What artist-run centres are and what YK’s might be

by Clark Ferguson

I was taken to the original Yellowknife Artist-Run Community Centre in October 2011 during my first foray to Yellowknife. I was here, at the time, to present a film in the Yellowknife International Film Festival. The original YK ARCC was, in essence, a place where artists could present artwork, make artwork, perform music, exchange ideas and socialize.

Artist-Run Centres exist all around the country and all have been artist instigated and propelled to provide a place of community, presentation, and public exchange. As such, the Yellowknife version of an artist-run centre seemed inclusive, incredibly open, and fun. There seemed to be an urgency and incredible community support for the place. There was a photo show hanging in a small back room, a drawing show in another, a live band playing in the chapel area, and a barrel of beer in the foyer with lots of people smiling, imbibing. There was an active board, a free space for a matter of months, and, like I said, a lot of smiles, and a lot of ideas. And I was told, over and over, ‘Yellowknife needs this! We need this!’ And to be honest, I’ve been through a lot of centres, and I can’t remember experiencing such excitement about the idea.

Artist-run centres, like I have said, are artist driven and provide a public place where artists can grow, develop, and share their practice. It’s where artists are free of the institutional workings and free to take chances. This is so important for the development of an artist, and an arts community, as it allows for critical discussion amongst colleagues. And a healthy arts community is good for the health of a city, even a region. And an artist-run centre isn’t really ever any one particular thing, as it’s developed by the community that seeks to create it and which it will inherently serve. It could be an art gallery, a media arts centre, such as the Western Arctic Moving Pictures Society, affordable studio space, or workshop space. It’s really defined by the community, and it’s meant to grow and develop into a capable stand-alone organization, open for all and a service to everyone.

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I have worked at, and shown work at, artist-run centres across Canada, volunteered, and resided on boards. In fact, I have four or five current memberships for centres throughout the prairies and utilize them in different capacities: one as a distributer for film projects, two that I utilize for film production equipment and post-production work, and another, I am purely an appreciative member-at-large who loves the presentation of glorious, gorgeous art. Three of the five artist-run centres are media-centric with similar mandates, but serving different cities. The fourth is a visual arts centre mandated to present experimental, critical forms in the visual arts that serves to feed not only the community of artists, but also the community at large. And the fifth is an arts magazine. And I am actually in Yellowknife now creating a web documentary project through a Canada Council for the Arts and WAMP residency project.

The WAMP folks have set me up in a work/live scenario at the new YK ARCC, above Taste of Saigon restaurant. As the first tenant in the space, there really wasn’t much going when I arrived in September. When I asked what happened to the old ARCC, one of the board members sat me down, sighed, and said, ‘It’s a bit of a long story.’ And so that energetic chapter ended.

And so here it is reborn. Having somewhat, as I understand it, lost the plot and their prized street-level entry, the new YK ARCC has rebranded as somewhat smaller and a lot safer. Still downtown, they are offering studio space and a community arts gallery space for classes, workshops, gallery shows, and maybe performances – moving forward one floorboard at a time.

So the ARCC is renewing itself, and this is nothing unusual. In fact, Canadian Art magazine has an article online about whether ARCs should exist at all in their present form or whether they should be washed away and a new model created – more professional, less of them, etc.

But this is an old conversation that seems to pop up every three or four years. For what purpose or whose agenda, I’m not really sure. I come from regionally isolated Saskatchewan and understand the idea that if you don’t make it yourself, no one’s gonna make it for you. And as such, an artist-run centre in an isolated region has a different purpose than one specific to a niche practice in, let’s say, Toronto. There are different agendas and different communities served. A large centre may have a space specific to performance-based art making, along with other centres that also provide a specific mandate to a community. And in a smaller regional centre, you may have to broaden your appeal to cross-disciplines. And that’s just fine. Actually, that’s better than fine. It is a flexible model that fits appropriately to the context. That’s actually super fine.

So, what is an ARC? It doesn’t seem I’ve set myself up to argue it’s one thing or another. But truly it is a community of people who come together, work together, to create a space that serves not only a community of artists, but is open and allows for outsiders to observe and participate, learn, and be part of exchange. It’s not only a place where professional artists can excel, but a place where a novice can feel welcome. So, how does an ARC maintain the balance of being a welcoming space, and not being a bar? Or please one set of constituents and not alienate another?

In my experience, it helps to have a good board that adopts or creates a good set of governance rules, learns from its mistakes, and carries that forward. Choose a mandate and follow it as the over-arching rule, which is also necessary to find the funding to pay a staff member, pay artist fees and grow as an organization. But again, the question is: to grow in constituents to what? That’s what YK’s ARC is contemplating. Come be part of it. You are welcome.

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