Responses to On Further Reflection
Letters and Responses
I read [Michael] Turner and [Reid] Shier’s On Further Reflection in Fillip 14 with interest. It is always gratifying to read further critical examination of artist-run centres, and the two land some salient observations. However, their text also left me feeling rankled on a few points, principally regarding some factual inaccuracies and fallacious reasoning. While I would like to respond at greater length to these, and the anxieties that seem to underpin them, let me address a couple that I think are important to the immediate record.
Firstly, please be assured that the Or Gallery has not abandoned its mandate to rotate Director/Curators in a timely way—quite the opposite; the amendments proposed at the 2009 Annual General Meeting enshrine these principles for the first time in its constitution. This is the correct place for them. Whereas an organization’s bylaws describe technical workings between membership and Board of Directors, it is the constitution in which an organization lays out its guiding principles. The 1987 amendments wrongly, we felt, added this section to the former rather than the latter. I will add that the process took lessons and cues from Shier’s own extended term as Director/Curator of the Or Gallery, which contravened said bylaws. It’s for this reason particularly that the membership decided not to prescribe exact terms or job descriptions in the constitution, but rather leave this to board interpretation, policy, and to precedent. The 2009 constitution is clear in its intent, however, and goes further to articulate reasons for curatorial rotation than were previously defined. I would also like to note that Canada Council’s support of the Pitt Gallery after it had lost its space due to arts cuts in BC, is in no way precedent-setting. Many artist-run “centres,” as we call them, conduct programming outside of a central exhibition venue. Tribe (Saskatoon) and Dare-Dare (Montreal) are a couple of the better-known ones within Council’s Assistance to Artist-Run Centres program. I stick on this issue because Shier and Turner seem to hinge many of their arguments, surprisingly, on simplistic definitions of artist-run centres and fail to recognize newer initiatives such as Other Sights, 221a, and even Fillip. Granted, these three fall outside of Council’s Assistance program, but funding restrictions are not unique to the artist-run sector, nor is access to funding programs the identifying mark of an artist-run centre. The inference of such only limits these conversations. (Jonathan Middleton, Vancouver)
Having read and re-read with interest the sequence of texts by my friends and colleagues that aim to explore the various complicated histories of artist run centres [ARCs] in Vancouver [Keith Wallace, “Artist-Run Centres in Vancouver: A Reflection on Three Texts” (Fillip 12) and Michael Turner and Reid Shier, “Upon Further Reflection” (Fillip 14)], I’m impressed with the obvious effort that’s been applied to the task. If only public galleries, collecting museums (public or private) and commercial art enterprises were held to such a high level of organizational critique, such piercing examinations of ethical and curatorial processes! But, of course, those organizations are not expected to simultaneously demonstrate, contain, articulate and preserve the contradictory ideals by which the authors set out to judge artist run centres. Rather, and appropriately, public galleries and museums are focused on delivering exhibitions to the public while private galleries exist primarily to deliver artworks to the market. A simple distinction—that ARCs concern themselves less with art works and more with artists and their activity—seems to rest just outside of the authors’ lines of sight.
Reid argues that “just because ARCs were a vehicle for ‘alternative’ practices doesn’t mean they were spaces where alterity was developed, or, by extension, were vehicles of ‘resistance.’ That discourse may have taken place within their walls, but I think ARCs were, and remain, primarily exhibition spaces.”
To take this position (besides completely ignoring the facts) is to place the formation of ARCs merely in relation to the art world, when it is quite clear that they were formed in relation to the world. Consensus decision-making, collective production, communal art/life arrangements, and the like were as directly related to concurrent social and political movements like feminism, gay rights, and anti-racist activism, as they were to the need for exhibition space. Self-organization, linked to labour movement models can be seen in the term “cultural workers,” the street marches of the Artists Union in Ontario and elsewhere, and the Vancouver Artists’ League, and these organizations were part of the ARC context. Agitation for economic rights for artists is evident in the early work of CARFAC [Canadian Artists Representation/Le Front des Artistes Canadiens], through the implementation of artists’ exhibition fees (public gallery and museum service organizations continue to fight any increases to these paltry sums). Anti-censorship organizing, disputes over public access to the airwaves, and against media monopolies were a critical part of ARC discourse—in the internal discussions and the exhibitions, screenings and events that took place. While the scope of inquiry is Vancouver, I think it’s important to remember that ARCs here saw themselves in relation to organizations across the country and worked within this network. To not take into account the discourse that may have taken place within their walls—such as the inquiry into forms of self-organization, the relationship between art and society, the role of the artist, and the very art works that resulted—is to create a severely limited frame of reference for the conversation that follows. By focusing on the object (the exhibition space), the discourse (art practice) blurs into a secondary or subservient feature—a point of view that surprises me, one that I thought Reid would “resist.”
