When Michael and Susanne Silver launched Magnet Galleries, a not-for-profit photo exhibition and event space, the concept was simple: give back to photography.
In 2012 Michael was entering his sixties. More than four decades were dedicated to a fruitful career in photography, primarily shooting news and editorial in London and Melbourne. And in return, photography provided Michael a recipe for a fulfilling life – a steady income, a network, friends, a ticket to see the world, a purpose, and more.
Launching Magnet Galleries came with risks. The photo industry had just emerged from the turbulent digital revolution and was now tasked with navigating the rise of smartphones and social media. The doors of many institutions – photo galleries, specialist retailers, labs, industry bodies, and education facilities – were closing. And few new ones had swung open.
An unlikely match
Michael already had experience operating a gallery. Prior to launching Magnet, he had ‘accidentally’ come into possession of a commercial photo gallery, after a burnt-out friend handed over the keys.
‘I was working at The Sun newspaper – Fleet Street in England. And when I returned, a friend who worked at The Age rang me up and said “I want to start a gallery”. I said “why on earth do you want to do that?”,’ Michael told Inside Imaging. ‘I wasn’t too interested in galleries or exhibitions at the time. I was just a photographer. But we helped him by bringing in a printer and giving him a hand.
‘Running a gallery wipes you out. It takes every moment and all your energy. [My friend] didn’t really have the support he needed. He was a brilliant photographer, but it’s really hard to make money from a commercial photo gallery.
‘I offered to look after the gallery so the owner could take some time off. It was really fun, and in the end he told us to take it, which felt right.’
The photo gallery wasn’t a hugely profitable venture. But the couple knew from the outset this was never going to be a pathway to fame and fortune. And as Michael describes himself as being somewhat ‘allergic to money’, the gallery made sense. Although he continued as a working photographer to cover the gallery’s shortcomings.
‘Eventually we learnt our job was to help rather than make money.’
Michael’s ‘elevator pitch’ for Magnet is straightforward: to help.
‘I believe in simplicity, and it’s very much about that. I’d be happy if it’s written on my grave, “he tried”. You’ve got to,’ he said. ‘We do lots of things for nothing. We regularly offer the space to charities and organisations. We charge a bit for some things, and occasionally there will be bigger events. And, well, we’re here. It’s stable and solid.’
Magnet is located in Melbourne’s picturesque Docklands, a stone’s throw from the CBD, and boasts two gallery spaces.
Photographer for photographers
In June the gallery hosted the coveted World Press Photo Exhibition 2022, the first time the exhibition has come to Melbourne in its 67-year history.
But rather than regularly pulling big shows like this, Magnet is more accustomed to hosting an eclectic mix of exhibitions and events from a diverse range of photographers. A big component of the program is to provide opportunities to emerging photographers, as well as long-time hobbyists, and of course seasoned professionals.
Just don’t expect the roster to heavily feature the extremely conceptual fine art photography that’s celebrated by academia, or what other galleries might deem ‘commercially viable’. Magnet’s program is designed to be accessible to casual viewers and photography enthusiasts. At his core Michael is ‘just a photographer’ and feels Australian photography ‘is of equal quality to anywhere in the world but [is] not considered important’.
Magnet just wrapped up the Melbourne Polytechnic Student Grad Show. For many students this will be the first time they’ll have work professionally printed and hung on a wall, with the opportunity to make a sale. And this marks the final Melbourne Polytechnic student graduation exhibition, as the TAFE axed the dedicated photography course. A real shame. But this is the direction the photo industry has been headed for many years.
Other exhibitions from this year include 3000 Words, a show featuring work exclusively by women documentary photographers; Living In Light, a series of ultra large-format pictures by John Street; and street photos captured in Japan by Glen O’Malley and Peter Kelly.
Both Michael and Susanne, now both in their seventies, work exhaustively to run Magnet. Neither take a salary. In fact, every worker at Magnet is a volunteer, with financial reports showing employee expenses amount to zero.
Although Michael jokes that, given they’re both on the Age Pension, you could say Magnet Galleries is ‘federally funded’.
The only real financial benefit for the family is that Michael’s son, Daniel, took over the family business, Photonet, a commercial lab and Magnet’s printing partner. At least someone in the family is getting paid!
Magnet thrived during the Covid-19 lockdowns. With overheads kept to a bare minimum and overseas travel halted, the couple were left with nothing to do but focus all their energy on the gallery. They showcased virtual exhibitions, mounted photos onto the gallery windows for passers-by, and Michael reluctantly got neck deep in grant applications.
The gallery came out the other side looking better than ever. It’s now proudly one of the few remaining Australian photography hubs. However both Michael and Susanne hope to one day pass on the baton and retire – again.
It presents a great opportunity for someone younger with a love for photography and their heart in the right place. And with a bit of effort, perhaps there might even be a salary in it.