Common Value-based Art Organisations

 

0 | Intents, Methodology, Limitations

With this project, I am attempting to lay a blueprint for further research on the dimension of small-based art organisations dedicated to contemporary visual culture through the lens of their structural criticalities and along a red thread of their role in the circuit of creation of common cultural value.

Over the quite long time I have been interested in the subject, I have realized that the reason of such attraction resides not only in the nature of these organizations, which is already quite complex to grasp, but also in the kind of research they require, which cannot follow structures that I had ever implemented in my past researches.

The first publication I encountered by Gregory Sholette[2], “Dark Matter: Activist Art and the Counter-Public Sphere”[3], shed light on a non-defining definition of this universe that I still find relevant.
The term “dark matter” in its astronomical use works as a perfect analogy to understand what the objects of the observation are: it is an unmeasured and generally undefined dimension whose range is much larger in volume and complexity compared to the positive “matter”. This is what, in fact, is positively taken into account when conducting any scientific research on space visible mass, while it has been discovered to be a minimum percentage of the whole matter created since the formation of our familiar universe. The “dark matter” owns no proper definition, resigning to be all that is “other” than the visible and somehow categorisable.

This reverse definition applies well to the art system of the last few decades: to define the institutional, we are provided with flexible lexicon and frameworks that allow us to reach a quite explanatory understanding. For SBAO, there is not much a possibility to build boundaries in positive terms as much as to envision a spectrum that begins with a more or less established border and flows into an undefined dimension of informally organized creative practices.

This spectrum can be imagined as ranging from the more formalized organizational structure that resembles no profit institutions to the other end including spontaneous practitioners, with little to no organization and any continuity plan.

The general understanding of the art system leans towards a selection of institutions and professions that have historically defined themselves through a mechanism of self-validation and interdependence; it has led to a correspondent evolution of the market and of its financial meaning that has set on-going standards of value as well as of artists’ careers. Where does this narrative accommodate SBAO? The task of mapping them is therefore not only a possibly never resolving objective but it requires special care in not falling for homogenous definitions.

The read thread that will hopefully be highlighted through the different approaches engaged by these small visual art organisations in their practice and their problem-solving will be how these manage to generate cultural common value in alternative modalities to what the formal art world manages to accomplish. Engaging in new ways of working, weaving nourishing relationships with the community and their networks, articulating forms of resistance to established mechanisms, they act as cultural agents within their being part of a public sphere, of the art system and of a community.
The creation of cultural value calls into question critical discussions regarding the public funding these organisations receive, their way of becoming sustainable within a mixed scheme of public support and a liberal economy.

The typology of research is very much a structural aspect of the project and it has also shown to be seminal in approaching the nature of these organisations.

I came once more back to this topic, grounded on past researches on the complexity of this scenery, but still relying on macro-groups and commonalities more than diversity and keen on distinguishing common narratives as responses to problems of sustainability.
My, yet flexible, categories were no longer descriptive and were probably also part of the problem in their definition and in the way the public sphere envisions SBAO.

The first aspect, which appears basic, is their definition of “small-based” – term that is generally utilised: these organisations can often be based in large venues, have 15 employees and can also have an extensive network. While a relative smallness can be often one of their traits, especially if connected to their way of working, to their way of existing and engaging with artists and public, it should not be taken as their main describing feature. A proposition that seems coherent with the red thread of the common value produced by these organisations, which manifests through the approaches to the critical aspects, is the name “common value-based art organisations”, enclosing a common and yet not defining description. Size is an important variable, but thinking of the often participatory practices and networks these groups build, then size becomes increasingly relative.

One more relevant research focus is the attempt to merge a cultural and a management-based language into a common and integrated lexicon, as it already happens in successful groups, but which still seems to suffer a separatist approach. The use of a range of registers is a precious resource to engage with diverse groups, but its experimentation holds great power in mechanisms of change: at a certain stage the pairing might turn into a transformative new lexicon.

Furthermore, I faced the necessity of proceeding from a more empirical approach and build up to references in theory, growing from the case to the general, and not the contrary. A benchmarking research, which becomes useful when it comes to cluster observations on financing and sustainability[4], cannot be the modality of looking at these organisations.

This is the reason of the layout of the chapters: each will treat a particular critical aspect of the life of small-based organisations, such as size, glocality, ways of working, relations, sustainability and each starting with looking at this particular aspect within a case study that flows into a theorical discourse.
The reasoning behind the pairing deals with interesting modalities of an organisation in dealing with the thematic: I have tried to read their approach as representative practice, within their context, for then reflecting on the more general instance. The selection has no intention of exclusion but responds only to research needs.

It has become evident that every dimension is descriptive of the next and that each cannot be isolated in order to be understood. Each chapter acts as a solo essay to be left open and integrated and it is gradually built from the specific to the general, possibly without solution of continuity, in order to express how such concerns are overall present in the panorama and within every organisation.

I had to set boundaries of observation on organisations that include more than one participant, which have a tangible interest in continuity, which entertain any form of relationship with other parties and with an intended mission in their practice.
A further disclaimer concerns the fact that all of the case studies are based in Western countries (specifically Berlin, Milan, NY), and many in London: I found important for the research to have a look as close to every reality as possible and I chose organisations I have or could be now in touch with.
As far as resources, the formal art world surrounding institutions has been overly documented since its very birth, while material on this dimension is necessarily fragmented and only quite recently brought together by groups of organizations in attempt to advocate their positions and looking for ay to disentangle their alternative economies in a system of values and organizational practices that are too tight for many of them.
I have drawn from essays, interviews, podcasts of conferences and talks, from political active authors involved in contemporary art, academics involved in organisations, from conversations and personal observations during these years. Starting from more informal sources that come from within, I proceeded to more formal and theorical ones, questioning every step of generalisation.

