The Role of the Artist-Run Centre

“The Role of the Artist-Run Centre.” Unpublished (2016).

In 2008, YYZ Books published decentre: Concerning Artist-Run Culture. The book was edited by Elaine Chang, Andrea Lalonde, Chris Lloyd, Steve Loft, Jonathan Middleton, Daniel Roy, & Haema Sivanesan, and featured 103 short essays addressing the issues faced in this milieu, distilling down the essence of the concept “artist-run,” and looking into the future.1 I read this book many times while contemplating the contemporary state of artist-run culture. The following short text was an attempt to articulate some of my feelings.

The Role of the Artist-Run Centre

The radical potential of the artist-run centre is perfectly encapsulated in Michael Fernandes’ stamp which reads: The role of the artist run centre is to bring down the government.2 This piece, however, also embodies an inherent contradiction. This is, it was reproduced in decentre, a book that declared in the acknowledgements that it was celebrating “the 50th anniversary of the Canada Council for the Arts, without whose insight and leadership, its topic – artist-run culture – would hardly exist.”3 In other words, the role of the artist-run centre is to bring down the government that ultimately funds it and allows it to exist. It is debatable whether artist-run culture would fail in the absence of government support, as there are many DIY artist initiatives that run without Council funding. Fernandes’ stamp represents the ideal, but if one were to look realistically at the current state of funded artist-run centres in Canada, the stamp would probably read: The role of the artist-run centre is to maintain the institution.

What began as a radical gesture has now become an underpaid job. Even the most radical artist-run centres seem to have embraced the professionalism and conformism of the commercial art-world that they were originally founded in opposition to. Like lovers whose initial spark has gone, the artist-run centre has transitioned from passionate love affair into domestic relationship; after all, the bills need to be paid. Artist and arts administrator Heather Keung accurately states at the end of her essay in decentre, “we need to be visionaries and not simply administrators.”4 Unfortunately, to re-imagine an established organization involves taking risks and it is nearly impossible to be radical when you are worried about where your next grant is coming from. Risky behaviour opens up the organization to the possibility of failure, and the staff’s livelihood depends on the organization’s ability to convince the Council of its success.

The organization’s desire to be successful has also led many artists to feel excluded from the artist-run centres they once actively engaged with. The newfound stature of the curator within the artist-run milieu has had a devastating effect on some local art ecologies, with entire communities of artists left feeling unsupported or overlooked. This is mainly because supporting local artists whose work has yet to be recognized internationally isn’t viewed as prestigious, especially in cities that are trying to compete internationally. Finally, the professionalization of artist-run centres and a scarcity of jobs in the arts have given rise to a new breed of arts bureaucrat, a person who puts their own career before the needs of their local community. The careerator is an especially offensive creature camping out in artist-run culture. It’s enough to wish another stamp could be made: The role of the artist-run centre is to support the needs of its community.

  1. Artists included: Hans Abbing, Danyele Alain, Heather Anderson, Sylvette Babin, Bruce Barber, Gerald Beaulieu, Natalie de Blois, Brett Bloom, AA Bronson, Michelle Bush, Paul Butler, Jean-Pierre Caissie, Candyland, Ian Carr-Harris, Elaine Chang, Hermenegilde Chiasson, Mark Clintberg, Timothy Comeau, Rebecca Conroy, Jo Cook, Sylvie Cotton, Nna Czegledy, Sigrid Dahle, John Everett Daquino, Ade Darmawan, Jennifer Delos Reyes, Joseph del Pesco, Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan, Carolyn Doucette, Martin Dufrasne, Peter Dykhuis, Michael Fernandes, Jocelyne Fortin, Vera Frenkel, Karen Gaskill, Annie Gautier, Andre Gilbert, Bastien Gilbert, Barr Gilmore, Marc Glassman, Chris ‘Zeke’ Hand, Jamelie Hassan, Janet Hawtin, Jens Hoffmann, Michelle Jacques, Marisa Jahn, Geoffrey James, Brett Jones, Michelle Kasprzak, Heather Keung, Eleanor King, Robert Labossiere, Francois Lachapelle, Tommy Lacroix, Guylaine Langlois, Marie-Helene Leblanc, Gordon Lebredt, Tom Leonardt, Chris Le Page, Chris Lloyd, Patrice Loubier, BrianLee MacNevin, Pamila Matharu, Cathy Mattes, Ingrid Mayrhofer, Jodi McLaughlin, Robin Metcalfe, Jonathan Middleton, Aleksandra Mir, Vicky Moufawad-Paul, John Murchie, National Bitter Melon Council, Marc Niessen, Anne-Marie Ninacs, Andrew James Paterson, Demian Petryshyn, Garrett Phelan, Katrina Lee Podesva, Craig Francis Power, Jeanne Randolph, Kathleen Ritter, Jocelyn Robert, Clive Robertson, Sadira Rodrigues, Daniel Roy, Gilles Senechal, Chandra Siddan, Haema Sivanesan, SKOL, Ho Tam, Jeff Thomas, Carl Trahan, Jon Tupper, Tobias C. van Veen, Juliana Varodi, Emily Vey Duke, Jean-Yves Vigneau, Kate Warren, Leung Chi Wo, Paul Wong, Jacob Wren, Yoke + Zoom & Wayne Yung. []
  2. Michael Fernades, “The role of the artist run centre,” decentre: Concerning Artist-Run Culture (YYZ Books: Toronto 2008), 92. []
  3. decentre: Concerning Artist-Run Culture (Toronto: YYZ Books, 2008), 3. (Emphasis added). []
  4. Heather Keung, “Untitled,” decentre: Concerning Artist-Run Culture (Toronto: YYZ Books, 2008), 140. []