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Column – ‘Articulating Value’, Visual Artists’ News Sheet, September/October 2015

September 1, 2015

Joanne Laws
Articulating Value

Last year I was commissioned to write a report for 126 Artist-Run Gallery. ‘FOOTFALL: Articulating the value of artist-led organisations in Ireland’ collates a timely and ambitious body of research, initiated by 126 in response to a funding crisis the previous year which almost resulted in its closure (1).

FOOTFALL primarily provides much-needed quantitative and qualitative data on the ideologies; funding structures; programmes and audiences of diverse artist-led organisations in Ireland. With this research, we now have a clearer idea of why these organisations are established; their perceived strengths and who benefits from their activities. Secondly, the report gathers together relevant Irish and international research and discourse on issues across the arts and humanities, such as artistic labour and measuring non-economic value. Research in the Irish context on artist-led practice has been relatively sparse, however recent activity, such as a forthcoming EU funded publication on artist-led spaces and the reactivation of the Artist-led Archive (2) suggests a positive momentum.

Thirdly, and most striking for me, is the fact that the report highlights the interconnected nature of artist-led organisations with wider arts ecologies. Rather than utopian, counter-cultural projects, most artist-led spaces forge intrinsic links with their surrounding communities, as well as the regional, national and international arts scene. In this regard, they make valuable contributions and develop important groundwork, from which larger organisations and biennials frequently benefit.

Just as artist-led organisations are not isolated from the rest of the art world, neither are they shielded from the bureaucracy that vexes it, evident in the increasingly administrative nature of work cited by survey respondents volunteering in these organisations. With the recession, the time and effort devoted to grant-writing and funding applications appears to be increasing, in order to access the supports to ‘make art happen’. Concurrently, the main additional form of income cited by organisations is generated through studio rental and venue hire. Within 80% of the organisations surveyed, no one gets paid. However 60% indicated that they try to pay a fee to exhibiting artists. The multi-faceted and diverse nature of the labour occurring in these organisations – from curatorial research and technician work, to book-keeping and web design – is of particular interest, and there is certainly scope for further research on the contribution that artistic labour makes to the rise of the ‘polymath’ in the modern labour landscape.

 

Despite the research indicating that volunteers can benefit from working in artist-led spaces, it is my personal view that there should be more paid labour taking place in these organisations. However it would be up to organisations to mediate how this might work for them, perhaps avoiding divisive hierarchies by paying volunteers on an alternating, project basis for particular roles. The jaded expectation that we should work for free in the arts, has been suitably agitated during the economic recession, producing a palpable and useful anger within the sector.

 

With a gaping hole where Ireland’s National Cultural Policy should be, now might arguably be the ideal time to generate and gather as much relevant data as possible, in advance of the proposed phase of public consultation on Culture 2025. While influencing future policy-formation was never the main goal, the research process has illuminated the role that lobbying can play, in gaining recognition for a sector. In this regard, consensus at the FOOTFALL symposium suggested  that a group formation for the artist sector would be too cumbersome and might compromise the diversity of individual models, while an over-arching ‘strategy’ seemed  a more viable option.

 

Post-FOOTFALL, 126 Artist-Run Gallery have embarked on Primary Resource, a year-long, curatorial project which furthers the working relationships developed with peer organisations during the course of the research, while returning the gallery’s focus back to practice-based exhibition-making (3). Catalyst Arts and Basic Space have already developed exhibitions and members’ shows in 126 in response to the findings of FOOTFALL.

Prior to FOOTFALL, 126 gallery successfully developed other research projects, such as Tracing Artists (4), and publications, such as the current 126 Quarterly Magazine series, marking the gallery’s 10 year anniversary. With the recent appointment of several PhD candidates to the 126 Board, it seems fitting to suggest that ongoing publishing and research activities might remain a worthwhile future trajectory for the gallery.

Joanne Laws is an arts writer based in Leitrim. She has previously written for publications such as: Art Monthly (UK), Art Papers (US), Cabinet (US) and Frieze (UK).                  

Note

  1. The FOOTFALL report is available as a free downloadable PDF on the 126 website. To purchase a hard copy, contact 126 Artist-Run Gallery at contact@126.ie

  2. Initially devised and compiled by Megs Morley in 2006, the Artist-led Archive is a valuable database housed in NIVAL, which is currently on display as part of the More Than one Makerexhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art(4th June- 12 July 2015). The archive is seeking the submission of new material from artist led organisations across Ireland.
    3.  The title ‘Primary Resource’ emerged during one of the research interviews, where ‘Using oneself as primary resource’ was raised as an important factor in the ‘high level of burn-out and fluctuating levels of enthusiasm within the sector’.
    4.‘Tracing Artists’ is an ongoing research project initiated by 126, which aims to reconnect with artists and organisations who have worked with the gallery since it was established in 2005.
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