It’s no small feat to reinvent yourself while all your old friends watch. This is the challenge facing ACE Open, the new amalgam of the Australian Experimental Art Foundation (AEAF) and the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia (CACSA).

AEAF and CACSA were two high-profile victims of the brutal funding cuts to the Australia Council doled out in the 2014–15 and 2015–16 federal budgets. The not-for-profit, independent contemporary art spaces were among 65 organisations across the country to lose their funding.

Liz Nowell, CEO of ACE and former CEO of CACSA, says the domino effect hit hard. When CACSA and AEAF lost the support of the Australia Council, the organisations’ other funding agreements were threatened. Arts SA jumped in, providing a combined total of $432,000 for the two organisations to cover operational costs for 2017. It offered some relief so they could work out their next move.

That move is ACE Open, a distinct, new creature, carefully constructed to carry on the work of the old organisations without bias towards one or the other. Since the decision to amalgamate was made, the Australia Council has provided additional funding to help ACE get on its feet. The irony is there, but Nowell can’t focus on that. She is simply thankful for the support.

“I was really humbled and impressed by the support of the community and the broader arts sector, and the collegiality between our two organisations,” Nowell says. “Last year was really challenging for the whole sector, nationally, but it’s an interesting thing to see how organisations have galvanised and how people are working together to find solutions to what have been some pretty devastating outcomes for some of us.”

Nowell and Sarita Burnett, ACE’s business and operations manager, worked together at CACSA and form the skeleton crew around which the ACE team will be built. Speaking to Broadsheet, the two are seated around the meeting table in the ACE office – on the top floor of the former AEAF complex.

Situated in the Lion Arts precinct off North Terrace, the AEAF/ACE building is specifically designed for artistic use. It has studio spaces, a resident artist’s apartment, an office, a gallery and an undesignated “free” space that was formerly the Dark Horsey bookshop. ACE will also expand to occupy the former FEAST Festival rooms across the laneway. The CACSA premises in Parkside will lie dormant as operations get underway.

Burnett says that, in the past, AEAF and CACSA had briefly discussed a merger, but it wasn’t until the funding announcements were made that those conversations became serious. There’s poetry in that because the two organisations grew from the same roots. In 1942, in order to explore contemporary work, CACSA split from the Royal Society of Arts; in 1974, AEAF broke out of CACSA, seeking a space to display more radical, multi-disciplinary and performance work. And now, they are one again.

“ACE is another evolution,” Burnett says. Nowell agrees, emphasising that ACE is a new, singular thing – AEAF and CACSA won’t be operating “in silos” under the banner.

“We’re in a building that already has so much history, but we need to reset,” Nowell says. “ACE is an evolution of what has come before us, and I feel very strongly that the best way to honour the legacy of those organisations is to follow in their footsteps and be fearless and brave and bold.”

ACE’s first exhibition – BLACKFLAG by Christian Lock – reflects these feelings. “As [Lock’s] work evolved and unfolded, it became this call to action, call to arms. It marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new one. It’s a marker in time,” says Nowell.

Burnett agrees. “It’s not surrender, we’re fighting forward.”

ACE Open has exhibitions planned for the rest of 2017, including features in the OzAsia and Tarnanthi festivals. ACE Open will officially launch in July.

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