Laura Couttie sits down with members of three of Melbourne’s longest running ARIs to discuss the challenges ARIs are facing today, the ways in which they are adapting and evolving, and to envisage how ARIs can function in the future.
An evolving art ecology
Interview by Laura Couttie
Artist-run initiatives (or ARIs, as they are commonly known) can be defined by the concept of ‘by artists, for artists’ and are essentially a means of providing space for experimentation and self-determination. The so-called ‘golden era’ for ARIs in Melbourne was the 1990s and early 2000s. In an environment with limited opportunities for young and emerging artists to exhibit, a slow economy and an art market that had crashed following the 1980s boom period, artists were inspired to take initiative in creating opportunities for themselves. Melbourne’s inner city suburbs offered cheap spaces for artists to take ownership, work, and exhibit in a DIY spirit of community and utopianism.
Often regarded as ‘alternative’ spaces, ARIs were traditionally defined in opposition to the commercial sector and operated outside of the public or commercial gallery system. But far from being just an alternative pathway, or a stepping-stone for artists between art school and the establishment of a career, ARIs have proven to be a vital part of the arts ecology, fostering community, encouraging ambitious, experimental art and often leading the way in advocating for societal change and progress.
The definition of an ARI has evolved over the years and these days ARIs represent a range of diverse models, structures and approaches, with many straddling a somewhat hybrid model that sit somewhere between the traditional ARI and a not-for-profit contemporary art organisation. While most ARIs take the physical form a gallery or exhibition space, ARIs also function as publishing organisations, communal studios, curatorial or artist collectives and festivals.
I sat down with members of three of Melbourne’s longest running ARIs — Channon Goodwin (Director, Bus Projects), Anita Spooner (Gallery Manager, SEVENTH Gallery) and Sabrina Baker (Program Manager, West Space) — to discuss the challenges ARIs are facing today, the ways in which they are adapting and evolving, and to envisage how ARIs can function in the future.
Laura Couttie: I’d like to start by teasing out what defines an ARI today. Could you each introduce your organisation and how it relates to the ARI model?
Anita Spooner: SEVENTH was started in the year 2000 by a group of artists including Jon Butt, who is now the director of c3 at the Abbotsford Convent. SEVENTH has occupied the same space on Gertrude Street for the last 18 years. We operate with a democratic model — our board meets monthly to discuss our operations, decisions, structures, programming and calendar. This allows everyone to talk though decisions, discuss future planning and provide feedback.
Channon Goodwin: Bus was founded in 2001 in the CBD by a collective that weren’t all artists. They were designers, architects and entrepreneurs, and I think that spirit of interdisciplinarity has stuck with the organisation. It has influenced its artistic programs, the way that its operational structure has changed over the years, the makeup of the committee of management and the physical spaces that it has occupied. Since I came to Bus in 2012, we’ve rapidly developed from having a voluntary board who ran the space with the help of a very parttime gallery manager, to having three paid staff and substantial rental overheads and multi-year funding. But we still see that as sympathetic with an artist-run model, because the brackets of what is artist-run are really quite flexible and broad. And all of the people that work at Bus are practicing artists and the board are a mix of arts workers and artists.
Sabrina Baker: West Space was started in 1993 in Footscray and it was started in the traditional model of the ARI. Over the years it has professionalised and evolved, and now we have three paid staff and a board of governance who are not necessarily artists. We have a rule that we need to have 50% artist representation on the board, and that helps us remain artist-led and keeps artists embedded at every level of the organisation. We don’t really consider ourselves fitting into what the traditional idea of an ARI is anymore, but all our choices do come out of being an ARI.
LC: As the early model of ARIs has had to evolve and professionalise in order to survive, is the ‘ARI’ label still accurate?
SB: I think the artistic community has a lot of nostalgia towards the original idea of an ARI, like this grassroots, community sharing thing, which it still is, but I think that nostalgia is making it harder for organisations to choose their own way to shift within what that definition is.
CG: I think it’s good to find language appropriate to your organisation. The artist-run label in Australia has been associated with post-university, completely voluntary, limited and built on burn- out. That isn’t necessarily helpful as a term, but the model is important to retain because individual artists are still some of the worst paid participants in the sector. And so for Bus, retaining that terminology, that language, the political ramifications of what it means to be an artist-run space, it’s important for us to own and champion. In Australia, their independence means that artist-run spaces like Bus and SEVENTH and West Space, can be leaders politically in terms of both progressive approaches to cultural diversity, First-Nations participation, feminism and LGBTQI+ rights. There’s a whole lot of affirmative action that is initiated through such spaces in other countries that I really wish to keep up with.
