Laura Aldridge: Glasgow-based artist, Transmission committee, 2006-08
Kathryn Elkin: artist and organiser, Moot Points: Exercises in Self Organisation, Discourse and Collaboration
Rocca Gutteridge: Edinburgh-based artist, co-founder ten til ten
Lindsey Hanlon: co-founder ten til ten, Glasgow
Conal McStravick: artist and Transmission committee member, 2008-current
Louise Shelley: programme assistant, CCA, Glasgow
MAP : What is the function of the ‘independent organisation’, the ‘not-for-profit’, and the ‘artist-run’ space? What are the priorities of these spaces: their structures and relationship to their audiences? How do audiences relate to these spaces, and are there crossovers to be found?
Rocca Gutteridge : I’m interested in what artists involved in an artist-run space might receive from the experience. I wonder whether the artist just becomes a curator, or is there a way to improve her or his art practice while also being an organiser of an artist-run space.
Laura Aldridge : You might be running a space, putting on shows, being a curator, but you are not in it for these things alone. Few Transmission committee members emerge from that experience to become curators, and the organisers of an artist-run space have a different agenda or motivations to that of a curator. That isn’t to say you can’t call yourself a curator, but it is nonetheless a different thing. It’s not just about your own authorship; it’s about the artist and presenting his or her work in the best way possible.
Conal McStravick : While one gallery may have 20-30 members and its range and purpose are different to one that has several hundred more, it’s fair to say there are common agendas in artist-run activities. As an artist there’s an uncertainty when adopting the role of gallery organiser in relation to your own practice—how one might affect the other. How much of your practice do you take with you when you perform that organising task? It’s a situation which enriches your knowledge and, inevitably, is in your own interest. You often discover unexpected areas of knowledge from those you work with, although that doesn’t necessarily make your practice any better. Undoubtedly your awareness as an artist is enriched by working for an artist-run space and it should consequently be focused on those other artists working with you and the artists that you are serving.
Lindsey Hanlon: It’s interesting what you’re saying. Its socio—I hesitate to use the word—political, this notion of serving a public. As an artist you have most likely come from an art school, immediately inheriting a social context. This can have the potential to affect a type of heterogeneity on exhibition systems. Dialogue between participants and public can be enriched from having varied experiences and backgrounds involved. I don’t like the word but ‘facilitator’ is the role we’re describing—where you don’t have to be a curator to influence exhibition programming. Instead, you can be someone who connects different aspects of a city, different people working in that city from different walks of life—you can be an enzyme in that process. You can make things happen without necessitating a curatorial vision.
CM : You don’t have to change the situation, it deserves to change you by informing you of the richness or diversity of what exists around you.
RG : With ten til ten, we often form a close dialogue with the artists we’re working with. I wonder what kind of connection I would have with them if I wasn’t an artist, since it’s undoubtedly beneficial working with someone who has been through a similar experience of creating work.
CM : But there is a problem with the artist/curator opposition. It is a common assumption that artists are insecure about the growing authority of curation. And obviously there is a growth in curating as a profession.
Kathryn Elkin : It’s not as binary as people often think. There’s a range of expanded art practices that involve organisational elements and collaborative forms of working between artists. It’s not that you end up being a curator because you aren’t talented enough to be an artist, but there are lots of negative inherited ideas about roles within creative production.
LA : That term is bandied about too often. Why can’t you just say you’re a facilitator, someone who makes things happen? Why are people so keen to call themselves curators?
CM : The distinction between an artist who runs an organisation and a curator is not just professional but it’s about context as well.
LH : You also have to consider the curatorial programmes that now exist. What does it mean to have a Royal College of Art graduate in the role of professional curator, as opposed to someone who has worked and learned on the job? What can we learn from courses like that? What does that contribute to someone involved in an artist-run space? Does curating then become like an art practice?
CM : Traditionally people come to Glasgow to be artists; they don’t necessarily come to learn how to be other types of art professionals. The distinction I’m making is not about the professionalisation of curating; it’s acknowledging the well-explored history of those artists coming to Glasgow to engage in artistic activity, why artists didn’t and continue not to want to be curators.
MAP : Do you think that the idea of the artist-run space, especially in Scotland, has developed because of the lack of that sort of curatorial input or the lack of an institutional input?
