Artists are to Blame?

[The following discussion was originally posted on the Artspective website, which, it seems has disappeared from the web. Thanks to the internet archive, I managed to hunt it down again, and I have taken the liberty of republishing it here.]

Artists are to blame: Simon Barney

In early March 2001 an Artist-Run Initiate Forum was held at the Tin Shed Gallery in Sydney. Simon Barney’s article ‘Artists are to blame’ would, perhaps, have artists rethinking the concepts of the artist-run gallery.

Artist run galleries come and go with a regularity that somehow suggests activity, even liveliness. And there’s much to be admired in these endeavours – the unpaid directors, the light and responsive structures, an engaging social scene, the acceptance of risk.

There was a forum about these places during ARI week in early March 2001. (Artist-run initiatives – a phrase that might be supposed to indicate a distinct identity but is inescapably bureaucratic.) There was a consensus that artist run galleries were an important, but threatened, part of the local art scene.

Who was at fault here? Was it the big bad property developers taking away our cute little ‘spaces’? Or intransigent councils, ungrateful for the opportunity to spend money subsidising local artists? Or funding bodies that persist with arcane guidelines that fail to match the innovative changes artists are making?

Well, err, actually none of the above. The fault lies entirely with the artists. We persist with a once radical model that is more often than not a poor man’s version of a commercial or institutional gallery.

The scene that Saturday at the Tin Sheds Gallery was not so much depressing as lamentable. The room was set up with a lectern, a ‘top’ table, a mike and rows of chairs. Peering in the door you might have wondered ‘what is this?’ A downmarket shareholders meeting? Nuh, way too respectful. It needed a red-faced retiree, angrily waving a placard and berating the directors for their spiel, their spin, their fudging way with words and their lousy results. Maybe it was some kind of TV program. Oprah? Geraldo? Jerry Springer? There was a kind of compere (Ben Genocchio from The Australian) deciding who’d speak and for how long. But nuh, on TV they take the mike through the audience, they don’t get stuck with a two metre mike cord, forcing their ‘guests’ to shout across the studio. No, unfortunately it resembled nothing so much as a ‘forum’ about ‘Artist Run Initiatives’

Those of you who still retain a wistful image of artists as radical, disrespectful and obsessed with change need to go take a powder. Same if you imagine artists’ activities are co-operative, un-hierarchical and open to un-expected possibilities. Call me a hippie but why weren’t the chairs in a circle, why wasn’t the mike in the centre? It probably hadn’t been given much thought but the top table model helps to ‘keep it tasteful’, to prevent anything uncomfortable like dissent. It suited the presentation of a hardworking idealistic and supportive community of artists put on display by a concerned government body. But if the intentions were good why were the results so oppressive?

We’d been promised a discussion of internal and external models for artist run galleries. External models meant sources of funding. Nobody seemed to have given a moments thought to what ‘internal model’ might mean but boy could they talk about money. Maybe that’s why it seemed like a shareholders’ bash. Now, I don’t want to criticise the show put on by the artists on the panel as they weren’t really helped by the setup. Speakers were Alex Gawronsky, Sarah Goffman, Melissa Chiu (of Gallery 4a, which has arguably made a successful transition from an artist run to a funded gallery), Leah Donan, Ruark Lewis… . But the potted artist gallery memoir, which was largely what was on offer, at once charming, dreary, buoyant, self-deprecating and self aggrandising had already been told better in Elizabeth Pulie’s interviews, The Premise of the Premises’ available at the back of the room for five bucks. She talked to artists who ran or had run galleries. (Declaration of self-interest: I’m in it, talking about SOUTH and Briefcase.) It was the best thing to come out of ‘ArtPort – Artist-Run Initiatives Week’ organised by the Museums and Galleries Foundation of New South Wales. And you know what? She and Lisa Andrew did it with their own money.

