BY Alexander Provan in Features | 07 MAR 13
Featured in
Issue 153

All for One

What makes a successful artist-run institution?

BY Alexander Provan in Features | 07 MAR 13

Summertime at Drop City, Colorado, 1967. Photograph: Richard Kallweit

Imagine the perfect artist-run institution. Its form, structure and activities would present a convincing critique of power and capitalism. It would receive funding from the government but remain entirely independent from – and often disparaging of – the state. It may have a hierarchy, but decisions would be made collectively. The institution would respond to and genuinely represent its local context, but within a global network of sympathetic bodies. It would be located in a mid-to-large-sized urban centre with a thriving but not overly commodified art scene, in an area yet to be gentrified – or, perversely, in a subterranean arcade or suburban strip mall. It would encompass the artistic practices of its members and would generate enough money for them to live well.

This, at least, is the generic ideal of the artist-run institution that has gained currency in recent years: a mishmash of values, forms and methods that are rarely found in the same place. Nevertheless, the description might be applied to Ala Plástica in Buenos Aires, The Propeller Group in Ho Chi Minh City and Los Angeles, Cinémathèque de Tanger in Tangier, CAMP in Bombay, SOMA in Mexico City or e-flux in New York. The product may vary according to local rules and funding structures; activities may include organizing exhibitions, performances, screenings or classes, or producing publications or online platforms. But when thinking about such groups, we tend to apply the same basic ethical rather than aesthetic framework, and the currency of the organizational model often eclipses the work they do.

This is especially true as our seemingly terminal state of so-called crisis endures, corroding traditional funding models and granting unchecked power – and perhaps responsibility – to an international confederacy of plutocrats

Another world may be plausible but, in the meantime, should we not evaluate artist-run institutions based on what they accomplish in their work rather than what they symbolize in their form? What can artist-run institutions achieve that others cannot? How do they differ from DIY hackerspaces, collectively run design firms or
farmers’ cooperatives?

Answering any of these questions requires a clear definition of an institution. Let’s say it’s an organization that serves certain needs of the people it organizes, and promotes objectives or ideas particular to them. In doing so, it may contribute to the greater good of a broader population. But add artists and things get slippery. The institutions fostered by artists may be claimed as vehicles for (and perhaps the primary products of) their artistic work, and doing that work may be the cardinal purpose of the institution, which makes for a circular relationship: the institution serves the work, which serves the institution, and so on – especially if the overall objective is to critique the institution of art. Consider the stellar but esoteric work of Art & Language, whose centripetal enterprise began with mimicking the forms of cultural administration and publishing a journal, so as to scrutinize the conditions of making art and being an artist. Or, obversely, the Bruce High Quality Foundation, an institution whose critical gestures mainly complement the art world’s vanity.

What if the purpose of the institution is to marshall the resources of fellow artists so as to free them from fulfilling the whims of collectors and museums, supplicating before grant-makers and university administrators? Without a money-making scheme, the likelihood of such institutions existing for any longer than it takes to become fully bureaucratized, or absorbed into the museum-market monolith as favoured opposition figures, is miniscule. They are just as likely to siphon ‘free time’ and wages earned elsewhere as they are to sustain the work of artists.

I know this in part because I work with such an institution, Triple Canopy – an editorial collective and magazine based in New York. Though several of the founding editors were artists, we didn’t initially regard Triple Canopy as an artists’ project so much as a publishing concern. And though we meant to foster a critical context for literary and artistic work, had no hierarchy, made decisions by consensus and shirked professionalization, we never intended for Triple Canopy to be a vehicle for the critique of the institution of art. But, seemingly inevitably, it has come to be construed as such. As we cemented our understanding of Triple Canopy as charting an ‘expanded field of publication’, we began to receive funding from visual-arts grant-makers and donations from art-world personae; we were invited to take part in museum exhibitions, art fairs and gallery shows. Triple Canopy represents the kind of ‘alternative model’ of knowledge production that has come to appeal to institutions largely devoted to valourizing the opposite. Like many others who find themselves in this position, we began to respond to these contexts in our work – often subtly and judiciously but at times not so much. (One wake-up call: a day-long series of conversations constituting a ‘live magazine’ in a forbidding, felt-covered wooden box at Artissima in Turin: a casket for discourse visited by approximately no one.) And like other institutions, Triple Canopy ended up spending a lot of time asking questions without easy answers: How to satisfy those gracious enough to support our work without playing to mercurial tastes? How to shift away from accumulating cultural capital and toward developing a workable (and not just symbolically alluring) institutional model?

