I obsess too much about artist-run centres. Here's an excerpt from something I wrote for Lola in 1997:
There is a common complaint that ARCs in Toronto have become "institutionalized." They were full of vim and vigour in the 1970s when artists first took over the bureaucracy and started setting the agenda themselves. But whether you are a politician, an artist, or a bank manager, red tape begets red tape. Founding members mature and the artists they choose to promote may be farther advanced in their careers. As an ARC's mandate evolves, new board members take up where the old ones leave off, and the process can't help but smooth out around the edges. It is hard to see how things could have happened any other way in a city with so many artists.

That was near the front edge of a generational watershed that I think is climaxing now. It's even more imperative that ARCs (or parallel galleries, as they used to be called) re-articulate their purpose, and do it in a language that inspires a new generation. Running an ARC is a ton of work. It requires a dedicated volunteer board with enthusiasm for the future and a vision for the programming. It requires staff who feel invested enough in the institution to put in extra hours making art shows happen on a shoestring. It's a team effort that, when it works, works great. But inspiration is required and that inspiration seems to be in short supply. Institutions change internally and so does the cultural climate around them. In the 1970s artists needed ARCs because there was nowhere else to show their work. It was a let's-put-the-show-on-right -here-in-the-barn mentality that drove the long hours and creative solutions to systemic and structural problems. Now there's a sort of entrenched misery, a doom and gloom attitude that we will all volunteer our energies, even if its no fun at all, to maintain a system that has become integral to visual art production in this country. But why? What is so important about artist-run centres now? I will pose some of my own responses to this question over the next few days, and I certainly hope, if there is anybody out there reading this, that others will too.

- sally mckay 9-12-2004 10:07 pm

I was talking to an artist friend recently who said that showing in an artist-run centre is a great feeling when you have been showing in a commercial space. No matter how good your relationship with your gallery, there will always be a pressure to make work that sells. There are also strange pressures between artists in the stable to measure up to whoever is selling the best. In an artist-run centre, once your proposal is accepted, then that's it. There is respect for you as an artist, repsect for your work as it is, an artists' fee that is not insulting and, depending on the place and its resources, there is infrastructure for shipping, installation, and promotion.

- sally mckay 9-13-2004 4:48 pm

The following excerpts are from a 1998 piece I wrote for Lola:

...the corporate world does very little to stimulate diversity, and is as exclusive as it is pervasive. Popular opinion may have it that art is elitist while shopping is not. But this leads to scary politics, Mike Harris [right-wing premier at the time whose soul-destroying reign over Ontario from 1995-2002 shifted our perspectives and put the freeze to socialist ideals] politics, pretending that people with no money simply don't exist.


The bureaucracy of ARCs may make us dozy, but we'd really start snoring if the only art around town consisted of landscape watercolours, sad clowns, T-shirts and dance club advertising (funky as all that is). It may be time for us cynics on the scene to pin our hearts on our sleeves and start talking again about the real reasons we value art.

- sally mckay 9-13-2004 6:32 pm

We get to see art at ARCs that would not likely get shown in Canadian commercial galleries. Diane Landry's piece le déclin bleu at YYZ right now is a case in point. It's amibitious installation work: simple, beautiful, captivating. I work at YYZ, and quite frankly, the work is inspiring. You might see art such as Landry's at an established public gallery like the Power Plant or the AGO, but there are few opportunities in such select venues. ARCs run on tax-payers' dollars, oodles of donated time and goodwill. Is knowing that ARCs provide venues for mature, probing and experimental work across the country enough fuel for that cultural engine? Is there more we need to be telling each other?

- sally mckay 9-13-2004 6:52 pm

An excerpt from Barbara Fischer's essay in Decalog, published on the occasion of YYZ's tenth anniversary in 1989.

Without doubt, today's artist-run spaces owe their existence to the rebellious energy of youth culture in the 1960 and early 70s, it's search for "alternative" values (opposed to the existing parental and sociopolitical order), and the resulting proliferation of "alternative" social organisations, such as communes, cooperatives, free schools, and counselling centres, among numerous others. Predominantly pyschosocial rather than political in nature, concerned with the "liberation" of desire and with pushing the limits of psychological and social boundaries, these "counterinstitutions" sought to emphasize community and an intimacy of social relations, to counter the individualizing, fragmenting, and repressive aspects of social (parental perhaps as much as economic and political) organization.

