Artist Run Galleries Dialogue

[the following exchange was published as a pamphlet to be handed out to guests at the ArtPort Artist-Run-Galleries Fundraising Auction, in June 2003, at NewSpace Gallery, in Sydney. For further examination of the nature of artist-run-galleries in Sydney, see Simon Barney and Marg Roberts writing in Artspective ps, since Barney/Roberts dialogue is no longer published at Artspective, I have taken the liberty to republish it here on Bilateral Blog.]

Dear Lucas,

the preoccupation that artist-run-galleries have with documenting unremarkable utilitarian matters (such as basic housekeeping), is far from a revolutionary vision synthesised as “manifesto”.

Certainly these mundane issues have continued to dominate discussions through the seminars and catalogue essays introducing the various surveys of artist-run-spaces. The fact is, we generally think of a “fixed and rented space” as the only possible mode of operation. This lack of imagination limits our ability to recognise innovative, radical models.

what do you reckon?

Ruark

……………………………………………

You know, Ruark,

I reckon a big problem comes about with the use of the word “art”. It’s prickly, because there are so many of us who simultaneously embrace and reject what that word has come to stand for.

If you contrast “art” with some other “major genres”, like “theatre”, the distinction becomes clearer. “Theatre”, at least in Australia, has a very specific meaning, and anything that pushes at the edges of the conventional theatre experience (whether that means its “proscenium arch” architectural setting, or the narrative format of its script-writing) ends up outside of “theatre”, such as what is these days often called “performance”. This leaves two somewhat distinct fields, one which repeats and perfects set forms, and one which plays with new ways of communicating.

The term “art”, on the other hand, has always been very catholic in its ability to embrace different definitions of itself. Hence it becomes ever fatter and increasingly inclusive, and this insatiable desire to “include” has extended to the programmes of the contemporary museum itself – the more “non-art-looking”, the better, even if the work is supposed to be a “critique” of the art institution or exhibition space itself.

Of course, in many ways this is a wonderful development, because it means that the pillars of art funding and display have not shrivelled away into backward-looking, genre-specific definitions of what art is. (They are, to a certain extent, simply being pragmatic. If they didn’t embrace the changing “look” of art, they would become extinct.) It’s great that the computer game “Escape from Woomera” could be financed by an arm of the same government that set up the refugee camps themselves.

On the other hand, what this inclusiveness HAS meant, is that the one constant, unwavering characteristic of contemporary art, in all its unrecognisable polymorphy, is the space that, one way or another, it eventually finds itself inside – i.e., a whitewashed, “neutral”, modernist museum/gallery room.

And most “artist-run-galleries/organisations/initiatives”, for some reason, slavishly follow this model. The main practical problem with this is not the flawed concept of “neutrality” (although in a land still resonating from the catastrophes of the “terra nullius” concept, this is actually a major moral issue). No, the main problem with the “mini-museum” model is that it’s too expensive, at least in a city like Sydney, to sustain anything vaguely interesting on a regular basis.

The reason for this is simple – the artist-run galleries have to pay their rent, and they charge out the space to artists for as much as $400 a week. Because this is a significant slug to any artist (on top of their own ongoing accommodation / studio costs, and the fact that they often will have to take a week off paid employment to set up the show), spaces that operate on this model don’t exactly have interesting artists breaking down the doors to get a show. Let’s face it, the galleries take what they can get. Which means that the proportion of shows of any substance are very low indeed. What they do get, very often, are artists who are prepared to make a financial investment in their own careers, by paying for a slot in what is essentially an expensive photographic studio. Hopefully the slides they shoot will get them a grant, and they can shuffle up the rungs a little, inching towards the museum or commercial gallery gig they so crave.

Which is fine. There are always different worlds to participate in, especially in a city as diverse as Sydney. Worlds which offer other models of collectivity, exchange and communication. Projects like Simon Barney’s Briefcase Gallery (where the “exhibition” takes place, one night only, in a pub) recognise that “getting together to chat” is what its all about, and that can be done for free. Or the budding ArtRadio collective, which is working towards an artist run audio “space” on a local community radio station’s airwaves. Similarly, the new Sydney Moving Image Coalition takes the traditional “co-operative” model, the emphasis being on the meetings and collaborations between the members of the group, with screenings taking place in various locations. And in the early 1990s, a group called Art Hotline held weekly events in different places around Sydney, linked by a freecall phone number.

Each of the models offered by these artist-organisations (and there are plenty more) requires “real-estate” of some sort to achieve their aims. However, they use space as a resource, something which helps them, rather than clinging to it, and constantly feeding it like some kind of ravenous resource-gobbling monster.

What do you think?

Lucas

………………………………………..

Well Lucas

I have friends who don’t believe in voting. Bill Lucas the Utopian didn’t believe in art, and said the best architecture is no architecture(maybe he meant Noh!). Some years ago I gave an artists talk at the University of Western Sydney, in a wonderfully theatrical lecture theatre. I grew bored out there so far from the audience. I wanted to leave the lecturn, even for just a minute say and wonder around, not saying anything. Then I began talking about our group called Artists Against Art. I was sure the audience had grown bored with me, and me with them. So my rave about AAA came as no surprise. In fact we started AAA one warm afternoon in Adelaide, on the cafe terrace on top of the State Library. The anthropologist Phillip Jones and I were lamenting how ridiculous the Aaar group was. How flawed good sentiment could be, that the artists against racism had to identify nationalistically, rather than accepting there being a world resonance that went far beyong traditional boundaries that issue race and colour. Actually, that isn’t entirely true.

The painter Margaret Olley use to make her way up to Oxford Street to do a spot of shopping. Very courageous was Margaret with walking frame inching along, and we’d say hello – two wounded souls on the same road. One day she boasted that she’d got an AA. Oh! I was very happy for her, an AA I chimed in again, and she repeated it proudly. So I said I heard she was once a very heavy drinker and I was glad she was strong enough to kick the habit. She looked at me curiously, realising her mistake. When she got a honorary Doctorate, she again charmed me with the news, another day same path – I asked, “Do you feel confident enough to start treating me?” We laughed, and she said we don’t really know what we’re talking about. Talking at crossed purposes is what it was.

So… do Artist-Run-Initiatives know what they’re talking about, yuk yuk yuk! They are too often entrepreneurial exercises. At least here in Sydney that’s what they are. In places like Wagga and Alice Springs, or up at Tiwi for instance, the independence is innovative and adaptable – could be said they are custom built to deal with local problems of decimation. So groups in regional areas are actually critical, whereas in places like Sydney and Melbourne, as enterprises, “spaces” (don’t you hate that word?) are critical only in a “virtual” way – and that is the state of play at present.

I welcome the notion of ArtRadio as you have put it. That alternative surface for publishing on, which renders the structure open for renegotiation, and that, perhaps is where a hybrid model such as Simon’s Briefcase emerges. I like to think that www.haikureview.net has that capacity to “voice free voice”.

Off for now
Ruark

One thought on “Artist Run Galleries Dialogue

  1. Ian Milliss Post author

    You hit the nail on the head, Lucas. I am constantly depressed by the conservatism and lack of imagination of the ARI model. I’m reminded of an old term, “under-consuming minority” which was once used to describe basically conservative groups who pose as radical but refuse to critique the system that causes their woes, they would be quite happy if only they got a bigger payoff from the existing system. That’s the problem with ARIs, they tend to be the same old art object/gallery/art market pattern, very rarely is the “art” delusion ever questioned.

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