text by Jack Danylchuk
photos by Pablo Saravanja
Artist-run galleries and performance centres that sprouted across Canada from the Eastern Edge in St. John’s to Open Space in Victoria, and just about everywhere in between – except Yellowknife – are closing in on their 40th anniversaries.
Most were products of the Sixties thinking and a brief lull in the real estate feeding frenzy that opened derelict buildings to the only people desperate enough to move in – artists looking for an alternative to commercial and institutional galleries and concert halls.
A few are showing their age, a bit thick around the middle and stuffy in their thinking, but most are vibrant institutions with broad community support.
Jamie Walowski and Joel Maillet arrived in Yellowknife with memories of artist-run galleries and performance spaces in Halifax and saw the need for a space where artists and performers could meet and share their ideas.
Last Spring, glass recycler Matthew Grogono persuaded real-estate developer Les Rocher to make the former Pentecostal Church on 49th Street across from the Yellowknife Inn available. Except for one small detail, it was almost perfect: performance and exhibition space, a kitchen, and meeting rooms, working washrooms.
But the church was a trade token Rocher swapped with the territorial government for raw land at the edge of Kam Lake. From the day it opened, ARCC organizers struggled with their uncertain tenure, not knowing from one week to the next whether they would be asked to vacate.
“That made it difficult to plan more than two weeks ahead,” says Maillet, but even with the wrecker’s ball swinging over their heads, the centre hosted workshops, exhibitions, music events and what may have been Yellowknife’s best-ever Halloween Party:
In its brief life, ARCC demonstrated the need for a venue that could serve as a laboratory open to experimental practices in all contemporary arts disciplines, a venue where art, artists and audiences could engage each other.
After moving out of the Pentecostal church in early November, organizers are now looking for a new venue. The revolving club site on Franklin last occupied by Prestige and the old Hudson Bay building in Old Town are among the possibilities, but what ARCC really needs are firm financial commitments.
Across Canada, artist-run performance centres and galleries survive and thrive on contributions from the Canada Council, municipal and provincial governments, charitable foundations, and their own resources.
YK’s ARCC generated income from its share of ticket sales, renting space for workshops, meetings, exhibitions and performances; the organizers publicly thanked Rocher, Radio Taiga, Pido Productions, and the territorial government for their generosity. What surprised Maillet and Walowski was the lack of financial help from City Hall.
Over the last 10 years, Mayor Gordon Van Tighem has seen a number of iterations of the ARCC concept rise and fall. As someone who helped start the Aurora Arts Society, Van Tighem says he has always been in favour of an artist-run operation in the city.
“It’s a good idea. Every time that it comes together, it comes together, but then everyone gets focused on doing what they do in ‘it’ rather than focusing on how you have an ‘it’ that lasts in perpetuity,” he says.
There’s nothing in the City’s current budget earmarked for the centre, but Van Tighem says a plan to convert the Hudson Bay building into a potentially suitable facility has been completed as part of other planning initiatives.
The group’s President hopes the momentum gained by the ARCC project will not be lost. “I think once we get settled again, we have to do a long-term plan of what we want to do. What are our short-term goals? Long-term goals?” says Rosalind Mercredi. “We have lots of ideas so we need to filter those ideas and set some priorities.”
A City application to the territorial government to produce a strategic plan for the group was denied. However, with a mention of the ARCC by Bob Bromley in the legislative assembly and planned meetings with all levels of government in the near future, Mercredi is thinking positively. “I think right now Government’s on our side, at least verbally,” she says.
The group has set up a relocation committee with hopes of maintaining some kind of pared-down presence on the art scene. Two options include a coffee shop or art gallery with limited hours.
But whether the ARCC is born again depends largely on the energy of the arts community and its ability to solicit financial support from business and all levels of government.