It is easy to see how these alternative ideals, or psychosocial needs, would mesh with the organizational structure of artist-run spaces, as well as with the agenda of the historical avant-garde: one might think of the formation of small avant-garde groups, the explosion of group-based "isms" in the early twentieth century, and their revolts as historical precursors of some of the ideals of 60s youth-culture. One might even be tempted to see artist-run centres as "realized," or officially instituted, versions of the small, initially tightly knit groups of artists that defined the beginnings of nearly all twentieth-century avant-garde movements: the aims of the avant-garde realized in the collective and antihierarchical structure of artist-run organizations and manifest in their desire to collapse the distance between art and life by reaching beyond the privileged space of the traditional art institutions (as in happenings); to democratize access (to new technologies and production facilities); to extend visual experience to physical and psychological encounter (as through performances and installations); and to eclipse the market and consumerist culture with the dematerialized, nonmarketable object.

- sally mckay 9-13-2004 8:35 pm

I feel like part of a sanwich generation in this picture. The founders of such institutions are roughly the age of my parents. I remember Trudeau and a kind of national pride in socialist ideals. I grew up thinking that arms-length government funding for the arts was civilized, rational and humane. ( And I do still think that, by the way.) I was introduced to artist-run culture by founders, people who passed on the history referred to above, and tried to inspire me and others of my generation with the legacy of the avant-garde. But it is more fun to put on your own show with your friends than it is to implement structures, fill in forms, and follow rules. Those of us with the willingness to carry on the tasks required to operate ARCs have not been armed with the means of inspiring a yet younger generation to deeper, core values. Why? Because we participants in the artist-run system have adopted and played out the values of an earlier generation rather than our own. And yet any attempt to reinvent those values is seen as treasonous, with some good reason. The money that (albeit hard-won) flowed so freely in the 70s and 80s is now steadily diminishing, quietly shifted and whittled away. Within artist-run culture there is a pardoxical sense of both entrenchement and of peril. How can we re-inspire the system without rocking the boat so hard that everything is lost?
- sally mckay 9-13-2004 8:50 pm

i was just having this conversation this evening, so its funny i should be reading your blog now...my friend and i were talking about the current viability of the ARC scene in canada... it seems that alot of younger artists are bypassing the canadian scene altogether, looking outwards, creating new uncharted, and un-tethered networks...

"But it is more fun to put on your own show with your friends than it is to implement structures, fill in forms, and follow rules."

i think this may be why so many younger artist's seem to be turning away from the parrallel gallery system or rather why they might just plain ignore it...

the bureaucracy that exists within the ARC does not bide well with the sense of urgency so many younger artist's feel...there is a good article by jerry saltz about the new "termite" generation...


- alex morrison (guest) 9-14-2004 3:01 am

There is no doubt in my mind that artist run centres are good for artists. I have seen many artists get caught up in the commercial system and they often end up having an artisitc identity crisis. Of course the artist run centres have become institutionalized and I agree that there needs to be some revitalization. Perhaps some sort of reaching out to the broader membership might help. You know, all those folks who carry around a membership card and only use it to get discount admission to museums. I certainly don't blame them, it appears the only time they are actively persued to come out and support the centre is when fundraising season begins. Perhaps giving these card carrying members some more input into the descision making process would help revitalize the system. I'm not suggesting a complete dissolving of the artist run board, just a shakeup in the power dynamic. Or how about artist run centres grouping together once and a while for events, I don't think this is unheard of or an impossible organizational task. Essentially the same crowd supports many different centres anyway.
- mnobody (guest) 9-14-2004 4:02 am

Thanks for the interesting article by Jerry Saltz, Alex. Sounds like he's got a "back-to-school-time" bee in his bonnet. As do I. This quote is interesting in the context of notes on Canadian artist-run centres: "So many people have so much invested in the system that the New York art world feels as if it's trapped in a paradigm it can't escape." So that's what we have in common with New York!