This experience piqued my interest in ‘Institutions by Artists’, a convention held in October 2012, organized by the Pacific Association of Artist Run Centres in Vancouver, the magazine Fillip and the Artist-Run Centres and Collectives Conference. The convention surveyed 50 artists, academics, curators and writers about what this particular brand of institution might mean and do, and why. The introduction to the accompanying book explains that an institution is not a static struc­ture but, rather, the way in which artists be­come themselves in the company of others. Artist-run institutions are characterized by ‘the pursuit of artistic self-determination’ and the age-old desire for meaning and value to be determined within the ‘field of relations among artists living and working in the world’ rather than by the yacht-laden elite and art-world apparatchiks.1

What happens when that desire is realized? Though I wasn’t able to attend the convention, here’s what I got from viewing videos online of the dozen discussions, talks and debates that took place over three days: an artist-run institution might be a convenient legal framework or a conceptual projection, a parody or a lobby; it might exist thanks to the largesse of the European Cultural Foundation or a New York City financier; it might swear off corporate or foreign or government money altogether; or it might be a business venture. To institutionalize might be a betrayal of one’s duty as an artist – or a rebellious act of exodus. The institution might occupy a gallery or a garage, a human body or a rooftop solar power plant. It might be founded because the market is so all-encompassing as to seem inescapable, or so exclusionary as to seem impenetrable. In other words, the notion of the artist-run institution that emerged from the convention was so ecumenical as to reaffirm the generic ideal described above. Without a more specific sense of the relationship between an institution’s organizational form, purpose and production, we are likely to make evaluations based on how well it models critique – which pushes institutions to excel at exactly that. Indeed, what seemed to most distinguish the artist-run institutions represented at the convention was their tendency to dutifully communicate opposition, however hypothetical, to the state and the market, and to do so in the hermetic language particular to the art world.

Collective Actions, The Third Variant, Moscow region, near Kyevy Gorky village, 1978, performance documentation

Consider the Oxford-style debate at the convention on this very matter. The premise was that the state and the market – which one agonist, critic Jaleh Mansoor, derisively referred to as ‘the axes of evil’ – limit the ‘creative autonomy’ of artists by imposing certain priorities and expectations. Is it conceivable, and recommendable, to forge a space for art outside of the market and the state, or to productively exploit the tensions between the two? Payam Sharifi, one half of the artist duo Slavs and Tatars – whose publications, installations and prints fathom Eurasian syncretism – asserted that the state and the market are often useful, beneficial and desirable, and not just to artists. He avowed that his work would not be possible – or would have no audience, and therefore be nugatory – without support from biennials, fairs and sponsoring corporations. Why not uphold the value of pragmatic compromise rather than quixotic resistance? ‘We’re conditioned intellectually to be suspicious of words like mirth and cheer,’ Sharifi said, calling to mind Slavs and Tatars’ giant balloons featuring the mono-browed (Persian-looking) Bert from Sesame Street. ‘For me, the holy grail is to be critical and somehow mirthful at the same time.’

Mansoor responded by arguing against ‘instrumentalizing our practices by singing for our supper, when the whole point of going into these practices was to not sing for one’s supper in a cubicle, thereby making utterly redundant and, frankly, quite boring art’. Sharifi’s approach would, she worried, ‘reproduce the main hegemonic logic’.

Too often what is rewarded in these conversations is effectively parroting a generic lament about capitalism cannibalizing all critique, then calling for some (theoretical) form of resistance. Chantal Mouffe puts it quintessentially in a 2007 essay: ‘What is needed is widening the field of artistic intervention, by intervening directly in a multiplicity of social spaces in order to oppose the programme of total social mobilization of capitalism. The objective should be to undermine the imaginary environment necessary for its reproduction.’2 Banding together with fellow artists to run, say, a design firm, so as to afford to make sculptures that may then founder on the market, would not be a viable critical model, which is to say it would be ‘boring’.

