Key Points:

Twenty one years ago, Auckland was in a ferment, with many industrial buildings in the central city waiting for demolition, the sharemarket crashing and the property market about to follow. The art market - such as it was - was slowing and artists, especially those doing more edgy work, weren't feeling much love from Auckland Art Gallery.

There was a mood afoot for an artist-run space where new ideas of sculpture and performance could be tried out, bold experiments conducted, young artists exposed before they were picked up by dealer galleries.

There had been a similar attempt at an artists' room earlier in the decade, Frank Stark's 100 Metres Squared gallery, and a city council-administered work scheme, Artworks, had allowed younger artists to think about different ways of producing and presenting work.

"When we started there were few opportunities for emerging artists, curators and writers," says Mary Louise Browne, a sculptor and performance artist and Artspace's first director. "We developed lots of space," she says, crediting people like Sandy Morrison and then-mayor Cath Tizard for support in finding venues.

The first space was the George Fraser Gallery in Albert Park.

"The very first show we did was Di Ffrench and Fiona Pardington, about the body. Di, who also did performance art, had these big colour cibachromes and dye works. Fiona had pictures of Neil and Joe [her brother and partner] in masks.

"We had Janet Frame upstairs as the artist in residence. She came down every day to check it out. She responded really well to it," Browne says.

A month later, Artspace opened a second gallery in a large white-painted brick building in Federal St which was awaiting the bulldozers for what eventually became the Sky City Casino. "We could do things there without pressure. It was very industrial, and there were a lot of performances and films made there after hours."

Browne says Artspace was definitely a reaction to the direction Auckland Art Gallery was taking, with an emphasis on quality high-end imported historical shows of artists like Claude Monet. When 101 Federal St was finally demolished, a lot of art went with it. For the last show, artists were invited to do works directly on the walls.

That was also a feature of the next venue at Quay St, where a Julian Dashper piece, which consisted of the word DRIVE painted from floor to ceiling on the wall, led to challenges from visitors that the space was being wasted.

"We tended to have an opening every two weeks alternating between the George Fraser and the other venue, so things kept moving. A lot needed to be looked at and we needed to be light on our feet because the space could be taken away at any time," Browne says.

Browne prefers not to discuss subsequent directors - "that's like talking about the second wife" - but says one of the strengths of the Artspace model is its policy of changing the director every three years.

Browne was succeeded by Priscilla Pitts, an art historian who brought a more critically-oriented flavour to the gallery.

As a privileged class of art manager and gatekeeper emerged through the 1990s, and it moved to a space above the Karangahape Rd Post Office, power at Artspace moved away from artists and their projects to the curator, with Robert Leonard consolidating control in the hands of the director, making it ever more like the public institutions he had been raised in.

His successors were both imports, German Tobias Berger and American Brian Butler, in keeping with a mood that art was now international.

The appointments have been controversial, given the need to develop local curating talent, and Butler's practice of giving solo survey shows, with lavish publications, to artists from the stable of his Los Angeles gallery, 1301PE. There's also his attempt to enter the debate on participation in the Venice Biennale, standing outside the show last year when there was no officially-funded New Zealand entry and handing out Speculation, a book of 30 artists various curators believed were worthy of being included in a New Zealand pavilion.

Artist Judy Darragh, who is on the Artspace board, does credit Butler for attempting to give it more financial security than relying on Creative New Zealand funding, for his curatorial intern scheme and for his public programmes.

"Artspace needs to have an immediacy and be able to think on its feet. A lot of institutions are encumbered by policy and perspectives," Darragh says.

She adds that Artspace has always fostered a sense of community among artists, and it's "a great platform for failure.

"I've made crap shows and to do that publicly, recognise it's not good and move on, Artspace has been a safe environment for that.

"There is definitely a need for a proper project space where artists can initiate projects. There are now a lot of artist-run spaces - Newcall, Room 103, Gambia Castle. If you look at where Artspace sits with that community, and the fact Auckland Art Gallery is closed for rebuilding for the next few years, Artspace has to be careful not to do by default what city institutions should be doing."

Julian Dashper has similar concerns. "Artspace is probably doing a good job, but whose job are they doing?"

He says with Auckland Art Gallery abandoning almost all engagement with Auckland's contemporary art scene, let alone the New Zealand scene, it has been left to Artspace to do those important things like identifying emerging artists and trends. "Its presence has let the Auckland gallery off the hook. Auckland is a big city, and it needs a couple of contemporary venues."

Wellington-based collectors and curators Jim and Mary Barr says Artspace "is the best designed space for showing contemporary art in the country. Auckland without Artspace is not something we want to think about."

Butler also reaches for the hyperbole. "It's the most important contemporary art space in the world. By being in New Zealand, we can think of the world in a completely different way."

He says Artspace has never been an artist-run space, but it has always been artist-centric. He defends the international programme, and points also to shows during his tenure by New Zealanders like Peter Robinson, Nick Austin, the late Tom Kreisler, and the only New Zealand showing of et al's controversial Venice Biennale entry.

"Artspace is there to say, `This is what is happening in contemporary art, it's a small country, with enormous talent', and then putting that in context. We are trying to say the world is big and everyone should be able to play in the same sandpit.

"Coming from Los Angeles, which is a great city with a second city mentality, I see it has the same mentality as New Zealand. You are not sure if you should only support your own or longingly look outwards, thinking someone else is better."

Artspace celebrates its 21st birthday with a party at the galley tonight, where editions of screenprints by 21 artists will be sold off.