Click on the image below to surf the map of the content of this research.

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1 | SIZE

Studio Voltaire logo

When one says “small”
Value and importance of size
Concept of growth
Measuring
Measuring value
Relations to ways of working
Importance of size in applying to public funding

Studio Voltaire was founded in 1994 by a collective of twelve artists and found its home in Clapham.
Studio Voltaire promotes emerging and “underrepresented” artists (young practitioners and experienced artists missing representation) in the format of solo-shows, often paired to a residency sponsored by the Studio.
Studio Voltaire hosts 45 artists at a time, in an international scope and with a dedication to two groups for supporting artists with learning difficulties – Actionspace and Intoart.

Since 2002, Studio Voltaire has been running wide reaching education projects that relate with the exhibitions, their production and contributing audience – for example, series of readings and research groups analysing one of exhibited artists from different angles.
Studio Voltaire has the classic format of a small charity: it offers different levels of participation, from patrons to friends, offering a scheme for corporate benefactors.
One particular source of income is House of Voltaire, an online bookshop showcasing works by artists and designers in support of the Studio’s programmes and whose proceeds directly support it.

From the most recent data available (2014/2015), Studio Voltaire has a current annual budget of £375,000[5]. The organisation works on a system of a board of trustees and a development committee, including personalities from commercial institutions, PR agencies and publishing.

Until 5 years ago, Studio Voltaire held a so-called flat management structure, without hierarchical roles but somehow eluded the necessity of a decision making process that would act promptly to external inputs and on a long term strategy.

The current staff is articulated among the participation programme, with managing members, and a small hierarchical structure, director-assistant for the gallery, half working part-time and half full-time. Dedicated positions to development and to the participation programme have been only recently installed.

As Joe Scotland, current director, discusses in a conversation with Andrea Phillips[6], being Studio Voltaire born as an artist-led project, the transition has been organic, as it happened along with a process of professionalisation that needed to reach the shared ambitions, but it also had to be rightly absorbed by members who intended to keep the original informal structure.
The more formal structure always has to be placed within its small dimension: a regular dialogue, says, Scotland, is constantly open with everyone and this is one of the characteristics fundamentally related to an appropriate scale.

While a continuous tension towards development is sensible at Studio Voltaire (only considering being host of 45 artists at the present time), a larger basin of collaborators is not a wishful perspective, as it would not be “appropriate”[7].
The staff size is partly descriptive of the size of an institution but it can be expressive in terms of its overall policy.

A “small size”, then, is more an approach than a number: a contained number of staff allows a much less structured internal organization, it allows quicker changes for more flexibility and adaptability to occurrences, a quicker horizontal and integrated conversation, human approaches over the structural, multi tasking and learning multiple skills in an integrated process. It also sets borders in terms of the engaged projects and their nature, of the kind of relationships with artists, patrons and community.
A small sized organisation relates to a way of existing within the visual cultures world. Sholette calls this condition a form of “invisibility”: it is for him not a mere consequential affliction, but a condition, which means limitation (in operating, finding resources, the contact with broader public) but also a modus operandi of groups that have sought space to experiment and to lead practices often refused by the academics. As blurred as the boundaries between imposition and necessity are, it is interesting to explore the forces that contribute to this apparently required status.

Studio Voltaire has expanded its residencies, education programs and its fundraising scheme; it greatly multiplied its turnover[8] and opened a supporting online platform of small sales, House of Voltaire. Such growth has a few of the classic characteristics of a business expansion, but, looking closely, its motives are more articulated: as stated by Scotland, Studio Voltaire initially survived on studio rents and was lacking of stable alternative fundraising until 2005. A more professionalized fundraising strategy, towards public and private sources and mainly curated by Scotland, and the the online shop allowed to stream new funds towards the enlargement of the studios, of the space dedicated to education, to less outsourcing of exhibitions.

A new concept of size defines this new conception of growth.

In his paper “In Praise of Small” David Joselit draws from the dramatic yet brilliant expression “too big to fail[9], regarding public funding in relation to the size of cultural organisations. Discussing the scenery of New York, he says: “Here then are the official assumptions with regard to the question of scale and the public good: BIG (capitalisation of finance or audience) = PUBLIC. SMALL (capitalisation of finance or audience) = ELITIST. But in fact this equation inverts the actual situation. It is the “public” (too big to fail) that disproportionately benefits elites, whereas it is the “elitist” (too small to survive) that serves communities in ways that other, larger organisations cannot” [10]. He follows with a “seven point litany” brilliantly explaining why such organisations act as propositions of “germinal force” to front many issues of social inclusion, gentrification and conception of labour, information.

If size is a critical and composed issue, then its appropriate measuring is as crucial. The question of measuring the performances of SBAO is a key, as well but partially laid out by Thelwall.[11]

It is relevant to mention some of the practices currently applied by the Art Council when it comes to setting the measuring parameters for cultural organisations: Culture Counts, by the Department for Culture and the Arts and Paper Developing Participatory Metrics, by the Art Council, which claims to establish a method to “[…] measuring the quality of their work using a standardised set of metrics that they themselves have shaped.”

Furthermore, ACE is now funding a Quality Metrics trial for 150 National Portfolio organisations and it seems to be an attempt to become a much larger system of managing the whole UK cultural sector.

While such attempt might report partial realities within large and structured organisations, we wonder if such metrics can be in anyway useful to value small visual arts organisations. Firstly, one could wonder if any SBAO were involved, as there is not mention of any among the promoters.

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Table reporting the dimensions explored in the Quality Metris National Report Report 2016

Necessarily sidestepping many other critical aspects, we are interested in this “measuring” cultural value through concepts of size (of audiences, of percentage) that could be dangerously damaging for the whole cultural sphere.[12]

Further research will be keen on answering questions on the relation size/public funding, how they do benefit from such status and how they are disadvantaged.