LC: What is unique about the way people engage with ARIs in contrast to commercial or public galleries?
CG: I think the relationships are closer. The proximity between artist and audience is immediate. These are a much broader set of relationships and they can go well beyond simply the viewing of work or the administration of the gallery into much more personal and long-lasting experiences. And they go well beyond emerging, as you know, in terms of how people returning continue to engage with the organisations throughout their careers.
LC: With rising rent prices in Melbourne and lots of construction and redevelopment, a lot of galleries are having to close down or being forced out of the city. The recent eviction of TCB after 17 years in Chinatown is a good example. How are ARIs adapting or restructuring in order to survive?
CG: I think we’ve all been affected by these factors of gentrification and how you try to find suitable, sympathetic partnerships to secure your venue long-term.
AS: We have recently restructured our spaces to share with a commercial enterprise who will be in the front space, which is the one facing Gertrude Street. From now on people will enter SEVENTH through the back lane and we have opened another gallery upstairs. We made this move to address the financial accessibility of SEVENTH and our ongoing sustainability, because the rent has been going up and the existing model just wasn’t sustainable.
CG: We’re all trying to find ways to exist without bearing the brunt of unsustainable rental costs. It’s just a shame that the art disappears off the street front when that happens.
SB: The council is redeveloping our building so with relocation on the cards next year we’ve been thinking a lot about all the different ways a gallery can operate. Sometimes you just have to have a fundamental shift in your model to stay viable and there’s nothing wrong with that. West Space has adapted over 25 years so it will need to continue to do so if it wants to say viable.
CG: There are still no particularly revolutionary solutions for additional resourcing for our organisations. Revenues generated through a combination of artists paying for shows, renting studios, fundraising exhibitions of work donated by artists is unsustainable. The sporadic levels of government funding in the form of project grants is underpinned by the large amount of volunteer labour of artists. The work that is borne by this network of artist-run organisations deserves extra investment in the form of stable, recurring, government funding. We shouldn’t think of this as being unfairly subsidised by the public. They do more than enough work to deserve much greater resourcing to be able to compete in the rental market. Unless councils are going to come to some agreement to provide subsidised spaces.
LC: Can you explain more the impact that support and funding can have on the sustainability and vibrancy of arts organisations and the whole art ecology.
SB: Slowing down the program this year has been fundamental in creating a more sustainable fit for us at West Space. Funding allowed us to make that choice. Now we have more time to engage with the artists in a meaningful way. It’s also meant we’re open to different types of programming, so you slow down your major programming and can do quick turn around projects in between.
CG: When people think about what these artist-run spaces have been, and are, the architecture of their spaces is really tied to their budget, the way they generate revenue. West Space is a great example of what happens when you can create a more stable business model for organisations. You can become a totally different type of organisation. The possibilities open up, and in a really interesting way SEVENTH has done that in spite of dealing with financial pressures, reinventing itself and heading into a really interesting period of its development.
SB: Up until this year we were doing open call for 70% of our programming and we were one of the only organisations to be doing an open call and paying artist fees. But we only just started paying artist fees in the last couple of years. We’ve got three levels of government funding, and then we also have a small ways of making money such as running a paid bar at openings and events, venue hire and things like that. We’ve also got donors and a philanthropy program — it’s not huge but it helps. But that’s all been over the 25-year history of West Space as well, so it’s been a longterm effort to get all of those things to line up the way they have.
AS: SEVENTH recently received funding for our annual program which will be directed towards eliminating rental fees and compensating artists for their work, which is really exciting. From July 2018-2019 we’ll be able to pay artists a fee to exhibit. The reason we have been putting so much emphasis on paying artists is because SEVENTH is particularly focused on emerging artists. Often artists have their first exhibition at SEVENTH, and it’s their most financially vulnerable time. They’re just out of art school and they want to develop their practice and make mistakes and try new things, so we want them to be able to redirect funds to the creation of the artwork rather than paying exhibition fees. At this stage we don’t have any additional support for management so that’s going to be the next hurdle. Because with this gift comes a lot more responsibility and we’re still turning over four exhibitions every three weeks and that’s a lot of work. But yeah, it’s a wonderful start.
