As Part 2 of our ongoing blog series on the ecologies of Australian Artist Run Initiatives, we’re hoping to stimulate further conversation, reflection and debate. We’ve asked all the contributors from Part 1 to create a response to the contributions of their peers. In this week’s instalment, Hobart-based Lucy Hawthorne offers a suggestion to break with the threat of burn-out and reinvigorate a sense of community. You can read Lucy’s first post here.
Of all the common themes across the first blog post series, one really stuck out: the notion of community. In their best iteration, ARIs are social, intellectual and creative spaces that bring people together and are ‘owned’ (although not necessarily uncritically) by the local community. My fellow writers refer to their respective ARI examples affectionately. Madeleine Stack describes the household ARI, Witchmeat, as an enjoyable social space where the distinction between artist and viewer is blurred and hierarchies are flattened. It’s a place for experimentation and play outside the confines of a traditional gallery model. Maria Miranda similarly highlights the social elements of the Docklands Spaces. As a government-initiated urban renewal project, these projects could never have the autonomy of a household ARI, but it highlights the way in which underused spaces can be transformed into creative social places, even if only fleetingly. The temporary nature of this transformation is important in this example because it’s part of a program with an overarching social and economic purpose: to create some spirit in an area that has, well, not much. While it’s based on a mutually beneficial relationship (free rent in exchange for culture), and the novel location provides artists with unique opportunities for site-responsive art, I do wonder if this kind of initiative can foster the same level of community ownership to that expressed by Stack in relation to Witchmeat, or Serena Wong to FELTspace.
The consensus seems to be that ARIs are defined not only by a sense of community, but also a spirit of collaboration, volunteerism, and experimentation, as well as the desire to have fun, play, and exchange ideas while maintaining (a fair level of) independence. But these elements are easily compromised by the practicalities of running an ARI, particularly the time demands placed on volunteer members, the cost of running a space and, if funded, negotiating the heavy chains of bureaucracy. I feel exhausted just reading Wong’s description of her year on the committee of FELTspace. She asks, “When is it ok to compromise your dedication, your professionalism for your own professional career? Are they separate?” For an established ARI like FELTspace, professionalism is expected, but it’s also a burden. Funding bodies insist on a level of professionalism of course, but is it also self-imposed? Older ARIs are often populated with ambitious individuals keen to hone their practical skills in an industry where paid jobs are limited and experience is key. These individuals are usually also talented and creative, and I wonder if the rote administrative work demanded of volunteers at the slicker, more professional ARIs is being done at the expense of more creative activities. Is the drive to emulate fully funded public galleries with professional-level programming, publications, communication and events, in reality sapping the creative energy from the very individuals an ARI needs to thrive?
The ARIs mentioned throughout this blog series illustrate the diversity of the scene, from the household ARI and the transient siteless model to the more established FELTspace. As Madé Spencer-Castle points out in Miranda’s audio interview, ‘Artist Run Initiative’ has become a non-specific umbrella term for a vast range of organisations and projects run by artists. There is no longer an expectation that an ARI will be in a fixed location with regular programming. ARIs are now an established part of the Australian art ecosystem, and no longer have to prove or legitimise their existence by mimicking the white cube model. Besides, the art seen in ARIs tends to actively shun the Modernist notion of aesthetic autonomy, acknowledging and/or collaborating with the surrounding environment. Better then to encourage this tendency by co-opting, say, abandoned council pools, food courts, asylums, or warehouses. The very things that define the ARI’s place within the art ecosystem – independence, experimentation, fun, rule breaking, and a sense of community ownership – are probably best performed outside this traditional gallery model. So why are so many ARIs still sticking to this conservative model, paying exorbitant rents and fighting over an ever shrinking puddle of grant money? A few years ago, a Hobart ARI was told that in order to secure future government funding, it needed to broaden its audience and expand its programming. It’s stuck with me ever since, not just because this demand was not feasibly measurable, but also because it seemed so invented (rules for the sake of rules). To change the programming would be to change the organisation itself. At what point does it stop being ‘artist run’?
Read Part 1: