The relationship between money and art runs hot and cold. In the United Kingdom an ice age has loomed over public arts organisations following government spending cuts which began in 2010-11 across all sectors. The arts policies of Prime Minister David Cameron, and his coalition off-sider George Osborne, have since been declared more harmful than those of Margaret Thatcher, who progressively cut Arts Council funding in the 1980s in line with her free market economic principles.1 As the purse strings of the UK government’s federal arts funding are pulled ever tighter and local authority spending dwindles, contemporary art organisations have turned to a limited number of art philanthropists, trusts and foundations for support.
Enter the Arts Council England’s Catalyst Arts scheme. It is a £40 million ‘capacity building and match-funding’ experiment taking place over three years (2013 – 2015). Catalyst is an attempt to encourage UK arts organisations to diversify their funding streams and independently cultivate private giving in the hope of creating a culture of philanthropy that is more in line with the model seen in the United States.
In response to Catalyst, three contemporary art spaces on the fringes of London—The Showroom in the North West, Chisenhale Galleries in the East and Studio Voltaire in the South—joined forces to undertake a series of artist commissions and research under the banner How to work together. Each organisation has a long-standing reputation for supporting artists at a critical point in their career, providing them with a space to test ideas without the necessity of attracting large audiences. This lack of emphasis on commercial success markers such as audience figures is a tricky position from which to garner support. Each gallery is also a member of the advocacy group Common Practice, which was established in 2009 as a support network for similar small-to-medium sized contemporary art spaces in London, with strategies for addressing funding being a key discussion topic (fellow members of Common Practice include Afterall, Electra, Gasworks, LUX, Matt’s Gallery and Mute Publishing).2
Successful in their joint bid for Catalyst funds,3 The Showroom, Chisenhale and Studio Voltaire4 established a three-year programme of commissions (three per gallery) and an online think tank under the title How to work together. Their aim is to explore the broader themes relating to work and collaboration, not only between organisations and artists but also including local communities, audiences and funders.
After a successful first year of fundraising, How to work together secured a healthy mix of corporate and foundation support from the global media company Bloomberg, the Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Outset’s International Production Fund. The commissions began with Berlin-based Australian artist Gerry Bibby at The Showroom, running alongside Latvian-born painter Ella Kruglyanskaya at Studio Voltaire and London-based Céline Condorelli at Chisenhale Gallery. This was Bibby’s first solo show in London, following his commission at the Frieze art fair as part of Frieze Projects in 2013.
For How to work together, Bibby exposed the chain of relationships between the artist and the commissioning organization. His work emerged from layers of conversation and negotiation with players ranging from the gallery’s plumber to its director. Before the exhibition he embedded himself in The Showroom on an unofficial ‘residency’, exploring not only the physical infrastructure and architecture of the space, but also requesting access to normally private funding documents (The Showroom director Emily Pethick drawing the line at confidential board reports).
Bibby began this research phase with a performance that formed part of an event at The Showroom which considered the legacy of institutional critique. Bibby explains:
‘I asked Emily for sensitive documents, like funding agreements and board meeting minutes … I then collaged those into a kind of a collapse. I had piles of paper on this table and I had invented a script on how to meander through these piles of paper and as I was sitting there I was thinking there is a script here actually for how to get lost in a Kafka kind of sense … I can just get lost. I lost my script in the piles of paper and tried to find it again … In that way I had to then think about this kind of infrastructure, these different ways of approaching languages and what languages are around this’.5
Bibby describes his approach as an experiment in ‘provoking problems to ask questions’.6 For the exhibition, this provocation began with the artist’s intervention in the gallery’s heating system. Bibby requested a simple, but rather jolting, change from which he interrogated how The Showroom’s organisational structure functions and the roles that money, language and labor play in problem solving.
‘What I wanted to do’, Bibby explained to Pethick, ‘was agitate something more infrastructural about The Showroom … social relations become a kind of material for me to work with, a departure point for me to investigate what sets of relations, but also [what] limitations, are happening within a situation.’
To begin this agitation, Bibby removed a boiler heater from The Showroom’s upstairs studio. This subtraction required a series of negotiations – not least with the plumber – and a proposed solution, a ‘prosthesis’ in the form of double glazing which was to be installed to compensate for the absent apparatus.