But, following from this viewpoint, it seems logical that, “Given the choice today, most artists wouldn’t prioritize showing in an ARC over a commercial space. Had they the same option thirty years ago, would anything be different?”
If the feature of importance is the exhibition space, its status in conventional art world hierarchies becomes paramount. Reid assumes that all artists are primarily interested in the same thing, and see things the same way—and have always done so. This goes against the evidence to be found in ARC “collections”—their archives. As part of a project of “self-determination,” connected once again to social and political movements, many artists desired more control over how their work was developed, presented, and written about, and were interested in contributing to the critical context for its reception. I see the “space” as merely a field for these desirable pursuits. Much of the activity and production that’s not acknowledged from the authors’ points of view—reading groups, magazines, talks, reviews, cultural advocacy, education programs—were (and continue to be) at least as important as an exhibition program in artist run centres. Within this discourse, artistic work can be curating, writing, teaching, and so forth, and this does resist or challenge the importance of the exhibition space as the principal feature in contemporary art, and the assignation of importance and power to different, hierarchically arranged roles—curators, critics, artists.
Much of the commentary is given over to whether or not ARCs were, or are, oppositional. I can see that it is difficult to discuss this from the present perspective—so much has changed regarding the major and the minor, the centre and periphery, struggle and resistance, having changed through discourse—that activity that takes place within a space. Perhaps written records and recordings could have assisted this inquiry—mandates, manifestos, the pamphlets and brochures and tapes that are easily accessible to anyone who asks. I’m doubtful that the documents would reveal bold statements about what ARCs are not. It’s more likely that, just by following their interests, ARCs were seen as opposing or resisting other cultural organizations in a competitive environment. I recall being called to task, as a member of the public art collective Association for Noncommercial Culture (The Non), by a gallery owner. He wanted to know what we had against commercial galleries. I had to explain that we were placing art in public space in response to the oppressive presence of the advertising image, the privatization of the public sphere, etc. We were definitely oppositional, but the point of view of the gallerist was limited to the art world, and so our “opposition” was interpreted in relation to him.
In Keith’s Vancouver Anthology essay, he points out a perceived inconsistency within the Non collective—that many of the members worked independently as well as within the group, and exhibited their work in galleries. There was more than a tinge of disappointment in this observation, a seeming desire for a pure, resistant collective gesture—and one can trace this thread of betrayal and longing through all of these associated texts. Sometimes an author, with his particular definition of alterity, roots through the contradictory behaviour of any given ARC for examples that conflict with his notion of alterity, and pronounces, “See—it is no different!” This is the case when Michael seizes upon the support extended by artists with commercially viable practices to ARCs through donated artworks—as reflective of somehow having it both ways. Other times, an author admits his cynicism—and what is a cynic but a wounded idealist?
“To take a cynical view, the core-funded Canadian ARCs are like first-born baby boomers: they get the breaks while the kids born later suffer the consequences. Which is why I find no convincing reason why ARCs should still label themselves ‘artist-run’—not that few are actually run by artists, but because the name carries a connotation of organizations that arise out of freshly propagated conversations by artists.”
So, for Reid, ARCs are not truly ARCs unless they are “fresh?” I’m not exactly sure who should feel more insulted—the old or the young. Surely older artists, baby-boomers, like he and I, continue to have relevant conversations, funded or not. Stable, but inadequate core funding has not given Canadian ARCs any “breaks” from social, economic and political reality—they must pursue multiple forms of support relentlessly. It’s inaccurate to contend that artist run centres exist only because of government support—funders follow the investment of the artistic community, not lead it. At the provincial and local level, ARCs compete very successfully with their colleagues in public galleries and museums, because it is recognized that they generate, dollar for dollar, many more opportunities for new art activity. New organizations, formed in relation to the world today, are shaping their economic models accordingly. It’s an insult to see these groups as victimized children—in many instances they are leading the way for everyone.