For anyone (like me) wondering about this "termite" term, here's Robert Polito on Manny Farber, who coined the phrase:

The termite/white elephant essay cashiered "masterpiece art, reminiscent of the enameled tobacco humidors and wooden lawn ponies bought at white elephant auctions decades ago." White elephant directors "blow up every situation and character like an affable inner tube with recognizable details and smarmy compassion" or "pin the viewer to the wall and slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance." Farber instead tracked the termite artist: "ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it." Termite art (or "termite-fungus-centipede art," as he also tagged it) is an "act both of observing and being in the world, a journeying in which the artist seems to be ingesting both the material of his art and the outside world through a horizontal coverage." Against the white elephant "pursuit of the continuity, harmony, involved in constructing a masterpiece," termite art mainly inheres in moments: "a few spots of tingling, jarring excitement" in a Cezanne painting "where he nibbles away at what he calls his 'small sensation'"; or John Wayne's "hipster sense of how to sit in a chair leaned against the wall" in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

My initial response to this is that not everyone needs to be a joiner. In regards to investing energy in artist-run centres, I can see that it's not for everyone. But there can be moments of extreme (if not instant) gratification in being on a board and working with other artists toward a common goal. (And some of these efforts might indeed benefit some of these 'termites" down the road, whether they participate in the system directly or not). The benefits of ARCs to culture are long term and difficult to define in comparison to the urgency that Alex speaks of, or Farber's "spots of tingling, jarring excitement." That said, some young, urgent artists are valiantly participating in artist-run culture. It's the responsibility of more established (perhaps less urgent) artists to make some room at the table for contemporary voices.

- sally mckay 9-14-2004 3:51 pm

Mr. Nobody, I like your ideas. I think the reaching out to membership thing is a very good plan - bring in the stakeholders and you'll get all kinds of hot spots and interesting challenges to sink your teeth into. Opening up is a way for ARCs to move forward. And the big party sounds A: fun and B: doable, especially in Toronto which has a bunch of organisations in one city. We'll talk, eh?

- sally mckay 9-14-2004 4:03 pm

...backing up into July...Cedric Caspesyan had some interesting and inspiring things to say on this topic in his comment reply to a query on Simpleposie about what, if anything, is critically distinctive about Canadian artist-run culture. A quick quote (not to poach, go read the whole thing):

Our art is infiltrative because no one cares for it. We have no market to please, just statements to write, and when the general public tend to forget we exist we find ways to make sure we get to them: we infiltrate the public sphere.

- sally mckay 9-14-2004 4:47 pm

Hi Sally,

Marco Bortolussi and I have been getting into this subject a little bit on simpleposie.
- J at simpleposie (guest) 9-18-2004 5:00 pm

"That said, some young, urgent artists are valiantly participating in artist-run culture. It's the responsibility of more established (perhaps less urgent) artists to make some room at the table for contemporary voices."

Yeah, make room! I think it is important to have a few old timers, some people who have around for a bit... and some fresh faces. That is a healthy mix. And, I think there should be limited terms for board members and directors of these institutions... that will also keep things fresh.

Hey, that party does sound good mr. nobody.

I also find the idea of a sandwich generation living the ideals of a previous generation really bang on... and frustrating. As an emerging artist at 40 who chose to have a kid so doesn't have much time to emerge... I have always felt I'm in the wrong time... missed that, too old for that... I do like the termite idea. Off to chew while my little girl sleeps and I have daily hour alone.

- lisa deanne smith 9-19-2004 4:04 am

What is at stake for me as an artist (in relation to an ARC) is to understand my practice as operating within an emergent history -- and it would be useful in my eyes for the ARC to train its focus on what that something might be. In this sense, that the ARC understand its identity and direct it. I have a current idea of an ARC and its space as a place where artworks are sampled but disembodied when taken as the history of the ARC's programming. Would a democratized model for organizing an ARC be challenged by the concept of a stronger ego? And, stepping ahead, is it possible that a highlighting of the ARC's identity present an opening for the public to address the ARC on a longer term basis? (presumably because we can follow the reasoning of the ARC inasmuch as we can parse individual shows)
- kristan horton (guest) 9-20-2004 10:24 am

"Would a democratized model for organizing an ARC be challenged by the concept of a stronger ego?"

