publications and feed-back sessions where they discuss in an extensive way an exhibition they've seen.
Finally, in order to sustain their choices, some spaces (Uplands, Neon Parc) were conceived as commercial galleries. And that's the most visible sign of an art scene in its prime.