This brings me to the term “artist run” and the authors’ search for an eternal and authentic definition. Some seem to define this in terms of the credentials and education of the person “running” a centre, while ignoring that the governing boards of ARCs are made up of a majority of artists. Should these artists decide to delegate the centre’s program of activity by hiring someone with a background in art history or curatorial studies or software development, or plumbing, the organizations would not cease to be “artist run.” This formally distinguishes them from the governance bodies of public galleries and museums. I’ve served on the boards and committees of both types of organizations, and believe me, the agendas, the nature of the conversations and the decisions made are compellingly different. I do not accept that this distinction makes no difference for the art community as the authors suggest. I think the limited parameters set out at the beginning—that ARCs are primarily exhibition spaces—are the culprit. Fixating on the individual “running” the space is like fixating on the space at the expense of everything that happens within it. Whether the board is hands-on or hands-off the program, it is ultimately responsible for the organization itself, and is accountable for it. This confused figure/ground perception casts into shadow the activity of hundreds of artists in directing, over time, the persistent operation of ARCs in this city. Even if a reader accepts the greater value given individual leaders, there emerges another unfortunate blind spot: when women greatly outnumber men as “ARC builders” in the city, why are the individuals Reid and Michael name, quote and credit overwhelmingly men?
So, then, what kind of “alterity” do the authors consider significant? Is it total artistic autonomy, complete economic independence, political isolation, a secret society uncontaminated by relationships of power? Is it a perfect room containing a perfect object? Is it a thrashing, incessant gesture of resistance? Having charged Keith with nostalgia, Reid and Michael take up a similar longing for the inauthentic. I think their criteria for successful alterity is failure. The success of ARCs has thus made them fail at failing. The aspirations they ascribe to the artist run centre movement, however, are far too modest. I think the alternative, original impetus for the ARC movement was a desire to be the art world, in the world.
This brings me to “real estate.” First, allow me to quibble. Artspeak did not “mimic” the grunt’s decision to obtain a facility—the grunt did ground-breaking work in convincing a local credit union to give a non-profit group operated by artists a mortgage, and Glenn Alteen was generous with his advice in this regard. However, while the grunt Board and Director worked with a developer to achieve their goal, the Artspeak board and myself as Director raised a down payment through public and private fundraising, and three of us personally co-signed the mortgage with that same Community Congress for Economic Change Credit Union. We followed on the work of Susan Edelstein, who initiated the process during her tenure as Director. Keith Higgins (Michael quotes him out of context) was the board president, and in the many discussions surrounding the project framed the purchase of the storefront as creating an asset for the non-profit society, an asset that will remain in control of the artistic community into the future. His comments regarding growth, in my memory, referred to envisioning a different trajectory than what was imagined by other organizations: that is, a successful artist run centre will naturally “evolve” or “develop” into a public gallery. The conversation centred on how to grow in a way that considered the needs of the art community of the future, and their need to determine what they want an ARC to be. So—once again, where Reid and Michael see “an object” I see an activity, an engagement by artists in a currency of such consequence in this city, completely implicated, sullied and participants in the world. Accomplished by different means, the grunt and Artspeak facilities are assets held by the artistic community, are the result of group efforts, and will continue to be so. In the meantime, I would wager that both organizations spend a great deal less time talking about real estate than other ARCs in the city.
The three coroners are gathered, engaged in professional disagreement. Reid’s view is that “as a generative project, the ARC movement in Canada is effectively over, and has been for years,” while Keith maintains “artist-run centres no longer really exist by virtue of their ‘challenge to the established art systems,’” and Michael sees only real estate parcels and archival record. They are ready to sign the death certificate, but argue over which vital sign indicates demise. What is it about their way of looking that is impeding their view? What compels perfectly reasonable, lovely people to begin an autopsy on the living? Do they see themselves as having “moved on,” and a pronouncement of death will be an elegant avant-garde gesture? Are they turning a page on our youth, in all its freshness? Perhaps death is seen as permission to embark on an authoritative biography of the deceased? It’s hard to get away with that when the corpse is still moving.
Like social and political movements, artist run centres have been “over” again and again and again. Critical evaluations of such movements and the organizations associated with them, even the paternalistic and dismissive ones offered by Keith, Reid and Michael, are a welcome part of discourse and the best evidence that we have not seen the last of artists’ self-organization and self-determined activity. The elevated criteria they apply to their interrogation of ARCs are fair and appropriate, since other cultural institutions and businesses are not nearly as ambitious. The stakes are higher for ARCs, and the authors remind us (perhaps unintentionally) that the existence of galleries and museums, critics and curators rests completely on the activity of artists. If one’s perspective is focused fixedly on objects or architecture this is easily, and is often, overlooked. (Lorna Brown, Vancouver)