Dossier | Self-Determination When Cash Rules Everything Around Us | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | Self-Determination When Cash Rules Everything Around Us

Self-Determination When Cash Rules Everything Around Us
By Amber Berson

This essay is an attempt to take stock of the current reality facing the administration of artist-run centres in Canada, with the aim of beginning a discussion around how to possibly move forward. Artist-run centres were set up as alternatives to museums and private galleries. Today, they are vibrant community spaces that produce and display some of the most important artistic output in Canada, much of which eventually represents the nation on an international level.

Artist-run centres are also networks of artist-initiated activity that reflect the (often left-leaning) politics of their memberships. They proliferated in the 1970s, at a time of extreme social upheaval. Their creation was indivisible from the social and political realities of that era, and their subsequent histories tend to follow, and often react against, the social and political histories of their geopolitical locations. Their history and their position in Canada is cleaved to that of the Canada Council for the Arts and the provincial and municipal funding councils that have been created to further administer the funding of artists and art spaces in this country. At present, artist-run centres (and, consequently, many artists) are dependent on these councils for their continued existence. I have noticed that over time, and following changes in administrative policy at a national level, the language employed by funding bodies has shifted radically. I believe that these changes in language affect the language of the centres themselves, which, in order to access the funding necessary to continue their activities — including paying artists a living wage for their work — are shifting their tone and priorities accordingly.

This is a complex situation, made more so by the continuously changing landscape of Canadian art, the growth in types of art media and practices, the proliferation of artist-run centres nationally, the influence (or lack of influence, as the case may be) of private galleries and museums, and public and member-driven demands. And of course, the shift in funding language is not necessarily at the behest of the funding bodies themselves; these changes are more likely the result of pressure by the Conservative government and a climate of austerity that has been putting a strain on the arts, and all publicly funded sectors, for well over a decade. Artist-run centres regularly react to austerity measures through direct and indirect criticism and action, and member artists (and the centres themselves) have often joined forces with larger anti-austerity movements (primarily in Québec), urging more transparent management and distribution of public funds. This push-back is sometimes at odds with the language that the centres are required to adopt in order to access funding.

The Canada Council for the Arts is not a philanthropic foundation. It is an arm’s-reach Crown corporation that receives funds from the Canadian government. (1) The government exerts political influence over artists through its control of funding processes. In doing so, it effectively decides what constitutes art and curbs the ability of individual artist-run centres to risk programming work that might be radical, anti-institutional, or critical. Of course, the Canada Council for the Arts, like provincial arts councils, has a peer review process. Everyone active in the Canadian art landscape is open to being selected for “jury duty” and may become directly responsible for dispensing these funds. Yet even though artists’ peers are the ones who make the decisions regarding which individuals and bodies receive funding, the councils decide how much funding is available per program, whether to allocate full or partial funding, what types of support are acceptable, and which documents to translate into the other official language.

Artist-run centres cannot afford not to accept funding from the councils, and increasingly, from private corporations and foundations. However, artists and art workers equally cannot afford to solely produce work that reflects the agenda of donors and funding bodies. If we want to move forward, we must ask ourselves how much control we are willing to cede at the production and dissemination levels and whether we can envision a new model.

Perhaps artist-run centres have become obsolete. There is little funding for artists’ fees, even less for equipment and lease-hold improvements, none for property acquisition, and let’s just not mention industry standards for salaries. In such an austere climate, why push ahead? Perhaps because artist-run centres are more than administrative supports for artists; they are community spaces that attempt to self-determine a (utopian) future. And today, at a time when we see such a proliferation of social movements — dealing with issues of race, gender, and sexuality, as well as the anti-austerity movements — we must remember the histories of artist-run centres as safe spaces for these types of discussions and gatherings; we must remember the work done by previous generations.

Historically, the roots of artist-run culture position it as a direct response to the failure of the museum and gallery system to respond to the needs of the artist — specifically the need and desire to present experimental, non-commercial work — a binary that is less relevant today. But artist-run centres also created work for under-employed artists, as well as community spaces that were safe places to present artworks that were more political in nature. Artists worked together to decide on administrative models and programming focuses — they self-determined what to support. It is artist-directed culture that is responsible for instituting a minimum fee schedule, speaking about the specific barriers faced by women artists in relation to work and childcare, building experimental exhibition platforms and cross-country networks, fighting for subsidies, and building a myriad of other types of support to address needs ranging from affordable housing to healthcare. In developing answers within the artist-run centre community, the desire to create working solutions to social problems is especially visible. This self-determination — or auto-gestion (self-management) — is at the root of artist-run culture. It is even present in the French term: les centres d’artistes autogérés.

