Want to set up your own gallery? Found a great space with cheap or no rent? Now what?
There is a big movemnet around the world for the use of empty building to be turned over to artists to help revitalise main streets.
Eastern Riverina Arts are investigating the feasibility of an 'empty spaces' project in our region and we would love to hear from anyone who might like to get involved
But then again who says artist run initiatives are all about space. Why not an online space, a virtual space, a magazine.
Museums and Galleries NSW have two great documents exploring setting up ARI's and compliance.
Tony Curran attended We Are Here, a symposium on artist run initiatives, in 2011 and has given us permission to publish his response. It is full of great ideas and links to some ARIs
A Few Lessons About Artist-Run-Initiatives I learnt at WAH
by Tony Curran
In September this year, Eastern Riverina Arts assisted me in applying for a Quick Response Grant from Regional Arts New South Wales to attend the We Are Here (WAH) symposium in Sydney. Put together by the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) and Firstdraft Gallery, WAH was a dedicated intensive three-day program about artist-run-initiatives (ARIs). With the help of ERA my application was a success and I travelled to Sydney to prepare for three solid days of lectures, round table discussions, parties and dinners.
NAVA is a union for Australian visual artists. It provides advice, self-help resources, career and business solutions for artists of all career stages and is a lobby group aiming to encourage governments to represent the interests of the Australian art and design industries. NAVA teamed up with Firstdraft gallery, one of Sydney’s major launching pads for emerging artists, to get people together from all over Australia (some from abroad) to discuss the concept of artist-run-initiatives: what they are, how they operate, where they came from and how we can use them.
An artist run initiative is, to put it literally, any initiative run by artists. The term typically refers to a gallery that artists set up as a platform to get exhibitions on their résumé, throw parties and hopefully sell some work. The term artist-run-initiative has replaced the older term artist-run-space to incorporate art practices, which aren’t determined by space. These include art collectives, guerilla art projects and with increasing technological savvy, collaborative practices in the virtual world. The term ARI incorporates any initiative by any producer in the arts working in any artform: visual arts, performing arts, music and dance.
ARIs (or artist-run-space as it used to be known) emerge when artists, fresh out of art school, need places to show their work to an audience. Desperate for a place in the art world they take up vacant buildings to host exhibitions, performance nights and parties, usually with a group that has a name and associated brand. It’s a kind of rite of passage for any artist on the path to building a reputation often in the hope to get the attention of more established galleries. An ARI is a DIY (do it yourself) gallery where artists share resources and collaborate to make art events happen. It’s provides artists the opportunities to go against the mainstream artworld, testing ideas, practices and audiences.
However as art practices have moved away from object, oriented work toward more conceptual practices, as rental prices have increasingly inflated beyond the artists’ budget, and as technology and communications have become so sophisticated, artists have found innovative solutions to make art and have it seen. Funding bodies such as the Australia Council have had to change the terminology for their funding and research purposes and as such the artist-run-space has been replaced by the artist-run-initiative. ARIs come in many shapes and sizes and not always in the form of a gallery. Art collectives, performance spaces, studios, artist networks and websites are among the diverse forms an ARI can take. ARIs are so diverse that it is why it’s safe to say that an ARI is any initiative of any artist or group of artists. Because the ARI is so central to the development of artists professional development, NAVA and Firstdraft teamed up to get a series of speakers from reputable arts organizations to present and lead discussions dissecting the idea of the ARI with the history, function and pro-tips of to-dos and to-don’ts
The first day of the symposium was introduced by a presentation by Michael Huxley from Museums and Galleries NSW. Huxley discussed the pros and cons of different business models and the legal issues associated with each model, for example partnerships come with more legal liabilities than associations but with more personal and financial reward. Different people will choose different models based on the kind of initiative they’re starting, their resources and the kinds of relationships they want to have with the other members of the group. Not choosing an agreed business model often leads to disaster scenarios such as irreconcilable disputes or crippling lawsuits from OH&S liabilities and intellectual property conflicts. Not planning the initiative in advance often leads to surprise costs sending members broke. In designing the initiative successfully, one has to play the role of lawyer, accountant, designer, marketer and artist.
According to many of the presenters and members of discussion panels the beauty of the ARI lies in its ephemeral nature. ARIs are destined to live a short life, dying when the people involved either drop out of the art world or move up the ladder, getting commissions from state funded or commercial galleries. The short lifespan of the ARI was inspiration for Elvis Richardson who started an ARI in Melbourne called Death be Kind, which programmed exhibitions based on the idea of mortality. From the get go the directors planned the date the gallery would die.
More and more people are finding opportunities to exhibit and collaborate without a fixed address. Hosting pop-up exhibitions in hotel rooms, public spaces or by filling vacant shop fronts were among the strategies mentioned at WAH for contemporary ARIs. Negotiating short leases for vacant shop spaces is a popular method artists use to acquire space. Marcus Westbury’s Renew Australia project has provided artists with a negotiation and legal handbook for approaching councils and landlords to borrow space for arts activities. The Renew Australia model is popular in regional communities; it was piloted in Newcastle a regional centre in hiatus since the exodus of BHP.
