*** this article can be found in the Spring Edition 2011 of Visual Art News magazine which can be purchased here.
This Town is Small, Inc.
by Mireille Eagan
Bureaucracy is one side of a two-sided coin, John A. MacDonald on one side, and from the other side of reality, what voice of poetic aspiration calls? This is the curse of the artist-run space.
– AA Bronson, The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat
“Why have an artist-run centre? Because there isn’t one. There isn’t one here. It’s that simple,” states Becka Viau. “Basically, as soon as we get our ‘boots,’ we’ll start walking around. We have to be strategic in our presentation. So far we’ve incorporated, created a business plan, developed a balanced board. But, we need to learn business speak, need to be good at the game, or they’re not going to let us in easily.” She starts singing in a low voice while dancing: “and what do we haaave? The communitaaay. They’re our cape, and we are wearing the boots of our business plaaan.”
Becka is one of several artists, writers, and musicians that have come together under the moniker of this town is small, a collective that has made great strides toward bringing an artist-run centre to Prince Edward Island in only a year. Developing projects through collaboration between genres, this town is small has hosted several art and music events, runs a well-oiled blog with submissions of art and writing from the local community, and is now ready to begin creating sustainable partnerships with other local non-profits in the arts sector. However, their goal long term is a space– a physical space for exhibitions, musical performances, studios, education.
The lack of an artist-run space is poignantly felt on Prince Edward Island. The Confederation Centre Art Gallery is the only institution that pays artist fees for the exhibition of work. Although they regularly incorporate local artists into programming, the payment for a solo show barely dents an artist’s living expenses. In addition, the price and paperwork for getting one’s art off the island are often formidable. Lack of shows means one cannot readily apply for federal funds– a depressing circle. A properly funded artist-run centre would be in the position to provide artist fees, as well as provide an essential counterpoint of creative conversation with what the CCAG is able to offer.
Several attempts have been made on PEI to establish an artist-run centre, and each has had their particular difficulties. The first official centre, the Great George St. Gallery, closed down in the nineties despite an impressive history of exhibitions. With interest toward supporting their local artists, they increasingly operated like a commercial gallery and as a result lost their Canada Council funding. From 2000 to 2001, a social/drinking group of artists and writers called the Friday Artists ‘Round Town Somewhere (or FARTS) organised several shows in the Gallery at the Guild, received provincial money for programming, and were able to pay artist fees. However, with little sustainability in terms of staff, the group’s efforts dissipated.
In the past few years several new collectives have appeared. Peake Street Studios is a modest but vibrant project based in the home of Donnalee Downe, one that regularly shows group exhibitions with work by members (and who recently organised an inter-provincial art exchange with its members, Gallery Connexion, and Eastern Edge Gallery called Out of Purgatory). Other examples of organised art spaces include Ampersand (a coffee bar, t-shirt shop, exhibition space, and hang out for the younger creative crowd) and the recent addition of MUSEartspace. None of these locations can or could pay artist fees, instead offering a more commercial presentation.
For this town is small, it’s going to be a long haul, with delicate balance at every intersection. Artist-run centres in Canada are supported through government grants at federal, provincial, and municipal levels, but money is difficult to obtain currently. For most funding bodies, a collective must have completed about three years of programming where they pay artist fees– not easy.
Yet, without a physical location and almost no funds, this town is small has managed to work with other venues on various projects. The most recent, “Iris Mercurial: The Passage of Night” at the Alibi Lounge, saw a substantial group of local artists donate their various talents to produce an evening of living sculptures, poetry, and video. Future plans include Small Town Sessions, with the online presentation of eight informal performances by local musicians be recorded in alternative venues such as rooftops, churches and living rooms. After that, there’s talk of organising a festival.
It’s a remarkable string of successes, raising questions of practicality and the benefits of being light on one’s feet: does this town is small actually need a physical space? Even as most artist-run centres move into their second and third decade of operation, the “problem” of space is continual. Some centres own their premises, some benefit from controlled rents in buildings provided by their city or province. Many are constantly moving at the will of their city’s real estate market. In the Maritimes, Gallery Connexion has obtained a location after a year of transience, their long term space lost after a major flood. Khyber ICA engages in an ongoing struggle to save their location in downtown Halifax. Eyelevel has had to move regularly due to rental costs.
These difficulties are not new, and as a result the notion of decentralised activity has always been in play. Mail Art is just one example that has regularly dotted the artist-run landscape as a lightweight method of sharing work across provincial and national boundaries. It is also common to find artist collectives that move spaces as provided, such as The Upstairs Apartment Gallery in Halifax, who began by conducting exhibitions in a bachelor apartment. With the sale of their regular building, the collective no longer has a fixed location, and moves to whatever location is offered by volunteers.
As mighty as it is, the future of this town is small critically depends on its ability to work with “boots” and “cape,” business and community. A permanent location would allow the collective to stabilize their operations, to provide support to its local community through promotion and education. However, its eventual form rests inextricably with that same local community. This has been the case with every artistic endeavour throughout the history of grassroots initiatives, because really, every town is small.
Mireille Eagan is a freelance curator and writer based in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
For more information on This Town is Small, please visit thistownissmall.wordpress.com
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