Ruth Claxton examines the changing aspirations of artist-led spaces.
I recently spent two weeks in Melbourne undertaking a research and development residency with artist Kelly Large at the invitation of Ocular Lab, an artist-led space in the north of the city. Whilst there, we operated as art tourists visiting and talking to a wide range of artists, curators and spaces, infiltrating, navigating and utilising the complex networks of groups and individuals we uncovered. Melbourne is the undisputed, heavyweight champion of artist-led activity in Australia with a long history of influential projects and initiatives. Space is relatively cheap, there is a large community of artists, graduates stay in the city and the standard of living is good. However, as we met more people and saw more artist-led initiatives (and in such a short time we only really got a snapshot), we were struck by a number of apparent anomalies.
The overwhelmingly predominant model is the clean, white cube gallery space, run by a committee of artists and often with a longstanding director, mimicking the structures and organisation of the institution. This seems remarkable given that there is little funding available and that, even in the most established spaces, it is normal practice that artists pay to exhibit. Its surprising how accepting artists are of this status quo and as a result very few non-space/exhibition-based models have developed. Many people we met argued that this is a reflection of the political conservatism that currently pervades Australia. However, there was a sense that artists and curators are circling moving around Melbourne from one space to another, following a clearly inscribed trajectory through the hierarchy of artist-led spaces towards an institutional show, an international studio placement and a dealer. Whilst this is not necessarily a bad thing, it seems to have shifted the position of artist-led activity, neatly subsuming it into a wider system, and perhaps limiting its potential to set its own agenda.
When considering artist-led practice in the UK some of the questions and observations made on the other side of the world feel equally pertinent. It seems that recently artist-led has become a cultural brand, a one-size-fits-all piece of terminology that has been appropriated by institutional culture in order to validate incredibly diverse activities and give them capital in an infrastructure that is increasingly focused on developing the creative industries, and the cultural economy. In his talk on Arts and public value in February this year, Arts Council England chairman Christopher Frayling spoke of a skittishness on the part of government, which sometimes sees culture and creativity only in the instrumental terms of what it can do for the economy, for learning or for health... wanting to treat the arts as a government department.
Given this context, where does artist-led activity sit, what are the current models, what might the future hold and should we be worried? In order to explore these questions I focused on live rather than historic models Static (Liverpool), Artist House (Leeds), LOT (Bristol), Workplace (Gateshead) and Outpost (Norwich). Each initiative was asked to answer a series of questions including: What makes a project practice led rather than artist run? Why do you do what you do? What happens when artist-led activity is subsumed into the institutional system? Are continuity and change in equal measure important? What are the new models? Who is the opposition; does there need to be one? Should artist-led initiatives be expected to ask questions and be critical?
Static is based in Liverpool and is run by artist Becky Shaw and architect Paul Sullivan, who describe it as a collaboration between two people that happens to look a bit like an organisation. Having decided from the outset not to follow the norms of gallery habitation choosing to examine these conventions instead they have developed a project that explores the relationship between physical, political and social space. Statics projects often have a discursive element and focus on the dissemination or distribution of ideas by generating outcomes as multifarious as a lecture series, a radio broadcast and becoming the official press corps of the 2004 Liverpool Biennial. They also have several different operating arms: Complex, a physical space that has, over time, been developed and reconsidered in relation to their programme (and vice versa); Pamphlet, a hard copy and web-based space for critical writing and comment about visual culture; Bookwall, and the Static Dealership. For Shaw Static isnt practice led, it just is our practice... I am interested in the power that being an organisation wields its partly appalling that you need an organisation to do this, but also I think its an exciting thing that artists or practitioners can work together to make something thats more than the individuals. A central intention initially is to become financially independent of public money by developing ways to survive through semi-commercial activities. One outcome of this is Dealership, a commercial arm that enables them to represent artists and take advantage of the trade that passes through the architects modelmakers, founded by Paul Sullivan, who also inhabit the building. This desire to be independent of public money is common to several of the artist-run projects mentioned previously and reflects the awareness that grant giving is neither a passive exchange nor an altruistic act. For Static their Dealership is not critical of the commercial art world, rather it is critical about the art worlds over reliance on public funding and the idea that public funding is somehow cleaner than commercial money.