Louise Shelley: Quite possibly, but also I think it comes from the art school, which creates a strong social and collaborative environment for art students, with the legacy of lot of DIY, grass-roots activity in the city in both art and music, which leads to a lot of self-initiated projects and spaces.
LA : There is certainly a lack of curatorial discourse in Scotland.
CM : But there is primarily a social framework for artistic production here, rather than an expressly critical one which of course has its strengths and pitfalls.
LH : The lack of a curatorial model led the way in Scotland for commercial galleries, like Mary Mary and Sorcha Dallas, which didn’t start out as commercial entities. The Modern Institute started as a not-for-profit project that turned into a business. Individuals with a certain type of creative vision saw the opportunity to turn their situation into a business model. They’ve all created strong identities as galleries, but the landscape in Scotland has also given rise to that type of opportunity.
CM : There’s this idea that you can come to Glasgow, go to art school, and set up your own exhibition. I wouldn’t call it a cliché, but there is an expectation that this is something you just ‘do’. It does question what is achieved critically or in terms of someone’s artistic development other than installing someone’s work and buying a few beers in Lidl. Is this about the art or is it about having a part in that kind of activity as a kind of commodification of form. Yes, this is a climate to which people are attracted, but it’s strange to see the development of a culture that is increasingly business-orientated and commercial.
MAP : The abundance of artist-run spaces and artist organisations in Glasgow creates a ‘comfort zone’ where production is made possible. It’s a situation of peer pressure where artists relate to artists. But this context is complicated when it comes to the commercial aspect of art. How does an artist-run organisation manage the selling of art, and is the art fair an inherently compromised site for artist-run organisations as a viable space to present work?
LA : It’s about choice. Transmission, for instance, is able to say to the Scottish Arts Council, ‘We don’t think we should be doing art fairs’, after the previous committee might have. It’s not an issue; each committee has a choice because the funding is already there. There is no pressure. Artist-run, not for profit spaces in London, for example, often don’t have that choice. That’s not to say the situation won’t change here.
KE : It’s also a question of what might happen with the introduction of Creative Scotland, which would be run as a profit-making organisation. Looking at documents released so far, it seems likely Creative Scotland would expect or encourage organisations to make money. What Transmission currently does is something much more aspirational. It’s not about ‘trying out’ artists for the benefit of the commercial art world. Transmission’s primary audience is artists. It is able to show different work, sometimes work that would never sell. But that’s the point.
LH : In the current financial climate the importance of organisations like that can transcend the economic crisis and financial markets collapsing. If you are in a commercial sector its much more difficult these days. But if you are in artist-run space that is used to doing things with no real money then it maybe doesn’t affect you as much. You’re not necessarily trying to make money out of selling your work. It’s not a market-led force. It’s a creative force and a creative vision.
MAP : Does the promotion of emerging artists within the commercial sector have a competitive element, particularly with artists emerging in an artist-led sector?
KE : In Glasgow, there is a current miscomprehension about the potential commercial representation. You can see this ambition now in recent graduates. To those looking in from outside, they perhaps don’t understand how things are funded or how they run, and so yes, it looks like there are a significant number of commercial galleries but the amount of artists that are represented is tiny and it doesn’t mean that they are necessarily being adequately supported.
CM : It’s interesting to return to ‘not-for-profit’. To say, for example, ‘Why shouldn’t not-for-profit organisations go to an art fair?’, I think necessitates a qualification of what kind of activity takes place there. For me, it’s primarily the display of artworks to the general public, some of whom might be shopping for certain kinds of art. Fundamentally, it’s not representing the range or depth of art that exists in galleries for instance; but given the general dissemination of ideas and work in the various forms that art fairs now take, I accept that it can be an opportunity for people to enter in at a different level.
LS : Artist-run spaces should be able to focus on discourse and exchange rather than presentation, I would also hope that they address contemporary conditions; the art fair, and the rise of the art market are major examples within this.
LA : When Transmission went to the big art fairs it was an amazing opportunity for those artists who weren’t represented by a gallery. You have to think beyond Glasgow. A group of artists got taken to the Armory—that’s a big deal. Work was sold and some were then offered representation. Transmission shouldn’t necessarily do art fairs but I see what that can do for people.
CM : But it shouldn’t be the primary means of making contact with other galleries, organisations or artists and pursuing other forms of exchange.
