In Response: Strength in ARI Diversity

Serena Wong

As Part 2 of our ongoing blog series on the ecologies of the 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, Adelaide-based Serena Wong offers her reading of the emergent trends and insights brought about by the series. You can read Serena’s first post here.

This series about ARIs has certainly brought to the fore a changing landscape of what Australian Artist Run spaces look like in 2016. Maria Miranda’s podcast brought home just how ARI models are changing their structure in a variety of different ways, from having paid staff to commercial possibilities. Which is fantastic. It shows how flexible ARIs are and how they accommodate a changing environment. Miranda’s essay about Melbourne ARIs at the Docklands, highlighting how ARIs were once considered ‘outside’ are now mostly recognised as part of the larger ecosystem is, in part, a result of this operational diversification. As we’ve seen in Australian politics in the recent years, basing your existence simply in opposition makes for a one-dimensional policy and zero vision. So out-growing an oppositional status, becoming more professional, and stepping into the larger ecosystem is definitely beneficial.

However, in some ways it seems reductive to believe that wages would necessarily improve what can be done. It would definitely make the process easier, quicker and certainly more professional. But I also happen to think Lucy Hawthorne’s essay on ARI scene in Hobart is spot on when she writes that the lack of stability can make for an exciting environment. Not being naïve, because we all need to eat, but the fact is bringing money into the situation significantly alters how an ARI operates. A friend of mine wrote to me recently, after reading my article, One year in an ARI, about her experience of being the paid person at an ARI. She wasn’t convinced it was the best method of operation. Her opinion was that when all members are volunteers, everyone contributes equally and does the hard yards together. Perhaps as Hawthorne writes, our strength really comes from our temporary nature, our flexibility and our ability to take risks, which on some level is surely born from the volunteer model.

Unfortunately, our ability to adapt, to work with the bare amount of funding to keep the doors open, while still find ways of presenting new and exciting programming, provides an easy excuse to keep our funding to a minimum. In some ways, if we don’t fit into the traditional capitalist ecology we become a low priority to those who administer grants.

Despite this, sometimes I really believe being a volunteer is great. It means you can put in only as much time as you have, and if you can’t make it to meeting, because you’re away, sick or swamped by other obligations that’s fine. In a work place you don’t always have those choices. It could mean you get a pay cut for that fortnight, or a project stalls. At other moments I daydream about how we could cut down the time it takes to complete simple tasks, the ambitious projects we could achieve, and the additional support we could offer artists, if we had a person paid to work part time.

Yet it’s our ability to collectively define our own path and set our own goals, whether it’s to turn a share house into a space that welcomes a diverse range of people and artists, or to professionalise further and develop paid positions or commercial elements, it is all a direct reflection of the communities we inhabit. And that’s a great thing. ARIs come and go and will continue to do so, but the renewal and the responsiveness that we see in these spaces speaks to our interconnected relationship with the arts at the grass roots level.

It is reassuring to know that there is still so much diversity and energy in the ARI scene across Australia. And it’s great to know that though we do face challenges in Australia (particularly, the general disregard for the arts in our culture), we have produced and have ownership over our own microcosm, which continues to change and develop over time. I can’t help but think in the next 10 years we will be looking at ARIs flourishing in yet a different environment. And while I probably won’t be part of it, I can’t wait to see it happen.

Read Part 1:

“Balancing on the Edge: A Melbourne Perspective”, by Maria Miranda (Melbourne)

“One Year in an ARI”, by Serena Wong (Adelaide)

“The Lifecycle and Deathcycle of ARIs”, by Lucy Hawthorne (Hobart)

“The party becomes the site of knowing: on the Brisbane sharehouse ARI”, by Madeleine Stack (Brisbane)

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