Curators in Context - Re: Artist-Run-Centres            Andrew James Paterson



Please allow me to position myself as an artist who has dabbled in curation- or should that be programming?


I am primarily a media-artist and writer. I also have presented (or indulged in) performance, and music has been a commonplace throughout practically my entire practice. Up until my early thirties, I was primarily known as a musician, although I considered myself to be a writer more than a freelance performer. I never did become a musical jobber, always bristling at that suggestion. Some undoubtedly considered me to be a snob, and there are already elements of taste-making or selected preferences at play. I perform this and do not perform that.


If one were to browse my website (, easily the longest CV is the one for media-artist. (I have made Super-8 films and am not particularly offended if described as a filmmaker.). Being a time-based media-artist, most of my exhibitions and/or rentals have involved either festivals or artist-run spaces. I also have a history of involvement with artist-run galleries or spaces, having served on the boards of Trinity Square Video, A Space, and YYZ Artists’ Outlet in Toronto and programmed for those galleries as well as Mercer Union, the Images Film and Video Festival, and the Cinematheque Ontario. All of this programming has been in a sequential time-based format; none of it has particularly addressed the gallery or exhibiting spaces. I believe this is one reason why my media-art programming is programming and not really curation, even though the works I have selected and assembled are intended to be in dialogue with each other. I have not curated media-art works or anything else since my 2003 invitation to assemble a programme for the Available Light Collective in Ottawa, unless one counts my self-curation of my own intermedia presentation Mono Logical, a compilation of video and film clips contextualized by live monologues, which I have presented in several Canadian venues.


Historically many artists who emerged from the artist-run centre network took on programming responsibilities, and  indeed some moved toward curation. The programming structure for many ARCs involved a programming committee. Individual members of these programming committees were responsible for implementing particular selected programmesthose for which committee members advocated during selection meetings. Sometimes programmes would be assembled by combining individual submissions and fashioning a group show and sometimes committee members would propose an exhibition focusing on a specific medium or discipline. Artists working in relatively new media or disciplines-video, media-arts, inter-active installations, and also performance _ took on the task of  programming for these disciplines because the art milieu was not exactly swimming with curators with expertise in these fields.


I have observed, during my multiple decades involved with Toronto artist-run-centres that curators have been rare, at least until recently. Typically in Ontario, ARCs have relied upon either boards of directors or programming committees to select their programming and have employed programming co-ordinators and/or programming directors who, for the most part, did not curate but instead acted in an administrative and supervisory capacity. Given the long hours and meagre salaries, artistic co-coordinators (and also operations co-ordinators) at Toronto ARCs are generally not expected to stay put for very long.  It is a given that they will seek out more gainful employment, often at public or private galleries.


Artist-run-centre is a rather broadly defined term. It can (and should) be used to designate any gallery or arts-organization managed and/or programmed by practicing artists. But this can have differing and contradictory definitions. Is the ARCs historical aversion to curators strictly an Ontario phenomenon? In Vancouver, there have been ARCs with salaried curators for some time now. I would argue that galleries with curators, such as Vancouver’s Or Gallery, are just as much artist-run centres as any of the Toronto galleries at which the board of directors forms the programming committee(s), since the chosen curator tends to be a practising artist and also since the board responsible for doing the hiring is mostly comprised of  practicing artists. . It is noteworthy that Vancouver’s Western Front — one of Canada’s oldest ARCs has for years deployed curators responsible for particular disciplines. It is also noteworthy that Toronto’s A Space followed the Western Front model during a brief period from 1979 to 1983, until the disciplinary curators were replaced by disciplinary committees. Now Gallery TPW is programmed by a curator Kim Simon  and artist-curators have been directors of other Toronto parallel galleries Jenifer Papararo and Dave Dyment at Mercer Union for instance, or Greg Elgstrand at YYZ.


For several decades, Toronto and Ontario ARCs were overwhelmingly programmed by committees of board members. Although individual board members do take on and/or initiate specific programmes, programming decisions have tended to be made at first committee and then board level. At YYZ, I was on the Time-Based committee, and that committee would appraise applications, arrive at a short list, and then submit that short list to a quorum board for approval. Since the process was dependent upon consensus, this meant that compromise decisions were not infrequent, and first choices were often sacrificed in order to achieve that consensus. Such a process is nothing like the typical course undertaken by a curator who has a green light to make selections and then direct the installation of those selections.


Where did ARC antipathy to curators some from? Well… a great number of the early ARCs were conceived of and organized by groups or collectives of artists who were frustrated by the lack of exhibition venues available to them but rather than whine about this paucity did something constructive and began their own galleries. (Storefront locations were easier to find and cheaper to rent back in those early days.) Given that many of the early ARCs existed as host spaces for the founding artists, or artists liked by or invited by those core founding artists, why have a curator?  Why even have an administrator who was not an artist-board member? Why might outsiders be necessary? This mindset probably seems absurd or ridiculous in the context of today’s blurring of distinctions between artist-run, public, and even private galleries but many of the pivotal ARCs clearly saw themselves in opposition to public and private galleries. The artists involved were perfectly capable of selecting the right works and installing them effectively, especially within the relatively undefined spaces that had been converted to galleries by the resourceful artists.