2 | COMMUNITY 

Chisenhale logo
Community beyond the definition of public
Spectatorship models
Addition to conception of value
Balance between art focused and community focused: a spectrum
Social use of art: Anthropological approach
Public interest and common value

Artists founded Chisenhale Gallery in the early 1980s in a former veneer factory and brewery on Chisenhale Road. Chisenhale is today a registered as a charity and is listed among the Art’s Council England’s national Portfolio Organisations.

The gallery focuses on the production and presentation of new forms of artistic activity and engages local and international audiences, with the aim to enable emerging or under-represented artists to make significant steps and pursue important new directions in their practice. The gallery produces up to five exhibitions and intermittent events a year.

Chisenhale Gallery operates as an exhibition hall, production agency, research centre and community resource: the education programs shape the whole plan of audience development and long time planning.

Programmes as 21st Century – a series of events for artists and academics to articulate their practices and share them with new audiences, off and online, and Offsite – commissions, collaborations, residencies and touring programs outside of the gallery space, developing the engagement with specific cultural contexts, build a unique character of the gallery.

The gallery has built a scheme of collaboration with local schools over the years. Stop Play Record is a three-year initiative (2015-18) for young people aged 16-24, who live in London and are interested in experimental short films: gathered through an annual open call, they will be given the chance to work with professionals coming from London institutions and industries.

One more example is A Sense of Place (2008-2011), a three-year exchange programme for three secondary schools[13] and for artists with specific interests in direct engagement, which develops new models of cross curriculum and cross-school learning as well as new methodologies of collaboration between artists and teachers, to shape a better understanding how art (visual but not only) impact our learning of the world.

Director Polly Staple states boldly: “Chisenhale is a place where art is not collected for presentation but made […] All our activities have an educational remit.” That’s where the school program is funded and where generates its aim of coming in aid to the development and growth of the young community in a difficult context. Chisenhale has continued the conversation opened with teachers and programs of career development and mentoring for young students aged 15-20, embedding even more communal values to the gallery.

The gallery continues to offer further interesting points of observation on this double and yet united identity. Polly Staple discusses briefly with Andrea Phillips what it means to be a “community hub”[14]: the gallery was born as a spontaneous collaboration between the founding artists who studied in the area, who had studios and organized their exhibitions and still live there. A similar nature of community involvement has been maintained throughout and the groups’ main questions still revolve around how to serve an expanding community, while serving international artists: investment and development assume an enlarged meaning, which assumes features of public, of participation, of social engagement, of common value.

When we encounter a “community-based art organisation”, we now understand how it cannot simply represent the binary opposite to what is “artist-based” or “art-based”. Despite Ron Chew, writing for the program “Animating Democracy” for American for the Arts[15], might draw this line of separation too definitely, he does highlight a few key aspects of how community engagement by these groups provokes externalities. S

Firstly, they have thrived in making visible, in formulating and sharing what their interactions have explained on demographic shifts, along with an understanding of historical legacy, racial issues, inequalities. Secondly, the methodologies and technologies engaged but such groups might represent exemplary new ways to approach the complexity of the local/international, while creating new creating forms of investigation. Thirdly, the nature of these organisations claim an over time expertise in new models of management and strategies to ensure creative work, sustainability and handling of diverse relationships with so-called stakeholders, re-invent genres of economy and integrate new technology, overall towards a community betterment.

Chew mentions how such groups are organisationally guided by a “community organising outlook”, rather than a corporate perspective: inventive institutional models ensure continuity but also specific grounding values. The wave of propagation of such philosophies filter through the agency of collaborators, workers, patrons, leaders and through them being possibly to other institutions and work places. Such wider understanding of the word investment promises new generations of a younger “leadership” that works by flexible but nurtured standard practices.


3 | GLOCALITY

Gasworks

Development of relations with the community and the international
How they feed each other
Glocality in terms of management
Development of glocality
Quality of such relationships, what roles does scale play
Western/Non Western relationships
Structures of glocality
Glocality of the formal art market

Gasworks is a registered, non-profit contemporary visual art organization established in 1994 in Vauxhall, London, engaging in several practices between the UK and international grounds.

Their activities are keyed to balance between equally strong international and UK approach: the 13 studios housed by Gasworks are articulated in nine, to London-based artists for up to 5 years and four, for people in 3-month international residency programmes—which are fully-funded.[16]

Exhibitions and residencies are accompanied by an extensive program of events, talks and workshops, all aiming to direct participation of the public and to explore further themes of visual culture crossings.

Over the last two decades Gasworks has worked with over 250 artists from 70 countries, signing the beginning of fruitful careers for emerging international artists on the London scene. To complete the stretch to internationality is given by Gasworks being the head-quarter the Triangle Network, a network of over thirty arts organisations, mostly based in Africa, Asia and South America, and whose head since the late 90s is Gasworks director Alessio Antoniolli. The Triangle Network regularly develops and facilitates artists’ residencies and workshops as well as peer-to-peer exchanges, between the UK and the rest of the world. Triangle informs Gasworks’ programme, giving the organisation unparalleled opportunities to nurture and exhibit artists from across the world.

How do these two spirits relate to each other? Antoniolli explains how initially the choice of Vauxhall was not at all strategic if not in its price, and it was a virgin soil for studios and where the artists were not really engaged with the neighbourhood. Gasworks started acknowledging the precious diversity of Vauxhall and started proposing exhibitions by artists of the many proveniences, thinking of the experience of both community and artists. The director underlines how the process-based activities with the artists, usually over long periods of time, offer great occasions of conversation with the communities.

As all South London, Vauxhall is witnessing growth and re-development is currently attracting other relevant organisations, occasion that Antoniolli sees as a great opportunity to attract new audiences.