The heater then took on a new life as a ‘muse’ reclining on a pile of domestic rugs, (sourced from Pethick’s home) within the exhibition space. Between its vents were papers and readings from Bibby’s research as well as personal documents belonging to the artist. In the center of the room a series of large glass panes were precariously leant on wooden beams. Titled Disclosure Dramas I-VI, these transparent but sound-proof panes were cut to the size of the studio windows in readiness to, one day, assume the role of double-glazing insulation and superseding the boiler.
A series of painting-collages hung around the room. They had notes, documents and drafts from a novel Bibby was writing pinned to them.7 Toward the back of the space sat a large vase on a cupboard. Half filled with run-off water from the removed heater, which Bibby described as ‘blood’, it became a wishing well into which visitors and patrons could splash their pennies.
And so this cast of objects invited the viewer into an experimental maze. The exhibition itself was like the residue of a series of behind-the-scenes negotiations that the viewer was not privy to – those of infrastructure. ‘I wanted to theatricalize or poeticize these sets of relations,’ Bibby explains, ‘so I wanted this very elemental situation: heat, the blood of the muse, glass.’8
Bibby pledged part of his artist fee as a donation to The Showroom, asking the question in a text accompanying the exhibition:
A Commission is a wonderful
but is that annulled if a portion of
it is re-gifted / re-purposed?
Like the patron’s pennies, the re-purposing of the artist’s fee was intended to cover the costs of double-glazing, however these funds weren’t sufficient, requiring The Showroom to go on an as yet unresolved quest for sponsorship. The wheels keep turning.
Bibby goes on to observe:
Commissioning an artwork is a gamble …
and has a lot to do with Language.
Language lies at the core of the artist’s practice. Bibby develops and plays with his concept of ‘language costumes’, that is, the various guises and identities that one can adopt through diction and rhetoric. The exhibition title—Combination Boiler—references not only to the heater-muse, but the project’s relationship to a novel that Bibby is writing, a solitary task in comparison to the relationships built through the exhibition and ‘residency’. ‘It’s interesting to go from this one heater and then be driven off in all of these different directions’, Bibby explains, ‘And having to expand on these sets of relations that I would normally get involved in with the novel’.
Pethick reflects that Bibby’s presence in the gallery served a purpose: to ‘challenge the organisation to make certain kinds of changes’. This mirrors the challenge set for the organisation by the Catalyst scheme itself. Bibby’s role is that of an agitator whose motivation is to tease and expose the mechanics of relationships and money within the workings of The Showroom. By removing the warmth of the heater he symbolically casts the organisation into the cold realm of uncertainty.
Like a script lost amongst a pile of funding agreements, the plans and intentions of the Catalyst programme will ultimately be subsumed by regulations established by those who control the money, and this means those who—in the majority—value private enterprise over dependence on public support. An arts organisation’s ability to build a strategic and effective relationship with the gate-keepers of private wealth, be they a foundation, corporation or individual, will make the difference between being warm through the winter or being left out in the cold.
1. Matt Trueman, ‘Max Stafford-Clark calls ministers ‘philistines’ over arts funding cuts’, The Guardian, February 5, 2014, accessed 24 July 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/feb/05/max-stafford-clark-cuts-theatre.
2. For further information on Common Practice see http://commonpractice.org.uk.
3. In fact, it was one of only two joint applications that the Arts Council received. (Rachel Spence, ‘United we stand: How galleries are working together’, The Financial Times, March 30, 2014, accessed 24 July, 2014, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/515f5104-af83-11e3-a006-00144feab7de.html.
4. Emily Pethick at The Showroom, Polly Staple at Chisenhale Gallery and Joe Scotland at Studio Voltaire.
5. Gerry Bibby in conversation with David Bussel, Céline Condorelli and Jessica Vaughan at The Showroom, London, 17 June, 2014.
6. Gerry Bibby in conversation with David Bussel, Céline Condorelli and Jessica Vaughan at The Showroom, London, 17 June, 2014.
7. Bibby is writing this novel as part of a two-year commission for the Amsterdam-based performance collective If I Can’t Dance I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution.
8. Gerry Bibby in conversation with Emily Pethick at The Showroom, London, 9 June 2014.
For further information on How to work together visit http://howtoworktogether.org/
Elizabeth Stanton is Communications and Publications Manager at Raven Row, London. Before this, she was Programme Coordinator at The Showroom, London. From 2012 until 2015, she...