The Renew Australia model has its skeptics though - initiators from many communities have found landlords unsympathetic to the idea of donating space to artists despite the opportunities it provide landlords to activate and beautify their property while giving something valuable back to the community. I have seen artists have similar difficulties in Wagga Wagga with apathetic landowners happy to keep a space vacant rather than lending an opportunity to stimulate artistic growth within the community. It’s lose/lose but it’s a hard thing to negotiate, let alone to get your foot in the door. Wagga Wagga is full of vacant shop fronts on both Fitzmaurice and Baylis Streets but with high rent prices and poor access to space it’s no wonder why artists seek opportunities in spaceless environments. Vegas Spray is a Brisbane-based solution to the problem of space for artists. It’s an online gallery, acting like any other gallery, but with no physical location.
With all the legal and business details, being an art-space can make it difficult to simultaneously be an artist. One of the main highlights of the conference was making contacts with artists, gallerists and initiators such as directors Alex and Elysha of a regional artist-run-initiative, Made Creative Space in Toowoomba, Queensland. Their dedicated work ethic has led to a diverse gallery program including artist exchange programs around Australia, but at a cost. Unfortunately like most initiators having a successful space means that you spend more time helping other people become artists at the expense of your own art practice – one of the major pitfalls of the artist-run gallery model.
In contrast to the gallery model I met Sarah Last of Cootamundra’s Wired Lab – a specialized art initiative that researches the impact of wires in the regional Australian landscape, sculpturally and acoustically. Wired Lab is seldom open to the public. It’s a private property operating as a farm most of the time, sometimes open to the public for residency programs and open days. However, Wired Lab is also an online resource arguably providing a richer artistic engagement than most art spaces. Wired Lab is simultaneously art space, art practice and research community – the initiative directly contributes to the practices of those involved.
But for most, it seems, the goal when setting up an ARI continues to be a gallery in a central space for white cube art exhibitions – especially among the members of the symposium from regional areas. Their emphasis was on acquiring real estate. Having a space. It’s probably a response to the lack of access to contemporary art in many regional areas. But the biggest nugget of wisdom for me at WAH was the fact that having a space that’s open to the public has massive limitations – legally and artistically. It means that as an initiator you are restricted to and responsible for that space with all the commitments of rent, insurance and the pressure of programming good exhibitions. It involves huge overheads and requires a great deal of volunteer work – and when the going get tough it often falls apart in a demoralizing mess. Initiators become so tired they wonder why they ever took it on. This is why I doubt I would ever initiate and run a gallery unless it was seamlessly integrated into my working hours as an artist. It’s possible but I don’t see it yet.
An ARI is anything that an artist does that has a focus on a public outcome and stimulates the artistic landscape. If one viewed it literally it could also refer to an artists body of work. The definition and parameters of what an ARI is became a controversial topic at WAH because the term is such a wide umbrella. Because the term has an emphasis on being artist-run, any ARI should complement the art practices of those who run it, otherwise they cease to be artists and become arts administrators, at which point it’s no longer artist-run.
As a result of my experience at WAH I’m attempting to initiate a critical art press with a group of Wagga based artists. With this I hope to stimulate some interesting discussion about arts events in and around town; to profile artists, create a voice for the art community, documenting and responding to exhibitions and the work that goes on in the Wagga art sector. However in the preparation I am being extremely cautious about doing this in a way that contributes to rather than distracts from my own art practice. It won’t build a gallery but hopefully it builds an audience or finds where the audience has always been.
Having attended WAH, I know a whole range of things that I’m going to need to watch out for. I know that I need to choose only the people that I could work with through thick and through thin. I need to formalize agreements with them so that they know what I can commit to and I know what they can commit to. I need to make sure that I have considered the workflow of the initiative, what its timeframe or turnover is and whether I can realistically incorporate it into my life. I need to build relationships with individuals and businesses that will be affected by decisions made by the initiative members and I need to trust these individuals and businesses. Essentially, I need to design a sustainable business, which will provide me with no financial rewards, but I’ll do it because I think it’s important, not just for the greater good but for my needs as an artist too.
I believe NAVA will be publishing a book based on the discussions and papers presented at WAH. For anyone interested in looking into the ARI phenomenon Din Heagny’s book Making Space: Artist Run Initiatives in Victoria is a great resource with several essays about the ARI phenomenon and its importance in the artistic landscape. I have included links wherever useful and possible in this document. There was so much covered at WAH that I have only touched on a few topics that were discussed and I have done so very briefly. It appears that only now people are seriously documenting the ARI’s role in art history and with changing pressures on artists it will be interesting to see what new kinds of ARI’s develop to help artists to continue to make the good work they do.
© Tony Curran 2011.