What does the development of such a participation entail? The scheme of glocality embraced by Gasworks and many other organisations does not fall under the definition of audience development, nor networking, nor partnership, nor community development, nor global expansion. The articulation of these very diverse relationships between cultures calls for a new structuring and vision of the programme: Gasworks places the directing and the programs / development positions at the head of both the gallery and the network, attempting to continuously work synchronically. How is a dynamic equilibrium in the focus on both ensured?

It would be interesting to expand on how the kinds of relationships in both fields actually intersect and if this dynamic could present a new model for navigating through globalisation and reflecting on their nature and outcomes.

How does the international basin of collectors, partners and supporters of a commercial gallery relate to the basin built through peer-to-peer collaborations, residencies and common projects? How can we understand the overlapping of these two spheres? How can they enhance each other, beyond awareness?


4 | ALTERNATIVENESS

Chopping Block gallery

Anti-institutionalism – anti-establishment
Approach to management
Idea of independence/autonomy
Focus on programme as alternative to organisation
Approach to sustainability
“When did being pro-artist make one anti-institution?”
Institutional critique in modern/contemporary art

The Chopping Block Gallery is a two-person run exhibition space by Peckham Rye, London, proposing a classic monthly turnover of invited artists exhibition and acting as space hire. In a lively night environment and based in a developing neighbourhood, they are surrounded by a regular audience frequenting the diverse recreational areas.

As from the talk with the owners Tom and Alex Williams during the discussion of the open-call for artists at Goldsmiths for the exhibition “How Now Brown Cow”, the gallery was founded firstly in Brixton, within their apartment and then moved to Peckham after informally proposing the project to the owner of the next door The Sassoon gallery and bar.

After autonomous work restructuring the venue, the two followed a program based on monthly themes of their interest turned into exhibitions, through open calls or submitted artists’ projects. The liberty in programming seems to be the main concern to the Williams, who take this decision deeply into the organisation of the gallery: their financial and exhibition planning goes by three months in three months, as it important for them to be flexible for possibly upcoming changes.
Their financial stability counts only and convincingly on sales, which they report have been sufficient so far to keep the gallery running and to develop further projects. They are not currently receiving any alternative form of funding and are not planning to request public funding for the next year and a half: this also depends on a declared will to focus on contents and artists, as opposed to organisation and sustainability.

After learning about their absolute prioritisation of flexibility, a key point for me was in the reaction to the organisational language I had used to approach them, which provoked a sort of ironical skepticism. Tom Williams explained and admitted to considering the content and curating sphere as almost an alternative to the organisational and sustainability discourse.
The Chopping Block Gallery seems to stand on the far end of the spectrum of resistance to institutionalism, with clear impact on management. Such approach stands far from the seemingly necessary mimicking of larger no profit institution as far as funding schemes and also shows an extreme example of adaptability to the context and to adversity; such well-hoping disinterest regarding sustainability is telling of the kind of ever changing continuity that such an organisation is interested in.
The Chopping Block gallery does not seem to stand against in this growing stream away from the institutional, which would be very interesting to analyse within the sphere of institutional critique and its historical development, but which must for now be analysed in relation to the scope and the intention of a gallery that proposes the creation of “critical engagement” and, most of all, within a discourse that foresees the almost absolute separation of the two spheres of organisation and art practice.

On the one hand, it might demonstrate how visual art practices find themselves an audience, even at this scale, which supports it financially and finds it relevant. On the other hand, this tendency fuels the dichotomy of “what is art” and “what is management”, with known critical consequences. Also, how would these choices affect the impact on the community? How would they do so in relation to the real communication of content? How does it support other non-institutions?


5 | SUSTAINABILITY

Mostrami logo

Importance of mixed schemes
Potential compromises
Triangle of sustainability / autonomy / long term planning
Ties with formal art world and corporate world
Public funding: development, parameters and problematics
patronage and foundations
Development of self-tools, hub
Crowdfunding
Networks outputs

Mostrami is a no-profit organisation born in 2010 and based in Milan: founded by experts in marketing with interest in the world of creativity, Aglialoro, Mattavelli and Borri wanted to develop a project that sustained young, unrecognised artists in order to sustain socially engaged programs at first, and then to develop a sort of creative culture embedded in the social layers of the city of Milan and then Italy.
The four values at the base of Mostrami are the democratisation of art, social aim, diffused engagement, glocal approach. Mostrami chose the no-profit formula to take advantage of the opportunities that region Lombardia and the province of Milan offer through public notices, then turning in 2013 into a registered social enterprise.

The initial activities were totally focused on project managing an exhibition every 7-8 months on a given theme of social relevance: through open calls, emerging Italian artists were invited to present works related to the theme. On site, along with an exhibition, they were invited to collaborate on a collective artwork.
In the last years the scope of Mostrami has greatly enlarged: it has developed a range of services for businesses, such as interior design consulting, art interventions, events, loans, art-based sessions for personnel’s engagement, workshops and organising large pop up events within larger, however critical, urban manifestation.
Mostrami has developed a network of supporters that endure its projects: public administrations, through small fundings and occasional notices, social and media partners, sponsors, businesses.

The organisation exemplifies an extreme in the flexible approach to re-invent modes of sustainability, being open to source from public notices, foundation, corporative and media sponsors, sales, hub and incubation programs, acting as an advertisement platform, drastically shaping its program around necessity.
Mostrami has, in the years, largely expanded its offline and online audience, reached a more internal structure (starting in 2011 with a project manager and unpaid intern-assistant until around 4 flexible, yet paid positions), it has had access to larger funds and extended its network. This sense of growth has naturally impacted its nature and activities, making visible how such equilibrium lives continuously at the risk of the organisation’s mission.

