This past July (2011), Common Practice commissioned a position paper, by Creative Industries consultant Sarah Thelwall, entitled “Size Matters: Notes Towards a Better Understanding of the Value, Operation, and Potential of Small Visual Arts Organisations.” Common Practice—whose members include Afterall, Chisenhale Gallery, Electra, Gasworks, LUX, Matt's Gallery, Mute Publishing, The Showroom, and Studio Voltaire—is an advocacy group working for the recognition and fostering of the small-scale contemporary visual arts sector in London. Everyone that works in a small nonprofit or artist-run organization or is just interested in non-profit sustainability should read this paper (accessible here). In it, Thelwall lays out how small-scale organizations contribute to the wider arts ecology, mostly by supporting artists at critical early stages in their projects and providing the space for research and development for projects that are then exhibited in larger institutions. Her argument is that smaller organizations need to articulate how the experimental work they commission and support then feeds into the exhibition programs of larger institutions, creating a system of deferred value. Small-scale visual arts organizations need to make the argument to their funders and to their audiences that they are a necessary site for experimentation, without which artists may never get the chance to create their mature bodies of work.
This argument is critical for small non-profits and artist-run spaces and projects everywhere and is one of the reasons threewalls is working on an upcoming conference called Hand-in-Glove. Designed for both the artists who participate in these spaces and the organizers, administrators, and curators who run them, Hand-in-Glove is for anyone and everyone who participates in artist-run culture in order to talk about its past and current manifestations and potential futures. Conversations will range from sustainability to funding to unconventional organizing models, as well as the kind of creative administrative strategies people are using to stay open.
Chicago is a particularly important place to have this discussion. We have an exciting and vibrant community of artist-run spaces, residencies, and publication outlets. But the transition from apartment gallery to sustainable venture is a big leap to take and comes with no clear road map. Understandably, many people don’t want to take that leap. In order for that informed decision to be made, however, the various models that support the art-world should be open for discussion. A healthy arts ecosystem depends on the energy of temporary projects that deliberately resist becoming permanent, the commitment and dedication of small non-profits, and openness and exchange with more traditional art institutions.
When I moved to Chicago six years ago, I was excited to learn that artists here were engaged in a rigorous discussion about how to make their career not solely about commercial success. Experimental initiatives like Mess Hall, Experimental Station, The Suburban, Dorchester Projects, Co-Prosperity Sphere, and threewalls were energizing communities of artists to start their own programs, and they inspired the project space, InCUBATE, which some partners and I ran out of a storefront from 2006–2009. Our project was to try and open up ways in which artists and administrators could together re-imagine the kind of art world we wanted to participate in and how that world would operate socially and economically. As artists and organizers, we could see that there wasn’t one clear career path that would lead to success or economic sustainability. Our efforts were dedicated to finding what many other emerging artists were also looking for: supporting ourselves and building a community that would push our own ideas and assumptions about contemporary art in new directions.
Oftentimes, it’s a make-do approach to keeping an artist space open or getting a publication printed. Support is usually a combination of personal donations, small amounts of grant money, the copy machine at work, and a Kickstarter campaign. At Hand-in-Glove, we want to network with each other for larger solutions, as well as discuss the ethics of starting small and keeping small, the compromises of becoming bigger, and the inventive problem solving that keeps independent culture alive and well. This is a creative conversation that should be collectively authored amongst artists and their support structures, taking into account the people and the economies that make things happen.
Hand-in-Glove brings together speakers from across the country who have started micro-granting initiatives, residency programs that are about learning to live off the grid, veterans of artist spaces, executive directors of venerable institutions, and amateurs. We will be hosting arts organizers from Minneapolis, Detroit, St. Louis, San Francisco, New Mexico, North Carolina, Philadelphia, Oregon, New York, and many other places. Martha Wilson (Franklin Furnace Archive), Mark Allen (Machine Project), Lane Relyea (writer), Renny Pritikin (founder of the National Association of Artists Organizations), Ted Purves (artist and MFA Program Chair at California College of the Arts), and keynote Nato Thompson, (curator at Creative Time and former Chicagoan) will give their take on artist-run organizing over the last 30 years and its future. We’ll also be releasing Phonebook 3, the third edition of our publication featuring more than 750 listings of artist-run spaces, event series, residency programs, and resources across the United States, as well as essays by the people who run them. Phonebook 3 will be released October 22 at threewalls at a special event hosted by Salon Saloon from Minneapolis, MN ("the Upper Middle West's #1 Live-Action Arts Magazine"), and available for sale thereafter.
The Hand-In-Glove Conference happened Oct. 20–23, 2011, at the Geolofts. It was organized by threewalls with the Alliance for Independent Arts Organizers (AIAO), in conjunction with the MDW Fair.
Written in Fall 2011.
Abigail Satinsky is the Program Director at threewalls in Chicago. She is a founding member of InCUBATE, a research group dedicated to exploring new approaches to arts administration and arts funding. The group operated out of a storefront space until 2009, where they hosted a residency program, Sunday Soup, and other public programs. They continue to write, curate exhibitions, and organize events collaboratively. Abigail is also a contributor to the Bad at Sports blog and occasional podcasts.