But my impression is that becoming an artist is not inherently an act of rebellion (especially in an economy premised on making creativity productive), nor is establishing an artist-run institution. While such institutions may hold the promise of mitigating alienation, attitudes toward collective organization vary widely from time to time, place to place. As several panellists at the convention noted, artist-run institutions in countries with dysfunctional states and trifling markets tend to focus on consolidating resources and finding fellowship, and may be less concerned with the stipulations of funders than the effects of scarcity (and austerity). Working on a project with Triple Canopy in Sarajevo and Belgrade this summer, I was struck by the proliferation of collectives and artist-run institutions, among them Kuda, an electronic-media think tank; Crvena, a feminist platform; Protok, an exhibition space; TkH, an editorial collective; and Remont, a non-profit gallery and artists’ association. Nobody seemed to be working alone and, while few artists in the remnants of communist Yugoslavia idealize collectives, these institutions seemed like a necessity – if also figures of a superior political horizon – in the absence of other support structures.

Collectivism was the norm in the Soviet Union, where ‘official’ art and literature reigned. As a result, artists strived to enable individuals to interpret works of art for themselves: in the 1970s and ’80s, Ilya Kabakov made cryptic ‘Albums’ – illustrated stories of marginal figures in chimerical realms – and read them before friends in his Moscow apartment for hours on end; Collective Actions Group directed people to travel to snow-blanketed fields at the edge of Moscow, where they would witness an ephemeral event, and then record a personal account of the experience. While in the us the collective is often taken to be a pat symbol of opposition to the dominant order, the history proves more complicated. As Fred Turner makes clear in his excellent book From Counterculture to Cyberculture (2008), the Utopian projects that blossomed in the 1960s – among them usco, the psychedelic media-art ensemble, and Drop City, the geodesic-dome-strewn artists’ commune – were fixated on using consumer tools to establish self-organizing networks, and were shaped by interdisciplinary research models developed in the 1940s to produce advanced weaponry. By the 1980s and ’90s, the cross-pollination of hippie-commune culture and the early computer industry was big business, and the dream of ‘creative autonomy’ was thoroughly assimilated by corporate management.

Vincent Bonin, writing in Institutions by Artists (2012), argues that corporations ‘hijacked the project of emancipation of the 1960s’ and ‘neutralized their adversaries’ by ‘allowing their employees a certain amount of self-determination in the organization of their work’. But, in fact, the DNA of the information-age corporation can be found in that appetite for emancipation. At a certain point, the idealists of yore decided that government was the problem and corporations were the site of revolutionary potential. Apple’s famous ‘1984’ advertisement introducing the Macintosh computer adroitly visualized this synthesis of radical chic and personalized technology: a renegade runner charges through a crowd of party faithful watching some great leader praise ‘Information Purification Directives’, then hurls a hammer into the screen.

Mundy McLaughlin and Julie Ault of Group Material making posters for Democracy Wall, Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, UK, 1985

The tension between individualism and collectivism is not so great in Canada. The government-funded Canada Council for the Arts instigated a wave of artist-run institutions in the 1970s, and more recently has been criticized for enjoining the country’s artists to act as bureaucrats. (Individual grants are now limited to ‘professional artists’: those who have ‘specialized training’, are ‘recognized as such by peers’, and have ‘a history of public presentation or publication’.)3 Canadian émigré AA Bronson’s contribution to Institutions by Artists is an essay, in the form of divagating journal entries, which revisits his 1983 rumination on artist-run museums, ‘The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat’.4 A veteran of the institutions General Idea, Art Metropole and Printed Matter, Bronson applauds the self-abnegating artist-professional and cheers the ability of Canadian institutions to create ‘the infrastructure that might allow artists to determine their own lives’. But even while chronicling the importance of these institutions to his own life (and admitting a fetish for spreadsheets), Bronson concludes that the proper task of the artist is not to push paper, but to ‘act as a model for inner transformation’. Bronson describes his passage from General Idea – the antic collective he co-founded in Toronto in the late 1960s – to his current, numinous practice, epitomized by a series of ritualistic ‘invocations of the queer spirits’. He suggests that institutions should enable artists to fulfil a vocation, and by doing so attend to the needs of their fellow human beings. Bronson recently founded the Institute for Art, Religion and Social Justice, a project supported by Union Theological Seminary, to support artists who use spirituality and religion to develop new and more righteous ways of imagining and acting in the world.

Personally, I have a hard time relating to this somewhat romantic notion of the artist, which was often derided as ‘outmoded’ during the convention panels. (‘The individual is a completely obsolete entity!’ Mansoor declaimed.) But the work of providing existential nourishment is obviously as important – and much more widely valued – as that of undermining neo-liberalism. And, as Sharifi pointed out, these two endeavours are not mutually exclusive. Just as Slavs and Tatars present countervailing bodies of knowledge via poster-ready puns, tricked-out Persian carpets and semiotically coded jungle gyms, Bronson’s model of the artist may in fact frustrate the devolution of ‘creativity’ into a byword for effective information work, since the pursuit of ‘inner transformation’ isn’t so easily liquidated.