Static is one of an increasing number of artist-led initiatives taking an entrepreneurial approach to activity and fundraising, a shift that perhaps stems from a recognition that (particularly in the regions) there is a need to create economy, in the broadest sense of the word, in order to enable initiatives, practices and communities to be sustainable. The rise in prominence of the creative industries, usually hand-in-hand with regeneration agendas and the creation of Cultural Quarters, means that artists appear to have more collateral than ever before and consequently the market has become accessible but also intellectually relevant. Perhaps we are at a point in the trajectory of artist-led models when it is necessary for economies/markets to be explored in order to enable new models to emerge that facilitate artist-led development, rather than just mimicking pre-existing structures. Artist House in Leeds is already beginning to explore this territory by developing an evolving model that enables them to negotiate and utilise the myriad of different agendas that they are working between. Led by Bryan Davies and Laura Quarmby and funded through business sponsorship from twenty-seven companies they have developed projects that investigate the economic and market-driven reality of Leeds. This enquiry has manifested itself in varying forms including an artworks/lecture about Sex in the City lifestyle values, commissions for building developers and architects, a symposium about economics, and several curated exhibitions. They see themselves as a kind of agency that tries to facilitate a certain kind of active and engaged practice within and about the parameters and context of Leeds. Like Static, they have developed an organisation that creates its own artworks and is a practice in itself, one that they describe as a space of possibility to try to imagine things and systems in society otherwise. As well as simply communicating these new ideas through exhibition, we are trying to find a practical and expanded art that can also begin to make those imaginations really function in the city.
LOT (Sally Shaw, Rob Anderson, Kieran Brown, James Ireland, and Eamon OKane) in Bristol is another example of an initiative which has made a conscious decision not to rely on public funding, although it is making use of other public or institutional agendas. Like many regional cities, Bristol is in the grip of regeneration, a process that has shifted the shopping centre of the city leaving large areas of commercial space empty. LOT have negotiated the rent- and rates-free lease of a large former Poundstretcher building in the Broadmead shopping area and are developing a series of exhibitions, events and commissions over a period of one year.
The collaborative group consists of four artists and one curator so, like Static, is not solely artist-led in a conventional sense. The exponential development of independent curatorial practices has already blurred these distinctions. For example, Man in the Holocene, a London-based curatorial project which is exploring the idea of the future through a sequence of inter-related exhibitions will also last for one year only. For many artists the somewhat romantic idea that a practitioners insight enables them to curate better shows still exists but as the definition of practice becomes ever more expanded, this position becomes more problematic. Sally Shaw says of her involvement in LOT: Its been interesting observing artists swapping roles in this sense. I feel it has utterly dissolved some of these power issues that are more to do with the perception of the curator as part of the institution. Nowadays curators are as on the outside as artists are, roving between institutions and projects and establishing their own initiatives as artists might.
All the members of LOT are attached to different institutions within Bristol and Bath and describe LOT as placing itself deliberately between these organisations. It also seems to be placed between their practices. When dealing with LOT there is no party line my questions were answered independently by different members, an approach that reflects their organisation which started because we all individually wanted to do something and it seemed to make sense to gang up, rather than the alternative model of a group getting together and their activity following on from that. They dont consider this activity to be their practice in the same sense as Static, instead they see it to one side of what they do as individuals, providing an arena to examine lines of thought in a different context or in a different role, an opportunity to reposition old ideas as well as explore new ones. It seems that a common motivation behind LOT is a desire to enable more work to be seen and talked about, by a local audience and to fill what they perceive as a gap in activity in Bristol. In a sense as a group they are in a perfect position to do this; their individual careers mean that they have the skills and, perhaps more importantly, the networks of contacts already in place to generate shows, interest, publicity and profile. Ireland describes it as distributing some of the contacts and experience I have picked up so far, hopefully to enable others to see more of the art game I want to raise the bar of expectation! Using this economy enabled them to begin their programme with a poster auction which raised enough money to fund their first six months of activity. It also resulted in a review for their first show in Art Monthly, no mean feat for a new space outside of the capital. The decision to be self funding is one that perhaps in some ways is informed by their other institutional roles. Sally Shaw explains I do it because it provides me with another place, one that has been formed differently to, say, my full-time job as a curator/director of a commissioning agency that was already formed before I came to it... I dont suggest one is more limiting than the other, rather its that the constraints are pre-formed, with LOT we are all involved in setting up these constraints/parameters. The setting of their own agenda is central to LOTs thinking, and achieving this by being inventive about both how they fund their activity, and what funding can be, is a fundamental part of what they hope to accomplish. Its an approach which necessitates a back to basics, no frills approach to showing artworks but which has also enabled them to avoid compromising their ideas.
