Please see Part 1 of this blog for an introduction.
Ways of working: studios and public programmes
During the research trips we sought out organisations that we felt Primary could learn something from, in some way reflecting our own constellation of activities: providing artists studios, supporting artists at different points in their careers, providing resources for production, public programmes that create space for experimentation and production, engagement and learning being an integrated part of the programme, and an interest in working with different disciplines and forms of knowledge to develop a holistic and reflective organisation.
We witnessed a variety of approaches to running artists studios, including membership-based organisations that open up their resources to a much wider network than resident studio artists. Most organisations have an application system for selecting studio artists – we discussed the pros and cons of this, how judgements are made and by whom – and the expectations of professionalism within most organisations (a recent article by Andrew Beradini questions this insistence on being a ‘professional artist’). As we look to revise our own application system and develop a membership scheme, these were timely conversations.
Many of the organisations we visited take a long-view when it comes to programming. Bak in Utrecht describe their main mission as ‘to advocate for the dynamic and critical role of art in society, and to catalyze discourse – with and through art as a form of active knowledge – on the urgent social and political issues of our times.’ We met with Arjan van Meeuwen who told us more about their approach. The programme is conceived through themes that stretch for at least six months, that are explored through a constellation of elements from exhibitions and projects to talks, lectures, education and publications – creating discourse about a subject and deeply engaging with current socio-political questions. Bak see their work as situated at the intersection of art, theory and activism. They do things they see as urgent and necessary – and understand art not as a product but as a way of opening up. When we visited there was an exhibition of work generated through the New World Academy with Jonas Staal. This is an example of a project that Bak co-produced with the artist, and that is making very real interventions in the world. An important element of their approach (for me) is the practice of making projects and research ‘with’ people not ‘about’ them. A long-term approach to working can often be at odds with short-term funding provision – but seems essential if you’re working beyond an art institution and engaging with the city. Stroom Den Haag operate both within a gallery space and out in the city, framing their activity through a series of long-term projects and research questions. They are a strategic organisation when it comes to art in the urban environment: ‘The topic of ‘being public’ is the connecting factor between many of Stroom’s activities. Stroom mediates, advises and offers suggestions to artists and supports a large number of projects in public space.’
As we travelled we reflected on the different curatorial approaches we encountered, and tensions between control and openness. We talked to Casco about their approach to different groups using spaces in the building. They are very open to varied cultural, community and political groups using their spaces – but this generally comes out of long-term relationships with groups that they have worked with. Some organisations we met maintain a strong curatorial voice, and aim for a coherence through their programmes. In some cases this was described as a deliberate approach, but for 1646 it seemed more like an on-going practice – four artists who started running the space 12 years ago continue to generate an interesting programme of solo exhibitions that appears to materialise from an on-going conversation between themselves and the artists they work with. Other organisations are apparently open to constant change – for example the Scottish organisations whose rolling committees change every two years. However, even in these cases there is a kind of coherency to what happens – an internal logic that means even when the people change there’s a continuation of structure and methodology. We talked about the approach we’ve taken at Primary, where perhaps we’ve struck a balance between pragmatics and openness. In our programme we’ve created a set of clear structures, but allow the unknown to unfold within that.
Is institutionalisation inevitable? Growth and interruption
In Scotland there’s a tradition of art organisations being run by committees, informed by a large artist membership. The model of a rolling committee pioneered in the early 1980s by Transmission – and adopted by many other organisations – ensures that the operation of an artist-led space is always accessible for the next generation, and programming remains fresh and unpredictable. Some organisations maintain this model whilst others evolved – moving away from what at times feels like a chaotic way of working and slowly gaining boards and paid staff. This institutionalisation has produced some very pro-active and interesting organisations, such as Collective. Perhaps one question is whether there’s still space for new projects to start in cities where property is premium. It’s a question in Nottingham too, as some artist-led spaces become more established institutions.
In Amsterdam we visited W139 – a 37-year-old organisation that has gone some way to interrupting it’s own institutional trajectory and is developing and exploring a new way of working in which the artists are initiating the whole process. In 2012 big reductions to arts funding in the Netherlands coincided with a real desire for change and fundamental reflection within the organisation. W139 decided to completely restructure the way they worked, issuing a press release that stated: ‘W139 believes that the international arts landscape is hierarchically organized and driven by a financial management culture. Starting in 2013, W139 will develop a way of working that requires visual artists to take a central and directive role in the process of making an exhibition. With this, W139 will act as an example, pursuing an autonomous working process – an approach unrelated to the hierarchy and existing dead-end art world.’