If we are to consider artist-run institutions in truly ethical terms – as moral agents, not just as standard-bearers of a peculiar political consensus – then we must ask how institutions in general shape our ethics. This means thinking of artist-run institutions as being part of civil society, and as having responsibilities that surpass safeguarding the ‘creative autonomy’ of artists to perhaps extend as far as ensuring the autonomy of citizens. The purpose of civil society, philosopher Jean Elshtain writes, is to ‘answer together the most important questions: what is our purpose, what is the right way to act, and what is the common good?’5 Asking these questions alongside other institutions does not necessitate subjugating artistic work to activism. Rather, it has to do with a shift in address, and so in the kind of public that artist-run institutions envision and create in the world. After all, when artists consider these questions, I imagine that most, if not all, do so first and foremost as citizens. And if artist-run institutions are to matter, they must endeavour to speak as, and to, citizens.

Many have bemoaned the disintegration of civil society in recent years, or pointed out that the institutions which comprise civil society have often functioned insidiously, reproducing dominant norms. And yet, obviously, these institutions still exist, and still play a significant role in enabling us to mutually determine our values and identities. Rather than assume that artist-run institutions are uniquely suited or somehow obliged to communicate (if not effectuate) resistance to the state and to the market, we might think about how ingeniously and originally those institutions could pose fundamental questions about how and why we relate to each other, and form public spaces for their contemplation. Consider Group Material, the New York collective and non-profit organization, active between 1979 and 1996. In its East Village storefront and elsewhere, Group Material put on exhibitions characterized by concatenations of consumer goods and art objects, magazine clippings and children’s drawings; the work was often topical but not didactic, and was also circulated via wheat-pasted posters and flimsy leaflets, in collaboration with other artists and community groups. Group Material’s work addressed a broad public, and in so doing seemed to bring that public into being. The spaces in which that public existed acted as venues for asking questions that encompassed aesthetics and politics, how we represent and inhabit the world. The democratic nature of Group Material’s process was essential (and also the cause of much dissensus and regular member turnover) but not the point of the work. ‘We are not interested in making definitive evaluations or declarative statements,’ the group averred, ‘but in creating situations that offer our chosen subject as a complex and open-ended issue.’6

Of course, such statements, and the strategies they represent, nowadays seem rote. As Keith Wallace observes in his essay on the legacy of alternative spaces in Vancouver in Institutions by Artists, the radical nature of such work may be moot, and the ‘critical purpose’ of artist-run institutions may be endangered, since galleries regularly showcase ‘challenging content’ and museums, fairs and biennials incorporate labs, workshops, discussions and so on.7 Yet mimicking these forms does not translate into effectively creating the public spaces upon which genuine civil society is incumbent. As Michael Warner writes in his essay ‘Publics and Counterpublics’: ‘All discourse or performance addressed to a public must characterize the world in which it attempts to circulate, projecting for that world a concrete and livable shape, and attempting to realize that world through address.’8 There is an important difference between modelling and making a world, between symbolic and discursive acts. To me, the value of artist-run institutions is not so much in the models they establish for a more democratic society as in the everyday enactments of such a society through art, and in their capacity to engage fellow citizens in the difficult work of addressing one another and not some chimerical oppressor.

1 Jeff Khonsary and Kristina Podesva (eds.), Institutions by Artists, Fillip Editions, Vancouver, 2012, p. 13
2 Chantal Mouffe, ‘Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces’, Art & Research, vol. 1, no. 2, Summer 2007
4 AA Bronson, ‘The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat: Artist-Run Centres as Museums by Artists’, Museums by Artists, A.A. Bronson and Peggy Gale (eds.), Art Metropole, Toronto, 1983
5 Jean Bethke Elshtain, ‘A Call to Civil Society’, Society, vol. 36, no. 5, 1999, pp. 11–19
6 Group Material, Democracy: A Project, Bay Press, Seattle, 1990, p. 2
7 Jeff Khonsary and Kristina Podesva (eds.), op. cit.
8 Michael Warner, ‘Publics and Counterpublics’, Public Culture, vol. 14, no. 1, 2002, pp. 49–90

Alexander Provan is the editor of Triple Canopy. He is a longtime contributor to frieze.