Artist-Run Centres: Sites of Political Tensions

Editorial by Anne Bertrand in l’arca in the loop—#19


In the previous edition of “l’arca in the loop,” I mentioned the fact that tension in board/staff relations is inherent to the political life of artist-run centres (ARC). At the risk of sounding moralistic, this tension, without being Manichean, begets risk and opportunity. In other words, governance is not a science. It’s a dance among the kinds of persons who gravitate to ARCs for a variety of personal and professional interests, but who must ultimately act in the organization’s best interests and within the framework of bylaws and internal governance practices, as well as federal and provincial not-for-profit legislation. The relationship between board and staff is often cited as a place where roles and responsibilities may be ambiguous. Or maybe these roles are simply not communicated clearly to new, sometimes inexperienced board members, leaders in their own right who join with their own visions and questions (and frustrations): questions that emerge with each new generation that moves through the organization. Art professionals will usually identify with artist-run centres on the basis of their programming and location. Situations may arise in cities where there is only one artist-run centre.

Internal struggles are not new to ARCs; indeed, ARCs are surprisingly resilient in the face of change because they constitute a structural (non-creative) layer that operates within a legal framework (not-for-profit legislation), is validated by peers and governed by members with different levels of experience, who value, but also like to explore, the limits of trust and participatory decision-making processes. ARCs, individually and as a national-level infrastructure, are in fact a most desirable instrument for artistic validation, which paves the way to public funding and the market—perhaps the single greatest opportunity they offer.

In the ongoing situation at Open Space, in particular, some members voiced concern, in early May, that recent HR decisions were made by an interim board—a board that had not been elected by an assembly of members. As I mentioned in my previous editorial, imperfect as it is, democracy remains our best hope. The system works and can withstand disruptions, as proven countless times in the history of ARCs, where power struggles are legion. With social media, these conflicts get broad visibility, in this case, galvanizing positions over perceived and real systemic injustices perpetuated by the art world, including artist-run centres.

ARCA does not get involved in individual cases. ARCA is a federated structure that defers to each member artist-run association to help it fulfill its mandate by various means, including research, networking, communication, and advocacy in the interest of all artist-run centres and their workers. In its former funding model, the Canada Council for the Arts had a program called the Flying Squad, which provided resources to help organizations sort things out internally and confidentially. The interim board of directors at Open Space has made great efforts to communicate its various actions and just recently announced an upcoming facilitated community forum. So, their recent decisions may not be consensual in the community, but their charismatic leadership has mobilized a committed group of people that seems ready to carry on the work of previous administrations, within the structure that the new group at once uses and challenges.

Today’s artist-run centres must fulfill many legal and administrative requirements while also living up to high community expectations, and, as recently observed, heeding the demands of peer organizations! You will recall the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective’s recent boycott of Open Space’s call for proposals and accompanying list of demands. This may be a one-off case rather than a new pattern, but it does speak to the extent and depth of the shared feeling of under-representation experienced by artists from the IBPOC communities. Making it public, however, has also led to the Canada Council for the Arts putting the organization on ‘concerned status’ without any input from a jury of peers, which may be without precedent.

The artist-run or artist-centred field is a resilient system—a human construction that can adapt like nobody’s business, internalizing its environment over time. How many times have artist-run centres been taken to task for their inadequacies, with little recognition of their unique contribution? And, how will culture at Open Space be produced differently under the new leadership?

Erratum: in the first version of this post, ARCA alleged decisions made by the new board were not legitimate in a strictly legal sense. This information was not accurate and has since been removed.