LA : And that’s why it becomes an issue because it saps everyone’s time and energy, resulting in less of a focus on what happens in the gallery. Two years after Transmission did art fairs it was still dealing with follow-up sales, but often there aren’t the resources to do that in an artist-run organisation, particularly one led by rotating committee.
LH : Professionalisation can be problematic. You may be helping artists (and the organisation as a whole), but there is a vulnerability that comes with being led by economic motivations, rather than artistic ones.
KE : Commercial representation may seem like the right way to go; there are types of art that lend themselves to that relationship more easily. On the other hand there are artists who make work that is slippery and is less commercially viable. The idea that selling is the goal is depressing, where everybody is striving for commercial success, that everybody wants to be complicit with one means of going about things. You relinquish a lot of control whenever you become involved with these organisations.
RG : So what other structures can you use apart from public funding?
KE : It’s difficult isn’t it, because with public funding there is another set of requirements and of course this affects things. You are pitching ideas about things that don’t yet exist to these bodies and obviously this influences the work that you do. It’s difficult. There is no simple solution.
RG : But maybe there is. Maybe by holding this type of discussion we’re able to lead towards a solution. Maybe that’s what the Scottish Arts Council needs to look at.
LA : But I think the Scottish Arts Council do support artists that aren’t represented, but I don’t see that as a problem. What you were saying about people swooping in and taking artists—it cuts both ways. The money that a commercial gallery feeds into museums and organisations accounts for a significant part.
LH : Having a business is a massive risk as well. Commercial galleries in Glasgow have placed the city on the map in the art world. It brings huge visibility to a city which is not a capital; it’s a post-industrial city which otherwise might be overlooked.
CM : If galleries and artist-run spaces are operating on different economic grounds (with different ethics and objects for the purposes of the people who represent those organisations), then what should the relationship between them be? If you go to an art fair, you know that the bigger galleries are comfortably walking away with millions. You are just there because you feel that you have something to represent, which is more of an artistic or ethical kind of issue or framework.
KE : What we’re coming round to is the idea that everything is codependent. Commercial galleries do things that an artist-run organisation can’t or shouldn’t, and it would be quite boring for artist-run space to have the sort of professionalism of a commercial gallery.
RG : Speaking as someone from an artist community in Edinburgh, I would say there are probably only three artist-run spaces that are fully functional in the city now. The leap between leaving art college and surviving as a professional artist is, I believe, made harder in a city that has less artist-run spaces as opposed to the network currently in place in a city such as Glasgow.
MAP : How do you personally position yourselves as artists within that situation and how is that practice moulded by that infrastructure?
LA : I only know to position myself as an artist. I think that Glasgow is quite amazing. Give or take a few people, the art community is very generous and open, and it’s possible to become part of that community and to have an impact, to effect change, which is an exciting situation to enter into. It’s odd that people think representation by a gallery will solve all problems—that an artist who is represented doesn’t have the same difficulties when making work. It’s not true. Representation doesn’t mean you’re going to have more shows. People are a bit unrealistic. What concerns my work as an artist is what I’m doing. It’s about being, meeting and working with people, not necessarily only about making money. I did things like Transmission because it nourishes what I am doing and it’s very social.
MAP : Thinking about how things have changed in the past 15 to 20 years, art schools have seen the development of artist spaces. But art schools are gradually becoming more of a commercial venture in themselves. What happens then when the environment in which education is happening becomes a commercial venture, whereby education is positioned as a commodity?
LH : That is already prevalent in other institutions like universities.
LA : The reason I came here was because I felt the commercial art world didn’t encroach on studying, it didn’t encroach on going to art school. When I went to CalArts, they tried to keep it out but some people thought that success on the course was measured by whether or not you got picked up by a gallery. But that thinking should be kept out of art schools while you develop your ideas and thinking.
KE : Looking back, I had this aspirational and hopeful idea of what art school should be. The reality was more complicated. It’s more difficult now to sustain yourself than it was ten years ago. It’s not like you can just coast along developing your own practice. We all have about six different jobs, people have more debts than they did ten years ago. It will be interesting to see which artists emerge out of this generation and how the current context will affect peoples’ practices.
