One year in an ARI

Serena Wong

ARIs centre around collectivism. They have a delicate ecology in a continual state of flux, with no definition or decision that is not agreed upon by every member. Members come and go, we try new formations, rearrange responsibilities, we test the limits of what can be achieved. This flexibility is one of the greatest strengths of an ARI, but it also creates challenges around the balancing of contributions between individual members.

After my first year at FELTspace, Adelaide’s longest running ARI, I feel conflicted.

Most people who are involved in their local arts community know that ARIs are a labour of love. They are mostly spaces run by volunteers who do so because they believe that Artist Run Spaces/Initiatives/Galleries play a vital role in providing resources, space and opportunities in non-commercial contexts. Yet, an ARI’s function is more than that, it is also considered an important professional entry point for emerging artists, curators and arts administrators.

Sera Waters, Doormat Collective, FELTpublic, 2015. Photo by Alysha Bennett.

Sera Waters, Doormat Collective, FELTpublic, 2015. Photo by Alycia Bennett.

Recently, I was giving a guest lecture at a local art school and I was talking about some of the work I was really proud of, including a recent public art project FELTspace had just launched, excitedly describing that the grant we received meant we could pay artists. One of the teachers remarked to his students ‘why is ok that the artists get paid, but not the co-directors of FELTspace?’

I couldn’t shake this teacher’s question. I mean, it’s not that I wasn’t aware, but I’d never truly considered this before. When I’m consistently told, ‘you have to value your work’, and ‘you have to stop giving away your time for free’ it’s conflicting. The origin of collectives like FELTspace were born from a democratic vision, outside an institution, built on sharing resources, networking and collaboration.[1] However, a recent in-depth study into the Artist-Run Centres in Canada, revealed that while these core fundamentals haven’t changed, there is a trend toward increased professional capacity within these spaces.[2] This rings true, for our antipodean shores as well. Numerous longstanding ARIs across Australia have at least one or two paid staff. At FELTspace we have a marketing schedule, contracts, design briefs, our co-directors are asked to guest lecture. Balancing our capacity as volunteer-run space with our professionalism, it can be hard to predict our limits. How do know if your contribution is enough when expectations are a movable feast?

Months ago, when work was scarce and I had plenty of free time, I put my hand up and said sure, I’ll be on the sub-committee running the FELTspace’s annual public art project, confident of my contribution. No problem. Except, as it turned out, it was. The current co-directors for FELTspace are seven amazing ladies, who are generous, not only with their time, but with each other. The general rule of thumb is, if you’re busy on your own projects, you can scale down your commitment at FELTspace, and the other members will share the load. That’s the nature of an ARI. The delicate ecology built around mutual trust, passion and dedication. But it is a fragile one.

You hope that if you are creating an unfair workload among other members, someone would tell you. I think about my interview when I first started and an outgoing co-director said, you will be dedicating at 15 hours week to this, sometimes more, are you prepared for that? If I measure myself against that marker, then I’m failing. I’m failing to contribute to a system that relies, not on clocking in and clocking out, not just doing the things you put your hand up for, but to the forward planning, the big picture of what our ARI wants to achieve.

Zoe Brooks, Catch, FELTpublic, 2015. Photo by Alycia Bennett

Zoe Brooks, Catch, FELTpublic, 2015. Photo by Alycia Bennett

At the opening of FELTpublic, we asked a well-respected member of Arts South Australia, the funding body that keeps FELTspace going, to make a short speech to open our event. As we were sharing a drink post formal duties, she casually asked me how I scheduled my time to fit in volunteering for FELT. I wanted to laugh. I was particularly manic at that point, organising an upcoming exhibition that I’d curated, working a number of contracts equalling, all-in-all, a seven-day work week. Fitting in my FELTspace obligations was in lunch breaks, late nights and before work (sometimes I would sneak in an email bulletin, essay or final copy proof during work hours). When you freelance, and regular work means a couple of months on contract, everything else has to fit around it.

But when you sign up to be part of an ARI, and you really believe in it, when is it ok to compromise your dedication, your professionalism for your own professional career? Are they separate?

At this point I started to reflect on what it means to volunteer your time on labour of love that is not about your practice, but the community around you. About the continuation of a strong tradition, with an expectation and duty of care entrusted to you. You hope that your work is not only building on the numerous directors before you, but also is ambitious and exciting and relevant. And by these measures too, I feel like I’m not living up to my own expectations. I feel the first splinter in my armour of blind optimism and the first ominous signs of burn-out. But then I remember that though we strive for professionalism, the ecology of an ARI is not one of strict allocations, of unbending rules or a hierarchal structure, it’s about vision, ambition and passion, and all of those things I still have. Besides, my contracts are due to end soon.

[1] In 2007, a number of Victoria ARIs came together to stage Making Space: artist-run initiatives in Victoria, which was a series of exhibitions and an accompanying publication that sought to record and celebrate the diversity and strength of ARIs in Victoria. In the publication Tessa Dwyer and Daniel Palmer describe ARIs generally as being about ‘connections, communities and ideas’ operating outside of institutions. Dwyer, T. and Palmer, D., Doing it for themselves: artist-run alternatives and contemporary Australian Art in ‘Making Space in Artist Run Initiatives in Victoria’, Victoria Initiatives of Artist Network, Australia, 2007, p. 12-16

[2] Burgess, M and De Rosa, Maria, The Distinct Role of Artist Run Centres in the Canadian Visual Arts Ecology, MDR Burgess Consulting, Montreal, 2011.

This is the second in a series of blog posts on the state of artist-run initiatives by writers around Australia, for Runway issue #30, Ecologies. You can read the first post, by Melbourne writer and curator Maria Miranda, here.

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