So that was it. Discussion of internal models went little further than things like opening hours, submissions, how to avoid meetings, and who bought the beer. All of it of some use I guess to anyone thinking of starting an artists gallery – a bit like ‘here’s how I did it’. But none of it addressed the question of the value of all this – Are such places genuinely successful or persistently servile? Remember Le Corbousier’s complaint about Regent St. in London. The decorative facades along the street suggest a diversity of buildings but step inside and you find the same unvarying floorplan. It’s the same with artist galleries. Everyone striving on a low budget to look as much like a commercial gallery as possible, the only real difference being the less reliable sources of funds. It reminds me of the skin flick industry and its mimicry of Hollywood. Like Hollywood, porn has the revolving cast of bankable stars, do-anything young hopefuls, and shady dealmakers. Porn has the award nights, the nose jobs and boob jobs, the car crashes and suicides and the badly behaved divas. And every now and then somebody crosses over and appears in a Hollywood film, holding out the promise that it really can be a launch pad to real celebrity. On this day there seemed to be an acceptance, even a delight in the idea that artist galleries do well if they provide such a feeder system, an apprenticeship for the ‘real’ world of commercial galleries and funded institutions.

One or two people in the audience questioned this acceptance without response. This was partly a consequence of the dissipating effect of the compered format and partly that the self-congratulatory mood of the afternoon left little room for a critical discussion. Yet somebody complained that there were no ‘big’ names present. Why would there be when artist’s galleries only offer a poor imitation of the commercial world? Unless they do something that institutions and dealers can’t they’ll always be regarded condescendingly as the art world bargain basement. Given that artists will always go for the money and prestige there will always be feeder galleries where young artists can show how their work might look in a ‘real’ gallery. OK. But is that all? Does this encompass the possibilities for art, for its place in the culture, for what might constitute an art activity? Such activities might not be considered so marginal if artists weren’t complicit in undervaluing them, didn’t generally see ‘graduation’ to the next level of institution as a sign of success.

Instead of scrambling to keep afloat a style of gallery in which they are overmatched artists might better look to their own strengths, to the areas in which they do have an advantage. Endeavouring to perform with the professionalism to which institutions aspire generally results in a culture of dependence. One member of the audience made the point that in her experience (with a performance group), this diverts a group of artists from the more radical activities they may initially have envisaged.

The 20th century dilemma over what is art is readily answered in 2001. Art is history. Art is what’s in the history books. Art is what’s in the museums. This is the inescapable dialogue of contemporary art. Art is contemporary in the sense that its possible display in museums is contemporaneous with its making.

But in other areas of culture technology has dealt a blow to such top down determinations. So why in art does the equivalent of self-publishing and self-recording offer no challenge? The answer lies in artists’ fidelity to the existing models. Art is the last area for which the appeal to authority and a structure of exclusion is still the determinant of value. It isn’t likely to change.

But in the meantime it wouldn’t hurt for artists to make the methods of exhibition to which they devote their time an end in themselves – as structures with their own distinctive character unrepeatable by other areas of the art scene. This might genuinely leave open the question of what constitutes a gallery, what constitutes art, and what constitutes viewing. And it might make this part of the scene worth paying attention to.

-Simon Barney

Revised version of writing in Arkitekt, #5 edition of Uniglory, co-ordinated by Lisa Kelly, 2001

If only artists were to blame
by Margaret Roberts

It seems too narrow a view to say that artists are to blame for the threatened position of aris, as Simon does in the despair issue of uniglory. Aris’ positions are tenuous primarily because they are usually trying to assert the values of (whatever they are – support? courage? critique? optimism?) in the context of an exploitative, commercial malestream culture. I can’t imagine aris would ever not be threatened, because ari goals will, hopefully, continue to threaten various bits of that culture back. The blame should surely lie primarily with the faults of the hostile dominant culture which aris are devised to resist or at least to help artists survive within.

The purpose of Simon’s reproaches may be partly a game, to tell a few half-truths to make us indignant and paying attention to the rest of what he has to say. So I am not sure to what extent he really is claiming that artists are to blame – or whether its the idea that only artists can decide on the structure etc of aris – but that’s what he says. It is also good to discuss the various ari forms that evolve, and Simon’s stirring of the pot can only be good in promoting critical reflection and radical mutation.

