An ARC in 15 years

The future of Artist-Run culture: What will an Artist-Run Centre look like in 15 years (2023)?

from Hot Buttons/points chauds in Ottawa 7 - 10 November 2008

First of all I’d like to thank ARCCO for inviting me to be here, I feel very honoured. I’m sad that Emily vey Duke can’t be here because I think her presentation would have been really entertaining. And finally I’d like to mention that I have a few images to accompany my presentation but they were totally ripped off the Internet and I haven’t paid anyone reproduction rights. 

I’d like to start with a definition of an ARC in 2008 from Wikipedia: “The term artist-run centre, or ARC, is the common term of use for artist-initiated and managed organizations in Canada. Centres follow the not-for-profit arts organization model, do not charge admission fees, are non-commercial and de-emphasize the selling of work.

“Centres have tended not to pursue individual sponsors or patrons, neither corporations nor individuals, in part because they are in a critical relationship with the traditional and established art system of museums which have the resources to pursue that type of support.”

I have to ask: did anyone in this room write this?

So in light of the recent Canadian federal election, and because art and politics are inextricably linked, I’d like to frame my presentation by looking into the future and speculating on a plausible political scenario in fifteen years, with the ramifications to ARCs as we know them.

In 2023 Stephen Harper will celebrate a historic, remarkable 17-year tenure as Canadian Prime Minister. Harper won his first majority in 2011 and used the ongoing economic recession to justify further downsizing of government spending and privatization of many services, including health care. During this time he managed to cut or re-direct all government funding of the arts into historical museums and sports and recreation programs. He turned the Canada Council for the Arts into a governmental department with the title of Creative Economy that offered, instead of grants and awards based on excellence, entrepreneurial loans to artists based on economic feasibility and business plans.

Needless to say, Artist-run culture evolved as well. Caught off-guard by the sudden transformation of funding, artists demonstrated and protested but to no avail. 


Some centres managed to survive by finding wealthy patrons or partnering with businesses, while others became more commercial, selling their work or services. The bulk of centres folded after CC funding dried up in what the artist community called the Great Canadian Culture Wars of 2011. With a majority mandate, this is the period of time when Harper initiates widespread government review of all of the CCs programs, including funding to ARCs and the system of peer-reviewed grants.

Under the scrutiny of these reviews the activities of many ARCs were presented as operating in ways that were contrary to Canadian Values. Exhibitions such as “Scatalogue: 30 Years of Crap in Contemporary Art" at Galerie Saw were used to demonstrate that ARCs were an unnecessary and irresponsible use of public funds, especially in “uncertain economic times”. 


Despite impassioned arguments from artists, the momentum had already swung. The 5-year economic recession that proceeded Harper’s first majority—known as the Downward Spiral—had spread fear and doubt in the public and Richard Florida’s theory of the creative economy vanished in a puff of smoke as health care, education, infrastructure and industry took priority. Art was again seen as a luxury, and artists could find no way to prove to the public otherwise. Harper deftly countered any resistance from artists because his cuts did not seem idealogically-motivated, but based on sound economics and concern for Canadian Values.


The sky did not fall on all artists or ARCs, however, as they proved to be resilient and highly adaptable. Private donations rose to fill some of the void, corporate sponsorship increased and some ARCs simply became more market-driven. Sales of contemporary art actually increased following the reduction of the grants system to a loans system. Rather than receive grants, artists could apply for loans to set up their studios and make work destined for commercial market. Buyers emerged for video and performance work. Galleries charged admission. More private companies jumped on the art-prize bandwagon. Of course, overall there were less artists at work in less fields producing less art, but no-one seemed to notice.


So of course all of this is just wild speculation and hyperbole. And I’ll admit a lot of my research in framing this imagined future comes from the Conservative Party of Canada Facebook group, whose members mostly represent a vocal minority of opinion even within conservative debate. But there are many reasons to believe that an outcome such as I’ve just described is quite probable.

At this moment in time, in the present of 2008, many of the founding ARCs across Canada are celebrating thirty-five year anniversaries. The movement has generated a huge national network of artists and art users, launched careers, provided training and introduced a wide variety of contemporary art practices to the public. They are spaces of openness, inclusion, innovation and experimentation. We all know this.

However, in the eyes of conservatives, and those uninitiated to contemporary art practices, ARCs are also cliquish, incomprehensible, alienating and at times downright insulting to the public, despite the fact they rely on public funding. From this perspective, ARCs are like a child, now thirty-some years old, still living in their parents’ basement. She stays out all night at parties and plays her music too loud and argues constantly with her parents, always demanding more money for food and clothes and spends her days locked in her room demanding privacy so she can make her art.

If you were the parents, what would you do?

At some point, some tough love is going to come from the Conservatives to the CC, and from the CC to the ARCs, and we had all best be prepared.

Since 2006 when the Conservatives took office they managed to cut $48-million from various arts programs, small programs that the general public wasn’t even aware of. They did this while slyly augmenting the budget of the CC by $30-million to ensure that they seem like supporters the arts. And even though the cuts announced just before the election cost them seats in Québec, and brought forth a wellspring of opposition from artists and arts supporters, the Conservatives still managed to gain a stronger minority government. Now they’ve just axed the National Portrait Gallery for good, knowing they can weather any storm of criticism artists throw at them. There really is no telling how far they can go.

I see the strategy behind these cuts. This isn’t like the Culture Wars in the US, and Harper is certainly no Jesse Helms. 


This is not overt social conservatism, although it is there, just under the surface. Rather than openly attack content, funding is cut or “re-allocated” in the best interests of program delivery. The conservatives will take it upon themselves to re-define program objectives, and apply their own interpretation. If a program isn’t effective, administratively sound or meeting its objectives then it will be cut. And this all sounds great to the taxpayer, let’s refer to him as Joe the Plumber, who doesn’t want his tax dollars spent on art he doesn’t understand. In fact, Joe the Plumber doesn’t want his tax dollars spent on art, period. If he feels so inclined to take an interest in the arts, he’ll pay for it himself. 


And this brings me to the core principle that could bolster Harpers’ eventual siphoning of arts funding to other areas, regardless of whether he gets a majority: and that is government should not be in the business of funding art, and that artists should be in business for themselves. Harper has learned that he shouldn’t equate funding to the arts with rich galas; next time he’ll use controversial works like those found in just about any ARC to help justify his cuts with the full support of Joe the Plumber. The majority of his supporters prefer a fiscal house in order, as opposed to art in disorder. 


This is perhaps the defining attitude of conservatives; less government involvement in our lives, less taxes, and certainly no funding to the arts. Museums can be funded but only if they promote Canadian values and history, but certainly not tasteless art. For conservatives, the market itself should determine the quality of art. If it can’t sell, it isn’t any good, and therefore need not be made.


Artists and ARCs need to make a more vocal, sensible case for public funding of the arts, now, and not just to funding bodies, but to the general public, to Joe the Plumber. We’ve seen that despite our best efforts to mobilize, the artist vote itself is too small; we need Joe the Plumber on our side more than he needs us. The question is how to convince Joe that art is important in his life, whether he knows it or not. 

ARCentres  in 15 years may yet be a dominating institutional force in Canadian Art and public life, or they may simply resemble loft spaces, studio parties, apartment galleries and events that are untouched by any government agency. In any case, young artists are drawn intrinsically into Artist-run culture. They go to where the action is, or they create it themselves. And this still gives me hope.