LH : The idea of commercialisation also includes the encouragement of international students, which brings in higher fees to allow for the purchase of more materials and computers.
RG : At Edinburgh College of Art I found that there was a lack of professional development. In my practice I enjoy doing commissions, studio-based work, as well as facilitating events. But I came out with no skills at all on how to promote myself or win commissions. I think the art school should show artists how to be business-minded and students can reject that if they want but I think it’s a tool that artists need.
CM : Until they leave, a lot of students joke that they would rather be told about working tax credit forms. I don’t know how business-minded you can be when you are doing a course which is primarily about developing your artistic skills.
KE : The student’s Professional Development Conference we did at GSA just seemed to go on forever. They were so keen to get you to be savvy about applying for money or speaking about your practice that it felt like you were attending these sorts of events at the expense of a significant amount of studio time.
CM : It felt like an endless damage-limiting exercise on the part of the institution to the effect of ‘So long as we’ve told you then our conscience is clear’, and ‘Oh by the way—it’s shit out there’.
LS : The increasing professional development focus on fine art courses possibly encourages selfish behaviour and position artists in competition with each other, promoting careerism that can work against collective processes and exchange.
RG : It’s different between the cities Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and Edinburgh in terms of what’s going on with artist-run spaces. What you’ve got in Glasgow isn’t comparable to these other Scottish cities. In Aberdeen they have Project Slogan and that’s about it.
CM : As an individual you try to be self-sufficient because you regularly have to work like that. You can’t assume there will be any assistance; you just assume that if there is that’s great. If there isn’t, you just get on with the work anyway. It’s a ‘last man standing’ situation really, isn’t it. If you want to do it then you just do it.
KE : I’m concerned that artist-run spaces will have to be commercially viable to support their programmes. I’m not wholly against selling work but I worry that it becomes the alternative to significant and appropriate public funding. If Creative Scotland goes ahead and the Scottish Parliament pass this bill I would be deeply concerned that it’s going to affect individuals and organisations who should be in receipt of money and who have been well supported until now. It’s a comparative thing as well. Artists in Scotland have been generally accustomed to successfully finding public funding for the development of their work or for specific and interesting projects. It’s not impossible; it’s not like London. You have an expectation of funding that people don’t have of Arts Council England. Admittedly this is a lot to do with Scotland’s size. You often know who the SAC visual arts officers are, or they might get to know you if you’ve put in a couple of applications.
CM : But perhaps there is complacency in this. As you were saying about commercial spaces it’s assumed that some of them will struggle now, and so it’s not to be assumed that artist-run spaces are automatically feeding or obligating artists for commercial spaces. If it was assumed up until now, well, what’s going to happen in the next five years? A few commercial galleries are funded. But because there are only a few commercially-run galleries and modestly-funded artist-run spaces in Glasgow, it seems a little rash that the SAC might be able to say ‘Oh great! Why don’t we dissolve ourselves into this hard-to-regulate, inefficient body that does whatever it wants based on a flimsy financial model.’
LH : That is an interesting point in terms of how commercial galleries are generally considered to be private enterprises, but actually I think artist-run spaces can often be more private. They have got a very specific audience that is peer-led and can be very close knit. That can be a dangerous element to the development of an artist-run space, one which the commercial gallery is forced to overcome by it’s inherent need to reach out to a wider audience for visibility.
CM : I disagree. Commercial galleries can be honed down to an individual’s taste and both should be fundamentally different; one is more concerned with the production and another with the sale of artworks.
KE : If you receive public money you position yourself within the public sector.
LH : I don’t think public funding can be seen as some kind of healing balm that makes a difference to underprivileged areas. That is a supposition and an inaccurate one. But I do feel receiving public money (and, with it, the support of the public) does incur a certain responsibility to deliver something, whether linked to an artist-led publiclyfunded space or not.
CM : The money is quite insignificant in comparison to how public money is spent generally. I think one huge factor is we’re not accounting for its reliance on voluntary labour.
KE : You can be too grateful and you can be too scared to spend public funding. Risk-taking is a primary function of artist-run spaces. Of course there is going to be a massive amount of money going into something that may or may not go wrong. The whole point is that you operate outwith the market; artist-run spaces are not the drag behind it. And sometimes you need to make mistakes.
Roundtable was chaired by Steven Cairns and devised by Isla Leaver-Yap