In 2013, I wrote an essay about a spate of Hobart gallery closures for the online publication The Conversation. Even though the moment was fleeting, I recently saw it referenced in an academic article that implied it the current and ongoing state of Tasmanian arts. While the period between about 2008 and 2013 was marked by a number of gallery closures and the de-funding of a couple of contemporary art spaces, we’ve since seen a rise in the number of interesting (albeit small) visual arts spaces and events in and around Hobart, many of them artist-run. For instance, MGA ARI Moonah was launched last weekend, the tiny gallery Visual Bulk opened in December last year, and another space – The Gentle Void – is rumoured to open later this year.
The soft opening of MGA ARI Moonah last Saturday night followed Friday’s closing party of the two-year-old Arts Factory in South Hobart. This coincidence is a great representation of the lifecycle of artist run spaces. I’ve written in the past about the phoenix tendencies of Artist Run Initiatives: while it’s often sad to say goodbye to an arts organisation, there’s always at least one new ARI that rises from the ashes. It might seem odd, but I see this turnover as a good thing. After all, one of Australia’s earliest artist run spaces – Inhibodress, established by Mike Parr, Peter Kennedy and Tim Johnson in 1970 – only existed for three years, yet it played a key role in the development of multi-media and installation art in this country. New ARIs tend to take more risks, their volunteer board members are not exhausted from the significant time and energy the running of an ARI demands, their identity is flexible, and they benefit from the novelty that comes with a new ARI in the community.
I asked some of the attendees at last weekend’s events what they thought about the closure of the Arts Factory:
“I’m sad because The Arts Factory’s my local. But I’m glad it’s going quickly and not left to limp on. You might as well do something well for a little bit.”
“The best you can do it do the best job for a short amount of time. That’s what creative people do best. We have a short attention span.”
“It leaves room for new people, younger people to move up the ranks.”
There was also an acknowledgment that creative people aren’t necessarily good at administration, so it’s best to keep projects short and sweet (I loathe such stereotypes, but anecdotally, it’s always difficult to recruit treasurers to ARI boards). The burden of running an art space with regular programming and significant financial overheads is not insignificant. Add to that the fact that ARIs are almost always run purely by volunteers, and receive little or no public funding. ARIs don’t attract the glistering dollars of multi-millionaire philanthropists. Funding bodies prefer long-term organisations with a track record of stability, equating longevity with merit. Yet the lack of stability is what makes these temporary art spaces interesting. Instead, they are supported by alcohol sales at openings and studio/gallery space hire, while extra cash is often provided by the individuals already volunteering their time and labour, and/or start-up crowdfunding campaigns. I asked one visitor if she’d ever start a similar space: “no way, it’s too much work. But I’ll come to an ARI and drink beer in support.”
While the cynic in me believes politicians and other funding bodies like it that way, we run the risk of exhausting the local art scene through this culture of volunteerism. There’s little awareness outside the arts sector of the financial burden placed upon artists; in a recent interview, I mentioned that artists pay to exhibit at ARIs, and the ABC radio interviewer was incredulous, despite the fact that she hosts the regular culture panel show. We hear a lot about the booming ‘cultural economy’ in Tasmania, particularly in relation to the rise in tourism following MONA’s opening in 2011, yet the grassroots art scene relies heavily on free labour, and artists are rightly questioning the beneficiaries of this new economy.
So how do we make ARIs affordable and accessible, while maintaining the spirit and benefits of risk and experimentation that sets them apart from large public institutions? Firstly, I believe ARIs need to move away from the single-use gallery model that emulates publicly funded spaces. It’s a pretty common model: there’s usually a bi-annual call-out for exhibition proposals, and maybe a writing program. Once a month, there’s a new exhibition where the sale of alcohol assists with the ARI’s bottom line. It’s an expensive model that places a financial burden onto the exhibiting artists, and ultimately benefits those from wealthier backgrounds who can afford to pay.
A multi-use model, say, a studio and gallery space with a flexible program and regular events is surely more equitable. The financial burden is then spread among studio residents, punters (through food and alcohol sales), and exhibiting artists. The Arts Factory’s rent was largely paid for by studio residents, and it’s programming was largely based on discrete music, art and food events, rather than a strict gallery schedule with open proposals. MGA ARI Moonah will operate on a similar model.
A third model is the siteless ARI, where temporary sites are used instead of a fixed gallery space. Not only is it cheaper, but it also allows for flexible programming and is administratively less demanding. The siteless ARI, 10% Pending (2007-10) , was largely funded by cake stalls, for instance. These ARIs provide important opportunities for site-specific and installation artists to work outside the confines of the gallery within an official capacity. In the absence of the automatic validation of a physical gallery space, the siteless ARI legitimises an artwork in the eyes of the arts community.
I’ve found Constance ARI’s move to this siteless model quite interesting. At thirteen, it’s Hobart’s oldest existing ARI, and recently shed its gallery in favour of one-off public art projects. However, it’s also an example of an ARI that perhaps should have folded a long time ago and started anew. In 2013, the then board changed its name from Inflight to Constance, splitting opinions in the relatively small Hobart visual arts community. Between 2003 and 2013, dozens of local artists had served on the Inflight board, and many more had exhibited in the gallery. There was great affection for the ARI, but also a sense of community ownership. But how do you go about shutting down an ARI with such a legacy, not to mention one that had stabilised into an organisation that could receive government funding? (I write this as someone who has exhibited under both the Inflight and Constance names, reviewed Inflight exhibitions, and served on the Constance board. I’m not at all impartial.) There’s so much pressure to stick around, yet unlike large public institutions, ARIs should be celebrated for their temporary nature, their flexibility, riskiness and inability to find a treasurer.
This is the third 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. and the second by Adelaide based curator and artist Serena Wong, here.