Since then, they’ve been experimenting with an alternative way of working. There’s a team of staff who facilitate projects, functioning as catalysts, but the programme is entirely directed by a ‘self-organised’ group of approximately 20 artists, which is continuously in a state of renewal. These artists meet four times a year in day long ‘rendezvous’ where they propose projects, evaluate what’s taken place and make decisions as a group. These artists invite others to work with them to realise projects that manifest as month-long exhibitions or short interventions. During this time they have absolute freedom and responsibility to use the space, the street-front, and W139’s website and social media sites as well as having control and access to financial means. The activities are guided by a set of principles which form the ‘soil of the practice’. Nadia Benchagra described their practice as ‘self-organisation with a backbone’. I was fascinated by this process and trying to understand how it works in practice. Having been involved in autonomous political spaces I’m interested in how self-organisation operates – and what the motivations are for people involved in the process. It brought to mind conversations with Labofii, who visited autonomous living projects in their project ‘Paths through Utopias’ and reflected on how long it takes for a community to learn how to self-organise when all of our education (especially art education) equates success with individualism. We met a group of artists who were preparing for the immanent opening of their exhibition Shifting Spaces, and spoke warmly of the freedom and opportunity to experiment that this afforded them. We also chatted to Oscar Peters who is part of the W139 artists group, who described the process as interesting but also challenging and at times frustrating- for many artists the interest is in putting on shows, not in the process of self-organisation. W139 offers a radical example of an organisation re-imagining itself.
All of the places we visited had undergone changes, which were to varying degrees the result of necessity, internal reflection or internal conflict. We talked about the relationship of boards to artist-led organisations, and some striking examples of conflicts between boards and staff members that had resulted in one or the other leaving. A point of agreement across everyone we spoke to was the need for a Board that understands and believes in the organisation. We also asked everyone about staff roles, and how staffing structures functioned. We’re reflecting on this as we look to recruit new staff into our own small team. Casco again provided a thoughtful approach – they describe the staff roles as being generated out of a combination of need and passion. So the necessary skills are in the team but staff members bridge areas of work that are of real interest to them. There was a very integrated feel to the team there, and an informality or relaxedness in the way they present the organisation which I enjoyed. There’s also a sense that the whole organisation is paying attention to detail; valuing all the functions that make their work possible.
Reflection and memory
The trips were a point of reflection for us, but also a reminder that reflection should be an ongoing practice. When you’re working away on daily tasks, how do you remain reflective and proactive rather than constantly responsive to outside pressures? Nadia shared an example with us of FoAM, an organisation in Brussels who choose to hibernate every four years. They’ve published their reflections here on the need to resist a constant drive towards productivity and allow for periods of ‘lying fallow’.
Casco are attempting to adopt regular practices of pausing and reflection through the ‘Site of Unlearning’ project, and say that the central thing they have been unlearning is “busyness”. They frame this as necessary unlearning against neoliberal conditioning and towards, instead, a more communal way of working. Yolande from Casco explains: ‘Until today, the main question we have been exploring in our weekly “unlearning” discussions is what we could unlearn to institute a more communal way of working. Casco’s public “front”, meaning its exhibitions, events, research projects, and publications, propose the commons as a viable alternative to capitalism (for more information on what the commons can mean, see the Casco website). If we adhere to the motto that we should practice what we share with a public, the “back” of the organization should be a sound reflection of what you, the viewer, sees and hears from us. The question then arises: How do we deal with the contradiction between having a responsibility to the public in a neoliberal society (Casco is a public institution after all) and the desire to unlearn many of the core values of neoliberalism? What is the role of an artist in all of this? And how can we actively practice a commons-based approach in our daily work?’
I was interested in different ways to understand and track the knowledge we produce as organisations. At Glasgow Sculpture Studio, Kyla McDonald talked to us about learning as an organisation – and how all of the artists and technical staff are key to this, constantly experimenting with new methods of production and passing this on. If an organisation understands how it learns internally perhaps it can do a better job of offering learning externally. We encountered a great series of educational and engagement programmes across venues – from CCA’s Botanic Concrete, working with local communities in Glasgow, to De Appel’s pioneering curatorial programme. We also talked about institutional memory – and what is archived or lost. Most organisations held archives and some also had public libraries. Guus van Engelshoven at De Appel described the librarian there as ‘the memory of the place’.
Perhaps interrupting ourselves, unlearning and re-learning offers us ways of changing direction. Taking time to pause and recognise the value of what we have, all the people and unseen labour that makes making possible.
These research trips were a really useful point of reflection for us and will feed into future thinking and development at Primary. Thanks to A-N for supporting the trips, and thanks to everyone we met along the way:
Frances McKee at CCA
Kyla McDonald at Glasgow Sculpture Studios
Max Slaven at David Dale Studios & Gallery
Alex Sarkisian & Andrew Black at Transmission
Verity Hocking & Abigale Neale-Wilson at The Pipe Factory
Irene Kernan & Gordon Munro at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop
Joe Harvey, Jake Watts, Jordan Pilling & Astid Newman at Embassy
Siobhan Carroll at Collective
Sandra Gnjatovic, Eric Peter, Joaquin Wall, Nadia Benchagra and Oscar Peters at W139
Guus van Engelshoven at De Appel
Nienke Vijlbrief & Rob van de Werdt at PAKT
Arjan van Meeuwen at bak
Steyn Bergs, Yolande Van der Heide & Ying Que at Casco
Mariette Dölle at TENT
Clara Pallí Monguilod, Floris Kruidenberg, Johan Gustavsson & Nico Feragnoli at 1646
Arno van Roosmalen at Stroom Den Haag
Eelco van der Lingen at NEST