We Are Here Symposium


Symposium Paper
First Draft & NAVA, Sydney
September 2011

We Are Here was a three-day symposium organised by the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) and First Draft in Sydney. Din was invited as a guest speaker, responding to the question posed: how do we measure success in artist-run practices?

How does an artist-run initiative measure success and look to the future in the light of history? Is it personal or professional, something tangible or measurable? Is it about longevity and fame? Is it related to experimentation or rebellion? Or is it prosaic, based on funding and professionalisation?

We know that art doesn’t work within the same rigid definitions of other industries; the way science can measure success through proof of hypothesis, or business in revenue and returns. A commercial gallery could measure success based on reviews or sales, a museum could measure it on operating budgets and attendance, but an ARI is a more subjective enterprise, often connected to social and theoretical concerns, as much as the practical presentation of emergent art. There’s not enough space here to fully examine these concerns, but we can look briefly at some critical functions of existing artist run models:

Gallery Models – low-fi auxiliaries of established modes, providing spaces for experimentation in exhibition format, as well as the development of professional skills in areas such as administration, curation and negotiation;

Practice Models – the extension of prior learning within an open peer environment to define and refine artist practice through critical development of preconceived forms;

Project Models – the locus for short-term, temporary or one-off projects that critically exist within conceptual or predetermined situations such as artist publishing or festival programming, and;

Collective Models – a non-spatial but centralised focus for formal and informal group activities based on shared artistic, philosophical or material enquiry. 

ARIs can be combinations of all of these and more – something that rarely happens within the frameworks of commercial and institutional models, where professional specialisation is increasingly preferred, and inclusive access to shared skills can be limited. Many of us are aware of the kinds of hybridisation taking place across the arts, where organisations adopt various structural strategies from existing spaces to create new models that are neither ARIs and yet resemble them, nor are they purely commercial but operate under one or another type of business model. The effects of these hybrid practices will become clearer in the future, until then it is perhaps better to look at history.

‘ARI’ itself is a term largely implemented by the Australia Council and adopted up by other arts funding bodies and arts media to categorise what is otherwise a complex set of divergent artist practices. ‘Artist run space’ as a qualifier is too restrictive, as the term implies only exhibition models located in a physical place, although the term is still in wide use. ‘Artist run initiative’ as a more inclusive term became established over the last decade and is now in common use in Australia and numerous other countries. 

Even the terms ‘artist’ and ‘curator’ have their own preconceptions. Hybridisation and cross-disciplinary practices are revealing definitions as inadequate, showing that they no longer fit as comfortably within the gallery and museum models. The use of any umbrella category has become problematic in assessing where an artist run activity fits into the broader arts sector, and therefore how it can be assessed, if indeed it even needs to be. This kind of semiotic slippage can be seen as a representation of the variety of practices and rationales in these artist activities, ones that continue to emerge from post-structural, relational and other recent theoretical compositions.

One of the discrepancies in critical arts practice is this insistence on divisional and often divisive definitions. So when we think about how CAOS organisations compare to ACG businesses, or how these both relate to state run institutions, independent, public or privately funded art organisations, are we in fact engaging in critical, but not necessarily useful, thinking? Should we even be concerned with critiquing the top-heavy practice models in the arts? Or could we conveniently ignore them until we have developed those skills that lead into a closer, some may say complicit, relationship with professional organisations? Commentators often call this the grassroots feeder system; rhisomic forms that grow up only to be eaten by the larger beasts of the art world. Perhaps being consumed will itself become a measure of success in the future.

Similarly, governments have a significant influence on artist run models. Funding bodies have shaped the way artist run initiatives structure and promote themselves. The list of requirements expected from ARIs that seek funding can often be overwhelming for a small organisation. These may include governance, financial planning, compliance, risk assessment, insurance, occupational health and safety, adherence to censorship guidelines, establishing and maintaining management committees and boards, and so forth. This is essentially professionalising artistic activity in what is largely a volunteer-based sector. In this, often constrictive, environment, ARIs can hardly be expected to represent ideals of artistic freedom. 

The most commonly used measures of success in government-funded models of ARIs are the funding bodies themselves. The application management and acquittal processes of operational and program funding, are all set according to government performance indicator measures, themselves adopted from corporate management principles. One then has to ask, do these priorities play too dominant a role in the outcomes of artist run activity, given that they are the only standard measures in place? We then have to ask whether government funding bodies should avoid categorisation of practices within the independent visual arts sector altogether? Yet looser categories would likely increase competition between arts groups, and could even lead to further limits placed on funding bodies through policy shifts.

While not necessarily a negation of creativity, this type of institutionalisation of artist run practice can remove the degree of risk and experimentation required in the making of good art. It can force many individual practitioners to turn away from engagement with the ARI sector, or it could potentially lead to a type of creative rebellion. It may be that this kind of professionalisation should be deliberately avoided by artists, left to arts management graduates and larger organisations already in place that can act as facilitators and mediators within the complexities and differentiations between artist groups and government. This is what Clive Robertson discussed in the relation of government policy to artist run culture where he used Foucault’s notion of ‘working with, and not for, the government’. 