It has been argued by Susan Kealey in “As Alternative  As You Want to Be( FUSE, 1998)  that ARCs lost their original intention or mission when they became incorporated as non-profit organizations in the early 1980s.  Incorporation meant that board members could not exhibit for an honorarium in their own galleries which, of course, defeated the purpose of having created the space in the first place.  As a result, these ARCs became institutionalized as galleries, even while presenting themselves as alternative to public and private galleries (and certainly the museums) but how truly alternative were they to the public galleries? The general lack of curators constituted the significant difference.


Anyway, for a lengthy duration ARCs proceeded with programming committees comprised of either board members or gallery members or some combination thereof. Meanwhile, many artists had formed loose collectives that tended to programme on a project-to-project basis, utilizing found sites at least as much as hosting galleries. These generally younger artists and their collectives echoed the early ARCs and their progenitors, but they kept bureaucracy to a minimum. ARCs were perceived as being heavily bureaucratized and not particularly accessible.  In the late 1980s and early1990s, persistent mutterings about the quality or inventiveness of ARC programming (and even the relevance of ARCs) began to be heard within the ARCs themselves. Why this artist or this show and not that one? The answers to these timelessly pertinent questions weren’t readily apparent to gallery staff or board members when explanations and accountability were demanded. I recall being on a hiring committee for a prominent Toronto ARC in the late nineties and, while devising the questions to be asked of the applicants, I wondered what the correct answer might be if an applicant inquired about curation as part of his/her job as programming coordinator. (By this date, I would have been very surprised if none of the applicants enquired about this possibility. And the answer to that question could not, at that time, have been no.)


Nearing the end of the twenty-first century’s initial decade, I rarely hear anti-curatorial sentiment expressed regarding ARCs, not to mention public galleries or museums. However, I could not help noting Clive Robertson’s recent artist’s page in FUSE Volume 32 Number 3, titled “Enterluminato Doflieni: Invasive species further populate reef ecologies. Robertson, an ARC veteran and publisher, takes specific aim at the current Canadian federal government that slashes funding to artists and arts organizations but  reacts enthusiastically to the suggestion of a co-founder of the Luminato festival that it fund big international art competitions in which artists can compete for big prizes. Robertson’s collage includes a hungry shark of a curator, seizing the opportunity for his or her selected protégés to shine on the international stage. Here the curator is an agent of reduction and exclusivity, which indeed curators can be. But how applicable is such a characterization to artist/curators whose curatorial and artistic practices feed off each other while also feeding many other deserving swimmers in the reef ecology? Yes, curators may by definition operate in a reductive, elitist, questionably accountable mode but then so do programming committees and probably even arts-council peer-group juries.


Many of the curators making presentations at the Curators in Context conferences are also practicing artists. Some have jobs at public galleries and some operate as independently as possible from such institutions. Many of these artist/curators have roots in the ARC network — Paul Couillard, Ivan Jurakic, Dermot Wilson, Alissa Firth-Eagland, and Leanne L’Hirondelle, amongst others. It is noteworthy that there are ARC board members with curatorial jobs at public galleries — Michelle Jacques of the Art Gallery of Ontario has been a board member at Mercer Union, for instance. There have been not only private gallery employees on ARC boards but even at least one private gallery owner. I recall Rob Labossiere, YYZ’s erstwhile managing editor for its erstwhile publishing programme, cheekily noting that their board contained a private gallery owner — Michael Klein of MKG127. I replied that this was hardly unusual let alone radical, that these distinctions may have become fuzzy a long time ago but that it was and still is quite possible for an individual to wear one hat in his or her place of employment and another when on the board of an ARC or, for that matter, when being a volunteer of any variety.


Labels tend to become scrambled, especially when there are a lot of people who don’t read signage or programme-brochure credits or whatever. I think the distinction between a curator and a programming coordinator (even if the programming coordinator sometimes curates) is an important distinction. If I were a programming coordinator at an ARC who did curate, say, one show per year as part of my contract, I would not wish to have anyone assuming that I had curated a particular exhibition that frankly was not my cup of tea but for which I oversaw the installation because it had been selected by whatever the gallery’s programming structure and it was part of my job description to see it effectively mounted. Curation is so much more than simply programming. It’s important for board or programming committees members to take curation seriously — not to just install something that already exists into the space according to specifications  but to contextualize the show, to amplify and expand upon what the artist or artists had provided . Curation is bringing an exhibition to life- it is focussing on the interacting works or components of the exhibition and installing them so that audiences can make associations and engage in their own play, while not turning the artist or artists into mere vehicles for one’s own curatorial conceits.