The combination between a certain kind of funding, the concept of autonomy and the possibility to think in terms of long-time planning represents a delicate equilibrium: public funding, articulated according to the context, is possibly the most crucial point, discussed economic and ethical terms.
The attitudes regarding the public responsibility in supporting SBAO, and ensuring their autonomy, have been well articulated during the years: from positions such as Andrea Phillips’, stating that “they need to be dependent on the public. They need to be able to be – really – not for profit”[17], we source that in order to implement real support we need to firstly conceive the right concept of the value these groups create.

In the actual reality, it is very rare to find such a pure model of financing: most groups find major resources in patronage and private funding, as well as little commercial activities, so in mixed schemes that do represent compromises but that do shape their way of intervening.

A radical progress in the field of public funding would represent a security in the development of their production of social wealth but it also represents a structural change in the ways these groups implement their mission. Would their ethos change at all at new conditions? How would the borders be drawn?

While comprehensive public funding seems the most ethically wholesome proposition, it would be interesting to reflect on the structural changes such new habitat would bring and would be necessary to deeply reflect on existing parameters of funding in order to enlarge them into considering a larger scope of organisations.

Mixed models of funding through patronage, foundations and experiences of hubs and incubation seem to be successful and complex models of survival. They might represent occasions of encounter for the creative/artistic and the management spheres, where to exchange skills, ethics and methodological solutions, while fuelling the development of a value that is common and change-worthy beyond the visual arts field and beyond separations.

Crowdfunding is one more tool increasingly included into the project management within the visual culture field: appearing as one more tool to develop audience engagement and horizontal funding, it should be further explored in terms of platform and ethics.


6 | TIME RESISTANCE

Praxes logo
Time in the way of working
Time of artistic practice and time of the organisation
Time as resistance
Time and the institution
VS Times-based management

Praxes, Berlin was a small no-profit organisation that between 2013 and 2015 carried out a program of exhibitions articulated in two-artist cycles over a 6 months period, with 3 to 4 chances for them to develop exhibitions along this time (according to chronology, theme, or practice), sometimes with hosted curators. Diverse artist practice and unassociated artists, plus talks, live activities.

Additionally, Praxes organised Parlors, live events made of seminars, performances, films and screenings and published Papers, edited, free, downloadable material sourced from and around the artistic practice, attempting new kinds of research on artistic practice and presentation.

Founders Rhea Dall and Kristine Siegel both come from the institutional world (Dall worked at Guggenheim, New York and then for the Berlin and Venice Biennial; Siegel was at MoMA and then at the ISCP) and intended to work on a collaboration in Berlin, where they attempted to develop a project of mid-size that would differentiate itself from the intense scene of small, independent, ambitious projects in the city: inspiration came from academic sources and alternative schools, projects expanded in time, ideas of different types of interdisciplinary research and of residency programs.

Funded and supported by research fellows employed by the University of Copenhagen and throughout building a network of private donors and corporate sponsorships along with the national funding bodies of the countries where the artists are coming from, Praxes was born almost as a reaction from the institutional work done by Dall and Siegel, which happened to for both critical in terms of the pace that constricted the relationships and the development of the presentation with each artist. Such pace is common in the formal art world as well as in more informal environment, with a monthly or bimonthly scheduling of exhibitions plus the participation to museums shows, to biennials to fairs.

The two reflected on how this approach mostly reflected onto the almost univocal presentation of an artist practice, especially if it was new work, and also how the actual opening of the show would almost represent the end of the producing collaboration for that time frame and the artworks almost being deposits of such process, which will be abandoned until the next slot. Artists have often multi-faceted creative interests, which can surely but not always, be included organically.

Therefore the idea of allowing a six month period and several exhibiting occasions for the artist to develop a discourse with the curators and with his/her own practice: no work was specifically commissioned, as Dall and Siegel recognised that six months would be too demanding of an artist to produce brand new work and who is already subjected a tight schedules of galleries and museum shows, so from here the openness to the whole archive of works for the artist to rearrange.

The process involves the audience participation as well: returning visitors experienced different level of engagement along the time slot and were more keen to advance opinions and criticism, which was often incorporate into the progress under from of talks of any form of open discussion and research.

The process therefore allowed institutional self-reflection, in the way of working, of curating, of presenting. Problematics with the artists, not always accustomed to such repetition in exhibiting or with the overall format, were possibly also made part of the conversation.

Time and its scheduling might represent on the variables that is most commonly shared by art institutions: the time of the cycles of exhibitions, the fairs, the financial cycles and the relations to the events in the context (the openings coinciding with biennials or fairs in the city context) become a tool of common measurements that necessarily shapes ways of collaborating with the artist and then with the audience.

Time is one of the main topics in many critiques of resistance, given that is one commodity that is fundamental in the functioning of the production of our economy and which is most often a variable to productivity. Such mechanic is well embedded in the work of galleries but also museums and no-profit: large or also medium institutions would have a very difficult time in incorporating a modification of this mechanism into their practice (aside from successful experimentations of residencies), because it is a common base to the functioning of systems that surround them: financing, accounting terms, stated institution missions and so forth.

The experiments of expanded time practices is not limited to the inclusion of time-based practices into the exhibition program, which is already an established habit, but to incorporate a sort of deceleration into the mission and into the form of management: time stops being productive in the sense of quantity but in terms of quality, depth and dynamism of content, it becomes the nurturing ground of relationships between artist, curator and visitor, becomes a rare alternative representing a way of working and which has no connotation of spiritual resistance but an actual tool.


7 | WAYS OF WORKING

Mute logo

Approaches and Experimentation in management
Articulation and development of staffing in relation to growth and compartments
Values embedded in teams
Importance of process, resilience / adaptability
Horizontality
Solidarity
Open sourcing

Mute is an online magazine, born in 1994 and based between London and Berlin, dedicated to visual culture, politics and technology.