I am curious to know what aims and means various aris have, and what relationships they seek to have with conventional organisational practices. I should think the aims for most artists, and probably many aris too, include recognition and money. Money seems the more difficult of the two – like I have heard said about love, the only way to get enough is to not want any. The briefcase, kitchen gallery, mobile phone number, etc. – are sensible and critical ari responses to the killer price of real estate. They are methods of exhibition which recognise that what is ‘making-do’ in one framework of our position in the world, can be an assertive and critical curatorial mode in another.

On the surface, recognition appears easier to get than money – we just need to give it to each other. But that doesn’t seem good enough if, as Simon also claims, artists are complicit in undervaluing art activities which occur in the ari/’feeder sector’. In making this claim, he implicitly asks the important question – whose attention are we seeking when we seek to be ‘worth paying attention to’? It is a good thing that there are so many artists, that our numbers are increasing, that people publish uniglorys, run aris and artports, criticise them, support them, survive, that artists are also curators, art writers, art collectors, that non-artists also work in the interests (whatever they are) of art and artists, etc., etc. One day there may be enough of us to cause a spontaneous paradigm shift so that it is miraculously self-evident to artists that our (various) judgements of value have significance in themselves.

Architecture is a useful comparison when considering the position of artists and aris. There are some obvious connections – the gallery space and the cost of real estate are overwhelming factors in how artists and aris survive, influencing the ethos of the artworld, the ethics of individual artists/writers etc, and even the nature and content of the artwork we make. We traditionally operate in architecture – in studios and gallery space – even if we now have to work out ways of operating outside of it because it’s become too expensive, or of finding ways to occupy the shrinking public spaces left. Architecture is literally the space in which we develop and show our work, and has a marked effect on how we do both.

The architecture is also more than the innocent bricks and doorways. When we locate ourselves in a studio, a gallery, walking down the road, etc., we are located in an architectural space, and the architectural element of that space – if it can be separated out from the ‘mere building’ – is its meaning. We know its meaning automatically, through the way we think in and of it – the meaning inhabits us as we inhabit the building.

It’s the manipulation of those commonly understood meanings which is the focus of most artists’ work, in one way or another. Engaging with the architecture we inhabit, acknowledging its presence, is one way of responding to the meanings and values which also inhabit us, at least on a metaphoric or symbolic level, which is presumably how those meanings live and mutate in us anyway. My own installation works using architectural space are games in which I am speculating that if I recognise the forms I inhabit, and rearrange them in some way, then the forms which inhabit me may learn they can do the same.

Thus aris’ struggles are not just with the cost of the real estate in which they try to operate, it’s also with these meanings which live in us in various ways – which, for example, makes it obvious to all of us that what aris need is attention from some nebulous authority which everyone knows exists even though we can’t point to any actual committee in the sky who organises it. It’s those meaning and values which give greater value to the judgements of those ‘in authority’ which we need to consciously recognise, instead of blindly acquiescing in them by seeking to be worthy of the attention of … (who? the smh? the vacb? bill whatshisname?….).

That is partly why I object to Simon blaming only artists, when its the faulty architecture we inhabit which is the main problem. Artists may be to blame for not recognising it, but they are not to blame for the architecture itself. It is the source of the values of ‘appeal to authority and structures of exclusion’, etc, which Simon also rejects, and recognises as hard to change. He reminds us that it is our job to outsmart it, like he did himself when he closed down South and picked up Briefcase. But to blame only the artists is to give a greater responsibility to artists than they have the power to meet, inviting the discouragement and burn-out which are also a major threat to aris. We can only start using our power more consciously and deliberately by recognising how little we actually have to lose. The larger share of the blame for aris being under threat, lies with the values and meanings of the wider culture itself and with those who actively promote and benefit from them, including the ‘big bad property developers’ who, for some reason, Simon wants to let off the hook.

Margaret Roberts

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