Yet, like any other enterprise, artist-run culture is susceptible to institutionalization. The micro-utopias that it generates have often proved to be short-lived. The maintenance of some of the important strategies employed in the past — such as some feminist and pro-diversity positions — has eroded over time.

How should artist-run culture move forward in the future? Is a model based on self-determination compatible with an institutionalized and publicly (or privately) funded model? What strategies are in place or can be developed to make the current conditions more open to flourishing, and how can the current blueprint be altered to build a future better aligned with their values? What tactics do artist-run centres use in the face of neoliberal funding? How do they make do — in terms of human resources or programming — when faced with budget cuts?

The current existence of many artist-run centres relies on non-monetized exchanges and unwaged labour. Although some are funded at a level at which they can support paid staff and artists’ fees, rent or buy new equipment, and produce exhibitions, most struggle to make ends meet and resort to a diversity of tactics in the face of austerity. What is worse is that the way in which artist-run centres function with small budgets has been documented, unjustly celebrated, and mythologized as a means to reduce institutional support, first and primarily by funding bodies, but now also by the centres themselves as they internalize the language and politics of the contemporary economic climate.

In terms of affecting programming, the precariousness of funding means that short-term projects are often prioritized over long-term researched programming. At some centres, major exhibitions are necessarily eliminated from the schedule due to lack of human and financial resources to manage these projects, and short-term, ephemeral programming replaces them. Although this allows artist-run centres to be more responsive to current issues, it effectively reduces any art-historical or curatorial work based on deep research and reflection by centre workers, many of whom are highly trained. Additionally, the shift in funding requires centres to set programs according to specific guidelines in order to be eligible for grants. When granting agencies dictate to centres the type of eligible programming, as opposed to centres having the agency to decide what they want to program, the type of art exhibited to the public is at risk of becoming censored, less critical of the government, or narrow in scope. By inverting the typical model and denying centres the freedom to self-govern, granting bodies, because of the government funders to which they are accountable, carry out the mandate of the current political administration.

How, then, to resist? In 2014, FUSE Magazine, which for thirty-eight years acted as a venue for timely and politically engaged publishing and programming reflecting the diversity of the contemporary art world, not-so-quietly published its last issue. Prior to closing the magazine, the editors, under the guidance of Gina Badger, published an issue that proudly proclaimed DO LESS WITH LESS, DO MORE WITH MORE. (2) The act of refusing to perform is an act of resistance.

In order to qualify for funding and to be formally considered an artist-run centre, centres are supposed to follow the not-for-profit arts organization model, must not charge admission fees, and must be non-commercial and de-emphasize the selling of work. This model encourages but does not demand the presentation of experimental artwork. However, with the decrease in government funding to the arts over the last two decades, many artist-run centres now charge admission fees for event-based programming and occasionally sell artwork. Artist-run culture must stop working toward the end goal of reaching independent revenue quotas and instead work toward financing work that is impassioned and affordable. This sometimes means doing less with less, but it always means providing the various audiences with art that interests them and in which they have a stake.

With less funding, or no increase in funding, fewer staff members can be employed, at lower pay, and with no prospect of a raise, resulting in low morale, high turnover, and general job dissatisfaction. It is abundantly clear that the precarious conditions that artist-run centres currently operate under, which are caused primarily by chronic underfunding, are detrimental to the long-term health of these centres and to the arts in general. Although artist-run centres have adapted to making do with less funding and fewer resources, the demands placed on them to access these slim resources mount every funding cycle. Unwaged immaterial labour allows the centres to keep going, but it also legitimizes the government’s rationale for underfunding — it ultimately perpetuates the “do more with less” attitude that has become so widespread.

At the time of writing, it is unclear what changes will manifest within the grant programs at the Canada Council and how these proposed shifts will affect artist-run centres’ (and artists’) self-determination. To ensure a future for artist-run culture in Canada, artists and art workers must look both at centres’ socialist and utopian roots and beyond their capitalist realities. They must speak to each other, to their peers, but also to the councils directly. They must work with the umbrella organizations such as the Artist-Run Centres and Collectives Conference, the Independent Media Arts Alliance, Le Regroupement des centres d’artistes autogérés du Québec, or Artist-Run Centres & Collectives of Ontario to lobby for them at a national level. If they don’t want to be shut down due to austerity measures they must politicize as a collective and not only as individuals. They must speak to each other and then, loudly, to those that provide support for their communities. They must demand the right to self-determination once again.

NOTES
(1) “Peer Assessment,” Canada Council for the Arts, accessed March 31, 2015, http://canadacouncil.ca/council/grants/how-the-council-makes-its-decisions.
(2) “LIDS — Do Less With Less / Do More With More,” FUSE Magazine, accessed March 31, 2015, http://fusemagazine.org/2014/01/37-1_lids

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