Aware of the power that information media have in contemporary capitalism and of the changes in its audience, multi-faceted Mute’s intent is to question “network societies” and their production of relationships, while expanding its themes onto critical theory and geo-politics.

Operating vastly online, Mute combines biannual issues dedicated to specific topics (Precarious Labour, The Knowledge Commons, etc) and a collection that features in print selections from current issues with online content, specially commissioned and co-published projects.

Mute embodies an editorial spirit, Mute Books, with curated articles and an open blog, following an interdisciplinary publishing policy and working experimentally “with a wide variety of individuals and groups to provide the kind of sustained focus their contribution to contemporary culture deserves”. An organizational spirit, in The Post-Media Lab, organising residencies, publishing projects and public events and lastly, a technological spirit, through OpenMute, a consulting agency for Print On Demand, ePublishing and digital strategy to cultural producers. This last generated from the artist founders and with the function of building instruments that were not available in 1994.

The most interesting aspect of Mute, aside from the quality content, is the reinvention of its way of working, internally and in its practice of media, which they claim has always been understood as seminal to content. They function as a platform where to develop innovative cultural research and above all to produce such content outside of the classic definition of an editorial team: they are wary of ambiguous fusion of “author” and “auditor” into many active yet less informed producers, or producers of less qualitative content, also moving away from the non-edited wiki format.

Open Mute started in 2004 and proposed a multi-user content management, to open the editorial team to the potential London arts community. Yet, the classically structured editorial team takes care of the core functions and of sustainability[18]:

Even though open sourcing is no longer groundbreaking technology, it might be relevant for this industry and for its contents: adept in the world of publishing technology, as co-director Simon Worthington[19], Mute could offer example of technological tools that facilitate conversation and new types of research embedded in the SBAO.

In the re-shaping of Mute in 2001 the intentions towards a de-centralised editing is stated loud and clear as well as the common mission to “create information spaces where high quality tool, content and research are produced by individuals and small organizations who are compensated for their work”.

Such scheme brings to an extreme the tendencies towards horizontal hierarchies of the contributors to an organization, given the necessity to have a central team that edits and ensures quality for the other slice of “audience” that are the non-participating readers; the editorial team itself uses a wiki-system (where content is continuously edited by anyone in the team) on part of the content.

Ways of working engaged in SBAO are relevant as they represent alternatives to existing models that replicate all through the art world, engaging in experimental practices of management that are interesting models to source from.

Ways of working are often structured by necessity, but it seems they are always attentively related to the organization’s mission: the adapt with the resilience necessary to maintain intact internal values and modes of relations, while necessarily changing over time.

There is an observable tendency on the part of corporations in building apparent systems of community within the workplace: starting from tech companies, it is known the large amount of services that these offer to the employees[20], but this “way of working” aims a the tested assumption of better productivity and such “horizontal community” surface does not impact the highly restrictive ranking and information sharing within the company.

Could these models ever be exported, outside of the idea of productivity? What are the common and stable variables through the change of the organization? How does it affect the human component of working? How does it improve or complicate the management and the work towards an objective? How more deeply entangles with the nature of the content? What new dimension enters the concept of ethics?


8 | AUTONOMY

showroom logo

Autonomous from what?
What it means to be independent
vs business independence
How to maintain autonomy
Autonomy/survival
Autonomy/development
Autonomous vs Public/formal art world/audiences/community/artists

The Showroom opened in 1983 as one of the first galleries in East London, in a format of commissions and production of a collaborative and process-driven programme that ranged from exhibition, events, publications and which focused on artists who have not had large exposure in London, either international or London-based.
The Showroom is now based in Marylebone and keeps working closely with the surrounding community through a program called “Communal Knowledge”, which generates specific projects and commissions.
The entry of director Emily Pethick meant a focus in building discourse around contemporary art practices in the form of up to 50 public events a year, mostly free, in addition to four to five exhibitions.

Among of all organisations, I found in the Showroom the largest basin of relationships with artists, writers, theorists, curators, local community groups and stakeholders, like-minded organisations, as well as the highest amount of networks (Common Practice, HTWT, Cluster, Circular Facts), a large board of committees (within which many personalities from the institutional art and financial world) and most importantly, a developed relationship with the neighbourhood.[21] Yet, the Showroom’s main focus and value remains independence, in its realist acceptation.[22]

Andrea Phillips underlines how the two most relevant investments in the last years at the gallery have been such a network and a development of a managerial structure in the staffing, which involves a director, a gallery manager, a deputy director, a collaborative project curator plus a fellow, a programme coordinator plus a number of gallery assistant and intern .
How do these dimensions merge into the necessity of being autonomous? Both structural changes, says Pethick, firstly merged into the development of community engagement and adaptation to the much-increased costs of the new location, difficult to cover under the ACE Funding. Therefore, the Showroom started diversifying its budget, reducing its dependence on the Art Council from 60% to 40%, through the development of a scheme of patronage by trusts and foundations, especially in the public program, which has become more integrated into the exhibition cycles and therefore impacting its sustainability.

It is important to re-shape such concept of autonomy, as it has a very different acceptation to a business autonomy, given by the choices of production and direct revenues as income. Spaces such as the Showroom have usually many dependencies, in the form of sources of funding, of community, of networks but also of internal structure of a board and a development committee. Pethick specifies, autonomy means not to respond to a unified authority or to one source of funding: this filters through the way of working in a collective process, in the teams and through the board.
Autonomy cannot mean then isolation, but the contrary: building nourishing relations within and outside the organisation ensures a decision making process that is not defined by one entity or position and therefore the kind of cultural offer can be indeed “more autonomous”. Phillips strongly states that an ultimate resolution for this condition to be stable is for these groups to be fully publicly funded: I wonder about the continuous question regarding the possibility for a private organisation[23] to be able to produce common value within a capital economy, instead of this outcome being reserved to public institutions. It is clear how, on the surface, the public solution would seem the most efficient, ethically resolved option but its should be carefully considered how this would affect the seminal way of existing and the content relevance of small-based, common value-based art organisations.

