Considerations

Thinking Again about Artist-run Culture

Self-determination

As I understand it, the impetus behind the formation of artist-run centres (ARCs) was artistic self-determination. ARCs, as a form of self-determination, distinguished themselves from commercial galleries in their distance from (if not their opposition to) the market, and they distinguished themselves from museums in the temporal direction of their activity, which was unconcerned with historicization and prioritized experimentation over connoisseurship. Emerging in the late 1960s, arguments for self-determination were taken seriously and the support of ARCs can be read alongside other social phenomena of the time, such as the civil rights movement, second wave feminism and antiestablishment counterculture. At this time, the infrastructure of the Canada Council already existed and the Council’s expansion to support artist-run initiatives reflects its adoption of the zeitgeist.

Given the oppositional stance of artist-run centres—from the beginning operating against the market and against the museum—I think there is a case to be made for these impulses of self-determination as an early model for what came to be known as institutional critique. Avoiding the inherent contradictions of institutional critique—namely, that there is no outside from which to offer critique because, as Andrea Fraser demonstrates, “the institution is inside of us, and we can’t get outside of ourselves”—ARCs offer instead a practice of critique by embodiment [1]. ARCs are the institution, which has allowed them to be influential on the form of the institution itself.

In Diana Nemiroff’s essay, “Par-al-lel,” which was written in the early 1990s, she studies the history of ARCs through the words that have been used to describe them: alternative, artist-run, parallel. I am not sure how the term “parallel” emerged to characterize the relationship between ARCs and museums, but in her essay Nemiroff quotes Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker suggesting that “a problem with the term ‘parallel’—‘something similar which is continually equidistant’—is that it does not adequately define the artist-run centre as an alternative, that is, ‘mutually exclusive, available in place of another, and a group of persons disassociating themselves from conventional social practices’” [2]. According to Nemiroff and Danzker, “parallel” did not reflect the alternative positioning that was fundamental to the early conception of these centres. At that time, the term “artist run” was in favour, but contentions surrounds that term now, as Reid Shier points out in his essay “Do Artists Need Artist-Run Centres?” Alternative was and remains an aspiration.

Is there virtue in reconceptualizing curators and administrators as artists in order to maintain fidelity to the moniker “artist run”? Might the reclamation of “parallel” offer any value in better describing what these organizations have become? Can “alternative” act as inspiration?

Mutual Becoming

While the desire for self-determination played a part in the formation of ARCs, it is not an argument for their continued existence. The political, economic and social climate of 2014 bears only slight resemblances to 1967 and it must be recognized that we change the world by being in it.

A pervasive example of this practice of mutual becoming is the phenomena of organizational structuring and programming, both geared toward council mandates. That ARCs have boards of directors cannot be untangled from the Canada Council’s dictate that they do so. That so many Indigenous artists show work in ARCs probably, unfortunately, cannot be divorced from the strategic priorities of funding bodies. Nemiroff notes another early example of this mutual becoming: “Because the [funding] programmes were community oriented, they encouraged artists to define themselves in practical terms as a community. This orientation in turn affected the way in which the artist was able to perceive his/her role vis-a-vis the larger community” [3]. AA Bronson suggested as much in his 1983 essay, that while the development of artist-run culture in Canada led to our humiliation as bureaucrats, it also led to the realization of an art scene where there had been none previously [4]. This changes things. We have an art scene. We have access to production resources. We have exhibition opportunities. There are structures of mentorship. Given these changes brought about by a history of artist-run culture in Canada, the terms of what artists need to practice have also changed.

From the position of artists in Canada, what do they need from artist-run centres today?

Die Die Die

And I can’t help but think of death and dying, of organizations on life support, of the reality of limited funding. There is a general lack of of public discussion about the ethics or necessity of organizations folding; there is no lack of private discussion on the matter though.

Why?

What better time than now to reflect on how these organizations—a relatively fixed set of institutions across the country—are serving their constituents. In my visions of a utopic art-world future, I want to live in a place where the presentation and contextualization of art is supported outside of the market and where historicization is complicated (those classic desires of the artist-run model).

But what are the limitations of the current technology of artist-run centres?

The Future

I don’t think it’s that ARCs are obsolete, but that they are living beings (of a sort), subject to succession. This metaphor has limited use-value, but like any ecology, artist-run culture requires periods of growth and periods of destruction. It’s not that I have an interest in killing off organizations per se, but there’s an undeniable stagnancy in the system. I think that artist-run culture is ready to have conversations about what a reconfiguration of the landscape might look like. And actually, just last year, the Canada Council announced a policy of a redistribution of funds, implying that they are ready too.

There was also an anonymously published text in one of the final issues of FUSE, where a group of cultural workers delineated some tactics for infrastructural redistribution, including merging institutions into “super-centres,” but, they note, “part of what’s standing in the way of such succession is that no one’s done the math. With a dearth of precedent, no one is sure how the councils will respond, and people fear losing jobs and programs…The death and merger of centres are not suggestions; they are inevitable as the sectors evolve with changing climates. The only question is where and how the decisions will be made—collectively by institutions and the artists they represent, or top-down through the funding process?” [5].

So, where do we want those decisions to be be made? And are we brave enough to make them?

[1] Fraser, Andrea. “From the Critique of Institutuions to an Institution of Critique.” Artforum, 44-1 (2005), unpaginated.

[2] Nemiroff, Diana, “Par-al-lel.” In Sightlines, edited by Jessica Bradley and Lesley Johnstone, unpaginated. Canada: Artexte editions, 1994.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bronson, AA. “The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat: Artist-run Spaces as Museums by Artists.” In Museums by artists, eds. Peggy Gale and AA Bronson, 29-37. Toronto: Art Metropole, 1983.

[5] Anonymous. “Art, Austerity and the Production of Fear.” FUSE Magazine, 37-1 (2013), unpaginated.

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2 thoughts on “Thinking Again about Artist-run Culture

  1. ericabrisson says:

    Great article, as always, Cheyanne!

    Lately, I have been thinking a lot about how short, lottery funding cycles are so neoliberal. I feel like shifting to long term, sustainable funding streams would really change the character of ARCs and allow them to pursue their social ideals.

    I don’t think that banding together to form “mega” ARCs would help.

    Potentially some sort of low level basic guaranteed income scheme could help more artists + organizations and give them stability. Having been in Berlin for a year, many artists and ARCs here seem less stressed, and that is because they enjoy a decent welfare scheme, equivalent to about $1600 CAD a month. They know where they stand, so they can think about other things.

    Artists and ARCs give a lot to society, and just 7K a year could really help keep most artists going. This really isn’t much and their work gives a lot back to the country.

    Anyways, I’m not the best writer, but maybe I’ll send you a video message sometime! Really getting into those.

    Sorry to have missed you in Toronto, but the time just flew by. Next visit :)

    best

    erica

  2. Reblogged this on sydney lancaster: hand & eye and commented:
    A very interesting read, and worth much consideration and discussion. Fact is, the ARC model has become so thoroughly bureaucratized (*due to the funding model, not the individual artists who work so hard to keep them going!) that the entire notion of self-determination as described in the article reads like a bad joke. New, alternative spaces are popping up all the time – but these are run on a shoestring (at best), and offer little or nothing in the way of exhibition feasted support – because they can’t afford it. There’s got to be a better, more responsive, and more practical way to support non-commercial and experimental work!

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