Another issue regarding ARCs is the question of the degree to which they still actually exist. Even galleries that have staked out reputations of accessibility and accountability now tend to deploy tighter programming committees if not curators. Membership-driven programming committees  have always had a tendency to become either too cacophonic to ever agree on anything or are prone to being taken over by one or two motor mouths (thus becoming the opposite of their ultra-democratic intentions). At galleries where the programming is entirely a hired curator’s responsibility, what are the roles and responsibilities of board members? To contradict myself about artist/curators, are curators artists when curating and not making their own art? Well, yes and no. I mean, curation is at least arguably an art form itself — it is a discipline that people study and major in. And if the curator as his/herself an artist is hardly peculiar to the ARCs, so then what are ARCs today?  Perhaps ARCs can be information boards or websites for communities of practicing artists and art aficionados. Perhaps ARCs can be disseminators of information and not necessarily exhibitors of art works and artists. (I am thinking of Bruce Barber’s dispatch “From ARC to ICA, or whatever…”, in decentre, YYZ Books, 2008) Perhaps ARCs could be useful hybrids of Internet cafes and public libraries. Perhaps ARCs in smaller cities are closer to “traditional” ARCs, as they are more closely bound to their “communities”. But questions of international versus local tend to raise their heads with regards to regional galleries, probably more than with urban galleries that describe themselves as centres for contemporary art.


The idea of the artist-run centre does seem increasingly “local” in this age of multinationals and international biennales and so on. Local can of course be vital, but how committed might artists be to maintaining locality? To what degree can a gallery remain local and not become a sort of community centre hosting different interest groups, as opposed to a gallery with challenging and autonomous programming? Ivan Jurakic’s address to the Curators in Context conference uses a local versus national case history to highlight this conundrum, which is not at all atypical of grass-rooted ARCs. He also mentions crossing a line between artist and curator in his own interdisciplinary artist/curator practice. Here artists are still outside the institutions while curators are inside them. But there are independent curators who work at considerable arm’s lengths from controlling institutions. Although a movement toward having curators rather then programming committees may sound a death knell of the ARCs for some, I think the relative homogenizing of ARCs has had more to do with changing times.  There has not been a surfeit of available spaces for new galleries for at least a couple of decades now, and those who once initiated artist-run spaces are now older with less time and energy. Many veterans and younger artists have become impatient with excessive bureaucracy. Committees might seem progressive and inclusive to some, but to others they seem to be a bureaucratic hindrance with poor accountability. A lot of submitting artists like to know who is in charge, and what that point person’s aesthetic is.


I find that younger artists — those at least a generation younger than myself — cannot imagine the idea of a programming committee that might require infinite hours of volunteered time and commitment. These are ambitious artists who do not necessarily see a contradiction between making and promoting their own work and volunteering for a gallery in which they cannot show their own work. But younger artists, and also artists who have felt excluded from ARCs and their power structures, have been impatient for at least a couple of decades now. (In her paper for Curators in Context, Rosemary Donegan notes this indifference to ARCs among younger artists, many of whom are generally disdainful of bureaucratic classifications and not at all wary about exhibiting in non-art spaces such as restaurants.) When an ARC still offers open-call submissions, then it is the job of the board or programming committee or the programming coordinator to look at and evaluate each and every submission. That is a huge commitment, whether or not financial reimbursement is involved. Some galleries have attempted to deal with this by forming a sub-committee for each discipline. But not all submissions are easily categorized. When I was on the Time-Based committee at YYZ, it became clear that most of what was on video or film was intended for the main gallery,  these installation proposals or projections were as much about freezing and/or looping time as they were “time-based”. (And surely painting and sculpture are time-based, as in one should spend time with the works on display.) But returning to an all-discipline screening and selecting process is a huge commitment, involving a large and at least potentially cacophonous committee. I just don’t think many artists have the stomach for such a process any more. But perhaps my own experiences with this process have jaded me, and made me prefer overt curation (if it is good) to compromised programming. I realize this is not an absolute either/or option, but I do prefer that work be shown to best advantage and effectively contextualized. Somebody, whether a full-time curator or a curating artist/board member or an invited curator, has to take on the responsibility of selecting, installing, and contextualizing their choices. Artists deserve those commitments.



Career Bureaucrats A and B, themselves survivors of the artist-run-network, sip on their room-temperature beers and mull things over. They shake their heads and muse on how  ARCs are becoming more and more indistinguishable from public galleries and even some private ones, when many public galleries and even some private ones are encouraging exhibiting artists to address and deconstruct the physical and systematic galleries themselves. ARCs are becoming more and more professionalized why, so many of them now have curators! It is the curators in public galleries, as well as certain private dealers, who are encouraging exhibiting artists to do experimental things and question the gallery/museum structures that they are highlighting. (Someday, A and B posit, perhaps there should be a conference on the fascinating interrelationships between curators and dealers.). But an emergence of curators in the ARCs is not necessarily an element of creeping professionalism. Bureaucrats A and B nod their heads,  not all that sadly. Committee programming had run its course well back in the twentieth century, and so on and so on.