Workplace is an artist-led organisation based in Gateshead and presently directed by Paul Moss and Miles Thurlow. In its current form it is probably the most institutional of all these initiatives as it is a not-for-profit limited company (a formalisation they describe as is a legal requirement) and about to apply for charitable status. Their previous projects have been diverse and reflect their interest in enabling artists to take part in the art world as a whole. They include group exhibitions, live events, a stand at the Art 2003 London art fair and a book, published by Art Editions North, which showcases the work of twelve artists (including themselves) from the north east of England. Much of their activity has focused on operating outside of the region, creating currency and developing strategies that position practices from the area in a national or international context enabling them to become visible and, therefore, viable. In particular they are interested in creating ways for regionally-based artists to become engaged with the commercial gallery structure and developing the role of critical writing. These aims have developed from their own experiences as artists based outside of a major art centre where its much harder to find individuals who arent already attached to institutions who arent artists (whether they be dealers, collectors, curators, critics), who are willing to invest time energy and money in emerging artists. So therefore the artists find ways to be these people too. Like LOT, Workplace is distinct from their individual practices, however it is fundamentally informed by their experiences as artists and the need they perceive for a better economy for artists in the north east of England: By economy we include everything that contributes to an artists success, financial status, exchange of ideas, critical context, and reputation and as such builds on other regional activity that has resulted in the development of a thriving community of artists with a new level of ambition. In their new gallery space they have resolved not to show their own work, a decision that will enable them to focus on exploring what it means to be a curator, dealer or facilitator for other artists. Its an interesting shift, promotion of their own individual practices was a part of all their previous projects, however, now they feel including themselves could lead to a conflict of interests. This is a complex dilemma and one that, whilst often bound up with the politics of a local situation, is extremely pertinent to the issue of why practitioners develop artist-led activity and what role this activity plays in current creative climates. Whilst there is nothing to be gained through uncritical, self-promotion this situation often becomes paradoxical as an artist with an active practice you perceive a need to change the environment in which you work and yet there is an implication you shouldnt be directly benefiting from this investment. There is of course an idea that by being visible through your space or project you become visible as a practitioner, and undoubtedly contacts are made and your profile is raised in some way. However, Becky Shaw points out: Its a strange idea that to go up some ladder as an artist you act as a curator the best way to go up any ladder as an artist is to probably be an artist. Providing opportunities is obviously a generous act, but it seems problematic when there is an expectation that it is altruistic. There isnt enough space to unpick this here, however I wonder if it relates to artists traditional reliance on public funding which, by its very nature, implies both that it should be used for the greater good and in turn that there is something somehow corrupt about being seen to personally gain from it. Whether embracing other funding strategies and working within more commercial structures will shift this attitude remains to be seen.
Interesting in relation to this is Outpost, an artist-led gallery that was set up in 2004 to provide exhibiting opportunities, and reasons to stay in the region, for artists in Norwich. Another formalised organisation, it operates using the tried and tested model of Transmission gallery in Glasgow, has a membership of two hundred and a rolling committee who each serve two years. The organisation is the most locally focused, of all those featured here with the membership being given the opportunity to apply for one of eight solo shows a year six chosen by the committee, two chosen by the membership. A further four shows a year focus on bringing work into the region from outside in an attempt to raise the expectations of the artistic community. Kaavous Clayton initiated the space and is responsible for the lease on the building and says: I dont want to sound too altruistic... I am happy providing opportunities for others to show their work ... my work has become unimportant next to the gallery. Maybe the gallery really is my work now. He sees Outposts role primarily as facilitation, enabling the artist to retain control and giving them the freedom to curate their own show. In comparison to some of the other projects this seems like a very passive position to take, but the most important aim of Outpost is to help to retain artists in the region by offering opportunities to exhibit and a stake in an organisation that has become a focus for the community. As Clayton points out the future happens at different times in different places.
Recently on the website of Midwest (www.midwest.org.uk) a project initiated in response to a brief from Arts Council England to develop artist-led activity in the West Midlands Renee Turner of Amsterdam-based art and design collective De Geuzen (www.geuzen.org) posted the following: I have been thinking a lot these days about the position of the embedded reporter and its analogous relation to artists working on governmentally-funded projects. On the one hand, being embedded allows for a degree of proximity, after all it is a frontline view, and at the same time that same nearness often precludes a very necessary critical distance. It seems to me that this is good place to end. In a time when the creative industries have been handed a prominent role in the regeneration of the regions, there is an increased focus on professionalism in the visual arts and artist-led activitys capacity to have a strategic and economic impact (for example by encouraging graduate retention) is widely acknowledged; artists capacity to generate an economy for themselves has never seemed greater. However, my experience in Melbourne showed that to maintain a healthy, dynamic artist-led infrastructure, even within an apparently positive context, artists must ensure they develop models that are able to retain the critical distance necessary to initiate their own agenda, and reinvent their own parameters, whatever they might be.
Ruth Claxton is an artist based in Birmingham.
First published: a-n Collections July 2005
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