CG: When we talk about funding in other industries it’s framed as a necessary incentive to do business and thereby generate jobs and revenue. Investment in the arts is comparatively tiny in comparison to our output and contribution to the economy and quality of life.
SB: Government support is super important to the health of an art community, especially if you want people to make the experimental, risky art that’s in everyone’s charters of what they want to support.
AS: Totally. It’s taken for granted that Melbourne is a capital city for Australia’s art industry but I don’t think we’re getting sufficient support from governments to make it sustainable.
CG: The presumption was that these organisations would close within two years post university- ish because people would get other jobs, you would become a successful artist after that point or you would move into your career. Now we’re dealing with spaces here and interstate that are decades old — 10, 20, 30 years in some cases. So obviously they’re not temporary. It’s also about having these spaces stable so that they can advocate for a better deal more broadly. If artist’s organisations are stronger, and can empower artists, they are a hugely activist force.
AS: Channon, you should talk about the work that All Conference is doing.
CG: So All Conference is a national organising network which was founded in 2016 by 15 artist-led, experimental and cross-disciplinary arts organisations from around Australia. It was established to articulate the current value, and future potential, of Australia’s artist-led initiatives and small-scale arts organisations through research, publishing, conferences and knowledge sharing. All Conference allows us to contribute to what other networks and associates such as CAOA [Contemporary Arts Organisations Australia] and NAVA [National Association for the Visual Arts] are doing to advocate for the sector. My work contributing to founding this network is influenced by Common Practice in London, Common Field in North America and the Victorian Initiatives of Artists Network, which existed between 2004-2007.
SB: I think it’s really important to have those relationships for resource sharing. It’s not just about advocating for more, but it’s also about sharing what you already have. West Space is the ultimate chair lender of the CBD! It’s this idea of an open-plan office as far as that network goes, and that can be equally as useful — saving time and stress.
CG: If we are so exhausted and precarious, we don’t talk to each other, all we can do is deal with the meal in front of us and we don’t realise we can be stronger together. When the reallocations of funding that impacted the whole arts ecology, whether it was morale or the actual closing of long-running galleries, we weren’t talking to each other more directly. It was like only in a crisis do we speak.
SB: If you’re better resourced time and energy-wise (and time and energy are money), you’ve got more to give.
LC: What are the organisational goals for the future of your ARIs and what do you need to help realise these goals?
CG: For us it’s a combination of operational stability and the viability of the program based on paying artists and staff. That’s all related to overcoming financial pressures of a commercial rent on our galleries and building an ethical donors program. But those goals really underpin a whole lot of other creative changes that the organisation would then implement. We can start to think more proactively once those fundamentals are taken care of.
AS: We’re similar. The partnership has put us in a better financial situation. But the money and freedom that we got out of the partnership is channelled towards supporting the annual program. We would like to redirect money into sustainability as well, because SEVENTH is one of the last galleries on Gertrude Street. And we would like SEVENTH to exist for another 20 years, or longer.
SB: At the moment we are primarily and almost exclusively concerned with finding long-term housing. Because long-term housing will underpin broader strategic planning towards bigger and better programming. At the moment our programming is really constrained by where we are and how we can use that space and the money we have. If you have a longer lease or longer-term rental situation it’s easier to plan further in the future and have time to build bigger projects with artists.
CG: As a practical measure, I would suggest reinstating the artist-run initiative funding stream that was previously part of the Australia Council for the Arts’ funding portfolio. ARIs would then not need to compete with larger arts organisations with different models and histories. Instead, it would give recognition to ARIs as working within a unconventional set of parameters and administrative models, and reward them for the unique artistic benefits they offer.
LC: To conclude, what will be the role of ARIs going into the future?
CG: A lot of the ARIs in the sector are taking ownership of their political possibilities, to not be passive participants in systems that perpetuate privilege, perpetuate a eurocentric model of art making and consumption. I think they are trying as much as possible to flip what their program has been and make change. With their nimbleness and independence, they can take stands on important issues that have impact the sector more broadly. This emphasises that these spaces are vital to a progressive society, not just to the ambitions of local artists.
This article first appeared in THEN, NOW & NEXT, a newspaper created and published by Art Guide Australia to celebrate Melbourne Art Week.