Postcard from...

Postcard from...Build Your Own Art World

On Friday 16 March 2018 OSR Projects in West Coker hosted a day of talks, conversations, provocations and communal meals, questioning the notion of artist-led projects as an alternative to global gallery systems. Louise Potzesny reports...


How to build your own art world is perhaps one of the most timely yet highly subjective questions to consider in the current contemporary art climate. At a time when artists are often undervalued and underpaid, and recent cuts to funding and hikes in rent are forcing the closure of artist-led galleries, studio spaces and creative projects across the country, this timely one-day seminar at OSR Projects in Somerset provided an interesting insight into how to resist and subvert current art world systems and find practical alternatives.

The day started with W139 co-founder Ad de Jong’s in-depth insights into running a contemporary art space while also balancing an artistic practice. Stemming from the desire to assert a degree of control over who was able to buy his artwork and the audiences that were able to experience it, W139 wanted to give something back to their home city of Amsterdam, and the artists, musicians, and squatters who lived there. Providing an alternative to the collections and exhibitions at Amsterdam’s museums and commercial art galleries, W139 put art and artists at the centre of everything, with a sense of urgency, innovation and risk. W139 adopted a revolving director approach, inviting local and international artists to contribute to the space, exhibition programme and wider community, while also extending the artists’ and gallery’s network. This multi-authored, collaborative model allowed W139’s audience to grow, while also supporting and enabling a new generations of artists to take risks and experiment. 

When building his own art world, de Jong ultimately favoured a more DIY approach, without feeling the need to professionalise or change W139’s ethos to match funders, Arts Councils or local authority’s ideas on what W139 should be. Although this model could be considered a luxury in today’s art world, what did prevail is de Jong’s enthusiasm and energy to subvert currently accepted art world practices, and find radical alternatives. Acknowledging that “even if you make your own art world you are still in the art world” de Jong’s resounding message was that we have an opportunity to make our own rules within the art world, not against it, enabling us to change it.

Second up was Sluice co-founder Karl England. Founded in 2011, Sluice consists of a collaboratively run platform for artist-run spaces, and assumes the form of exhibitions, talks, a not-for-profit Biennial, a roaming international expo, and a publication. Setting out to question and critique the model of the art fair, Sluice brings together smaller artist-run spaces providing the weight and backing to achieve something bigger and reach international audiences, while also providing a network and community to like-minded practitioners. This reinforces the idea that “artist run is not a path elsewhere; it is the destination” thus England reminds us that building your own art world provides the chance to forge your own way, interrogate hierarchical structures and invent radical self-sustaining models, although he himself admits “Sluice is not sustainable; I am not sustainable”.

 

The afternoon began with having to choose two out of three provocations in smaller groups. Opting to first attend a session from Plymouth-based collaboration LOW PROFILE, we interrogated what it means to be successful, and the importance of building a community around artist-run practices. This mirrors LOW PROFILE’s desire to make things happen for both themselves and other people around them; sharing opportunities, celebrating other people’s work and achievements, rather than being in competition. This expression of generosity, extended collaboration, and desire to be part of something larger while also setting your own aims and goals, is refreshing; as LOW PROFILE imparted the practical but sometimes difficult advice to remember: “never never never never never never never never never give up”.

The final discussion of the day was led by Nia Metcalfe​ and​ Becca Thomas of Spit & Sawdust, a multi-aspect venue comprising of artists’ studios, an indoor skate park, café and exhibition programme in Cardiff. The organisation stemmed from a desire to “create an arts practice you want to live” and has become an integral part of their individual artistic practice, as well as a way to engage with the local community.

Managing the space by committee, the not-for-profit social enterprise runs the in-house café to generate income which supports Spit & Sawdust’s artistic programme, and subsidises the artists’ studios and skate sessions, but more importantly promotes interaction with the local community and skaters. As artists running the café, they state, blurs the boundaries between artistic practice and café, and highlights the sharing culture surrounding food as a way to start conversations and create connections. In its different guises, Spit & Sawdust serves different communities and groups, while also being a self-sustaining art space, providing much needed studio space. By not relying on existing funding structures, Spit & Sawdust is able to change, challenge and adopt new models of what a contemporary artist run space could or should be and from where funding may be generated, all while connecting and working alongside the local community. 

Offering seminar attendees home-made Spit & Sawdust bread on our way out, presented food for thought: what is the future for artist-led projects and how can they challenge the art world systems already in place? Each of the day’s discussions emphasised the need to pay and value artists, and to a degree resist the need to professionalise or adapt in order to acquire funding. However, in today’s climate this is perhaps easier said than done. These alternative collective strategies imagine other ways in which art can be made, shared or encountered. Instead of providing concrete solutions and definitive answers, the Build Your Own Art World symposium provided subtle ideas, inclinations and gestures on how to subvert current models, and ways to operate within them whilst adopting a more collaborative, generous and inclusive practices, built on experimentation, risk-taking and collective action, encouraging us all to devise our own rules.

Louise Potzesny

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Visual Arts South West

Working towards a South West where talented artists thrive, and a resilient and connected visual arts ecology that inspires more engaged and diverse audiences to value and advocate for its work.

Part of the Contemporary Visual Arts Network

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