Hey Kristan, could you elaborate?
- J at simpleposie (guest) 9-20-2004 4:30 pm

It is a question primarily. Using the word ego here to indicate a more aggressive identity. Between the assumption that an ARC make its mandate more specific taking on a voice in the emergent history, and the assumption that by making its mandate more specific and highlight might create a strain within a collective regarding direction, suggest a problem for an ARC that becomes less general, less neutral, to appear also democratic and inclusive.
- kristan horton (guest) 9-20-2004 8:08 pm

What would constitute a more specific mandate for you? And I'm also curious how you think a specific mandate or direction would affect the democratic process at ARCs.
- J at simpleposie (guest) 9-20-2004 9:46 pm

I admit, a specific mandate is going to be difficult to hit upon; not that it isn't possible, but rather it has its risks. An ARC could look at their history to date to see if a specific mandate has already been in operation, perhaps this is an affinity for 2-dimensional based works, or conceptual art works, or transformative installation and so forth. or perhaps it has been thematic affinity with the political, religious, or scientific. In a sense, what is the curatorial postition historically? And is it coherent enough to establish as a position that could then enter into dialogue with other ARCs for the purpose of testing that effort against a contemporary discussion of what art is today from this perspective, what are its issues from this perspective? and so forth. In a sense, that the ARC have a stake in its own history, stand behind it, promote it, engage in active dialogue with other ARCs (as a transposition of Mr.Nobody's comment) perhaps an ARC symposium? My comments regarding the democratic process at ARCs is a supposition that given the extensive efforts it must engage in to exist and (as above) to continue to exist, that taking a more defined postion about the work they support could put the membership under strain. Can it consistently agree under a more narrow definition of itself? Will its positioning bring all members under fire from those who oppose its mandate? and so forth.
- kristan horton (guest) 9-20-2004 11:33 pm

I think your conundrum is bang-on, Kristan. A stronger curatorial mandate might help to invigorate the programming and motivate the people involved. People would gravitate to this or that institution on the basis of their interests. This already does happen, look at InterAccess, for instance, with it's focus on electronic arts, or A Space that programs with politics and ethnic diversity and representation in the forefront. YYZ has a history of supporting time-based art, which has guided it's physical plans over the years, as well as it's programming. But perhaps these themes could stand to be re-articulated. To pose a hypothetical question: suppose an artist-run centre wanted to change its mandate? There is certainly no clear way in which this would/could happen.

- sally mckay 9-21-2004 4:54 pm

I'm interested in your comments. If I read you correctly you're pointing out a glaring issue.

It is so true - in their noble efforts to appear absolutely democratic and inclusive, most ARCs have adopted mandates that are quite broad and appeal to every possible faction of cultural production. The resulting rhetoric is often full of polarities; in an attempt to encompass and represent artists working at all stages of their careers (emerging vs established), in all media (timebased ie. performance, video, electronic etc. vs object based ie. painting and sculpture) all communities (local/regional/international). Such mandates do seem a little flabby and hard to fulfill. But I actually wonder if the mandates are broad enough? Because when the board sits down to have their discussion (to be discursive - to agree and disagree) about art at the end of the day, do they talk about art or do they talk about emerging vs established? Do they programme creatively or is their main concern to touch all the bases? What if there Is disagreement? Do they schedule a couple more meetings and hash it out or do they accept the more mediocre proposal because everybody agreed about it. Does the writing about these shows ever nod to a disagreement, does the presentation reflect the fact that twelve people sat down and talked about this work and not all agreed about it? You're right - the egos would have to get tougher for that one...
- J at simpleposie (guest) 9-21-2004 5:17 pm

Further up on the page here Jennifer from Simpleposie mentioned a discussion on the topic over at her blog. It's great! Here's the link (be sure to read the comments).
- sally mckay 9-23-2004 5:36 pm