A recipe for independence is functionally impossible to give, as it is probably the most dynamic and complex dimension of all when it comes to SBAO. Yet, many schemes born out of necessity have appeared to be successful or hopeful and this seems to be the most fruitful: a large part of the budgeting given by the public to ensure core activities, complemented by a scheme of patronage from privates and foundations, enhanced by a network of community, organisations and partnerships for more specific projects.

Autonomy is not only a funding problem: it refers deeply to the production of content and it is a condition to the survival of the organisation as producer of such value. The combination of funding sources is telling of the nature of the organisation, that becomes an independent common value creator but which, at the same time, survives on a fragile web.

Are there solutions that have never been attempted? How could the contribution of the private formal art world, outside of patrons, play out? An extreme example of autonomy, in terms of financing, content but also relations, could be an organisation at the end of the informality spectrum (The Chopping Block): at what conditions must an organisation agree to in order to be completely, absolutely independent?

Experimentations of SBAO could even benefit the commercial art world, being platforms of experimentation, of development of individual or collaborative practices, yet it seems that between the two there are not many ties outside of the interest in promoting a particular artist.


9 | NETWORKS 

                   htwt logo          common practice logo   W.A.G.E. LOGO

Nature/typologies, formality/informality of network
Benefits and criticalities
Network vs Database
Cultural exchange and skills exchange
Partnerships between large and small-based organisations
Relations to sustainability
Potential developments

Attempts of networking are not new in the panorama of art institutions as well as in small-based ones. New communication tools have impacted their methodologies, even if the most active networks seem to revolve around physical occasions of encounter and then use technology to share documentation and material among them and to the public. Networks often take the form of immobile databases while others seem to ignite collaborations and nourishing exchanges. It seemed interesting to explore their nature, their accomplishments and most of all the potential they could represent in terms of self-reflection, of sustainability, of appropriate growth.

Examples with solid ground in the UK, and internationally, are Common Practice, How to Work Together and Cluster, among others, current or just recently discontinued, such as Circular Facts of Cohab.

The first that caught my attention was Common Practice with the first publication by Thelwall: I found for the first time a language that embraced the financial and the organisational as well as a renewed lexicon describing a production of a new kind of value, common and social and an intelligent break down of its components.

Conversations, research projects, seminars are only the surface of the activity brought forward, and each one of them has its focus.

Common Practic[24] pushes conversation and research about the value and solutions of sustainability, while How to Work together[25], a blog and a think thank and a platform for commissions, realized thanks to a funding received by the Art Council Catalyst grant[26] in 2012[27]. Organisations that would be competitors in being awarded public funding (or any type of funding) were now effectively “working together” for a sustainable opportunity that allowed them to develop individual projects that were framed in an ecosystem.

It would be interesting to go deeper into the mechanics of the ACE Catalyst grant, as it worked on a system of ‘Capacity building and match funding’ requiring the organisations to raise privately an established sum of funding, and therefore enabling them to develop autonomous fundraising schemes but through a collaborative practice.

Networks of SBAO can be planned projects, such as the ones above, while most of them can develop over time and through informal ties in the forms of collaborating artists, communal urban spaces, communal audiences or travelling single projects. The relationships built by networks have many different acceptations and manifestations, as well as being tendentially static or dynamic.

A classic static configuration would take the form of a database, which is most often the outcome of a non-successful management or implementation of the network’s vision.

My first naive intention was to envision an utopic panorama of a global network of small-based art organizations developing rearranged common property protocols among them: the rules would have had a high degree of independence and voluntary sharing of a pool of resources (skills, referenced people, resources, research, funds from collaborative projects), guaranteeing maintenance of size and locality. My interest laid in the practical relevance of the process leading to this aim, possibly encouraging the formation of local circles/bubbles that would keep enclosing further circles/bubbles of tight networking.

As utopic as I understood this was, I soon realized how the characteristics related to a locality, matched with the unique features of an organisation and the entry costs to such an investment did not collide with the diverse realities. I do believe that networks reserve great potentials, also in terms of new solutions to sustainability, and could also hold the power to trigger a form of globalisation that does not respond to capital economy. At the same time, they cannot have any normative or generalising connotation, as it would dangerously lead to a starting point of misunderstanding of the way of existing of such groups.

I would then like to enquire further what are the opinions of the potential of networks if we think about them in terms of being sustainable, in terms of a new economy of capacities and cultural exchange. It is definitely interesting to explore new forms of networks made of partnerships between dissimilar organisations, potentially including the commercial art world, but also outside of it.

What more could be exchanged? What more could be created? What the additional margin to the production of common value?


Written by Eloisa Travaglini

Media Library

Common-value based organisations and their networks are themselves valuable sources of research material. Here is a collection of focused material freely downloadable from the websites of groups such as Common Practice UK and How to Work Together.
All images link to original pages where you may download the publications.

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Common Practice New York announced in 2016 in  the publication of Near Contact, by David Joselit and Amy Lien & Enzo Camacho.

Common-Practice-London-Size-Matters

Size Matters: Notes towards a Better Understanding of the Value, Operation and Potential of Small Visual Arts Organisations by Sarah Thelwall,  was commissioned by Common Practice London in 2011 with support from Arts Council England.
This paper seeks to articulate the value of the small-scale visual arts sector within the wider arts ecology.

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Common Practice is pleased to announce the publication of its second report, Value, Measure, Sustainability: Ideas Towards the Future of the Small-Scale Visual Arts Sector, which builds on its acclaimed 2011 report Size Matters to offer new ways of evaluation and measurement in the art world.