Internationally, we can find similar trends. While attending the NY Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1 and Alternative Histories at Exit Art last year, it became clear that many Australian artist run models are largely in line with international practices. In the USA, there is once again a growing ARI sector with a focus on collaborative development such as Chicago’s Groups and Spaces, as well as further research emerging from independent artist-run collectives like the Institute for Applied Aesthetics. 

While there is possibly greater interest in the relational impacts of alternative and independent spaces from the art establishment in the USA and Europe, Australia still has some difficulties separating the roles of differing art structures and could learn from its allies internationally. This is compounded by competition in funding, and particularly a lack of unbiased criticism both in mainstream and independent media. In these ways, artist run activity comes to be seen not so much as feeder systems but as incubator systems for the application of new ideas, particularly radical concepts that cannot easily exist within larger institutional frameworks.

Spatial and relational aesthetics have abounded in ARI practice since the theories became popular in the 1990s and their effects are often clear in the kinds of relational art that are shown in artist run spaces. Nicolas Bourriaud, a key theorist in relational theory, agreed when asked about ARI practice in Australia that they ‘all are mainly concerned by networks, discussions, contacts, face-to-face relationships with the beholder’. While there are many examples of relational theories being applied within ARI practice, could we see this as an example of asking the same questions, rather than posing entirely new ones? Reliance on popular international theory can expand art practices but can also detract from local emergent practices that are otherwise swept up in a type of cultural globalism.

It is also interesting to look at ARIs as alternatives within their spatial significance, physically but also more broadly and in light of ideas like Bachelard’s ‘poetics of space’, which explores the significance of a place being more than its physical makeup, one that is embedded within history and the collective imagination of similar places that can only be truly experienced on a personal level. Whether poetics are present within the confines of a white cube is debatable, and usually it is the art presented within this common model that takes up the role of inscribing meaning to an absent poetic. ARIs that present in private homes, abandoned buildings, and other non-traditional spaces can offer a foray into these kinds of spatial relations that sometimes contain richer associations for both the art and the audience. The measures of success here could be whether the ideas are taken up and duplicated, or even whether the artists choose to work again with such collectives.

Finally, when it comes to assessing past success or failure, how do we source this information? When people move on from ARIs, which regularly occurs, then what happens to all those local spaces, archives, collections and documentation that would otherwise inform history? Organisations like the Art Spaces Archive Project in New York exist to ‘preserve, present and protect the archival heritage of living and defunct for- and not-for-profit spaces of the “alternative” and “avant garde” movement of the 1950s through to the present throughout the United States’. This kind of collective project is archiving vital documentation, not just for artist run futures but also for historical context required by the institutions who have consumed those artists and imbued them with this abstract thing we call ‘success’. 

Australia has no repository yet for these important ARI practices and histories. It is worth asking whether ARIs, even individual artists, are now repeating one another, creating the same mandates, exploring similar theoretical propositions, essentially documenting old ideas in spaces of critical stasis that do not look back because the past is boxed away somewhere in the world, living on inside in the minds of former members, or simply lost. Ultimately, if we can’t look back then how can we ever really look forward?


S. Bridie, 2007, ‘Posthumously’, in Making Space: Artist Run Initiatives in Victoria, VIA-N Melbourne

S. Maidment, 2007, ‘Histories: West Space’, in Making Space: Artist Run Initiatives in Victoria, VIA-N, Melbourne

C. Robertson, 2006, Policy Matters: Administrations of Art and Culture, YYZ Books, Toronto

D. Heagney, 2010, ‘Alternative Histories at Exit Art’, The Art Life, Sydney.

Temporary Services/Basekamp, Groups and Spaces: a web portal for independent art spaces and groups, Chicago.

C. Kennedy, 2010, The Artist-Run Space Of The Future, 1st Edition, Institute For Applied Aesthetics, Chicago.

A. Gardner and D. Palmer, 2005, ‘Nicolas Bourriaud Interviewed’ in Broadsheet 34.3, September–October, Adelaide.

G. Bachelard, G 1994, The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, Boston

Art Spaces Archives Project, New York. 

Other References

G. Arrigoni, 2010, ‘Artist-Run Spaces In Italy...And Finally We Need Them Too’, Hart International, Brussels.

M. Faguet, 2006, ‘A Brief Account of Two Artist-Run Spaces’, On Cultural Influence: Collected Papers from Apex Art International Conference, Apex Art, New York. 

S. Barney, 2001, ‘Artists are to blame’, Life and Death, No.14.

B. Sharon, 1979, ‘Artist-run galleries–A contemporary institutional change in the visual arts’, Qualitative Sociology, Vol 2 No 1.

JJ. Charlesworth, 2007, ‘Curating Doubt’, in (eds) Rugg, J and Sedgwich, M, Issues of curating contemporary art and performance, Intellect Books, Bristol.