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Common Practice launches its third research paper Practicing Solidarity, written by London-based artist and researcher Carla Cruz. The paper builds on the conference Public Assets, which Common Practice organised with Andrea Phillips in February 2015. You may find excerpts of it in the videos below.

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Invest in what? How to work together, the Arts Council’s Catalyst Fund and art’s contemporary economic infrastructure is an essay by Andrea Phillips published online in the How to Work Together Think Thank.

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This new essay by journalist Anna Minton builds on her wider research and writing on the privatisation of public life. She extends the question ‘how to work together’ into the wider realm of society and politics, as she proposes a revival of the public interest through a focus on the importance of common goods.

 

Charlotte Higgins, chief culture writer of the Guardian, speaking about small scale cultural organisations as public spaces that are not dominated or driven by commercial interests.

 

Kodwo Eshun, co-member of The Otolith Group and lecturer at Visual Culture, Goldsmiths, talks about care for concepts and the nurture found in small scale arts organisations.

 

 

Footnotes

[2] Gregory Sholette is an artist, writer and activist, published an introductory essay with the title of “Dark Matter: Activist Art and the Counter-Public Sphere”, which in 2010 became a book.  

[3] Sholette, Gregory, “Dark Matter: Activist Art and the Counter-Public Sphere”, gregorysholette.com, 2003 <http://www.gregorysholette.com/wp content/uploads/2011/04/05_darkmattertwo1.pdf>

[4] Such as the paper by Sarah Thelwall, Size Matters: Notes towards a Better Understanding of the Value, Operation and Potential of Small Visual Arts Organizations, published in London for Common Practice, 2011 and which will be explored later.

[5] Andrea Phillips, “How to Work Together”, Think Thank, How to Work Together (2015), 25.

[6] Andrea Phillips, “How to Work Together”, Think Thank, How to Work Together (2015), 25.
Conversation part of the Think Tank that Andrea Phillips leads within the network of “How To Work Together”, a shared programme of contemporary art commissioning and research organised by three innovative not-for-profit London galleries: Chisenhale Gallery, The Showroom and Studio Voltaire.

[7] Andrea Phillips, “How to Work Together”, Think Thank, How to Work Together (2015), 30.

[8] Andrea Phillips, “How to Work Together”, Think Thank, How to Work Together (2015): 26.
As reported by Scotland, the turnover shifted from £50,000 ca. around 2005 until £375,000 ca in 2015.

[9] An expression long used to address public intervention to save banks of credit institutes. It was particularly common during the US financial crisis of 2008-2012.

[10] David Joselit, “In Praise of Small” in Near Contact, ed. Amy Lien, Enzo Camacho. (New York: Common Practice New York, 2016), 8.

[11] Thelwall, Sarah, “Size Matters: Notes towards a Better Understanding of the Value, Operation and Potential of Small Visual Arts Organizations” (London: Common Practice, 2011).

[12] One more interesting and yet critical approach, consequential to Quality Metrics, is a set of metrics suitable for participatory work by, with and for children and young people, developed within the Art Council. http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/developing-participatory-metrics.

[13]  The three secondary schools were in Tower Hamlets – Bishop Challoner Catholic Collegiate School, St. Paul’s Way Trust School and Langdon Park School.

[14] Andrea Phillips, “How to Work Together”, Think Thank, How to Work Together (2015): 13

[15] Ron Chew, “Community-Based Arts Organizations”, (Washington D.C.: Americans for the Arts, 2009).
This paper has really interesting insights on first hand experiences on community impacts described by many cultural workers, of different roles and proveniences, in the US.

[16] “Interview: Alessio Antoniolli, Director at Gasworks”, Something Curated, November 2015

[17] Andrea Phillips, “How to Work Together”, Think Thank, How to Work Together (2015): 5

[18] In the crowdfunding campaign run in 2012 the staff claims the importance of work ethics and of autonomy in hiring writers outside of both professional journalism and academia.

[19] Tidskriftsverkstadens, “3. Simon Worthington om Mute Publishing”, YouTube video, 1:12:47. Posted January 7, 2012.

[20] Gyms, nap rooms and canteens, social gatherings and many other socially artificial situations that are re-built inside the company walls and which surely appear inviting.

[21] A scope of such involvement can be recounted in the first moving of the gallery from East London to Marylebone, firstly proposed by the neighbourhood forum discussing the lack of a contemporary art space.

[22] Phillips, Andrea,“How to Work Together”, Think Thank, How to Work Together (2015), 19.

[23] No profit organisation, or business or corporation

[24] Composed by Afterall, Chisenhale Gallery, Electra, Gasworks, LUX, Matt’s Gallery, Mute Publishing, The Showroom, Studio Voltaire.

[25] Grouping Chisenhale gallery, the Showroom and Studio Voltaire

[26] The Catalyst scheme is a grant by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport with National Lottery, ACE and DCMS dedicated to arts organisations to help diversify their incomes and to cultivate and manage the development of private and corporate sponsorship.

[27] The Art Council Catalyst grant (2012) was awarded with the purpose of creating the network: the galleries received together £210,000 between them for a span of three years. Income was spent on supporting nine commissions (three for each gallery) as well as for the salary of a Project Manager, who was also tasked with fundraising.

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Artists’ Ideals and the Ideal Curator | Rhea Dall & Kristine Siegel & Chris Evans”, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, February 12, 2016.
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Ceci n’est pas un magazine’, Mute 19, May 2001, 

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MUTE MAGAZINE CROWDFUNDING CAMPAIGN”, Mute, September 2012.

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Tidskriftsverkstadens, “3. Simon Worthington om Mute Publishing”, YouTube video, 1:12:47. Posted January 7, 2012.

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