Size Matters – An exploration of the indispensability of small art spaces

At first sight, the art world can easily be divided into large museums and art centres on the one hand and galleries on the other. To put it crudely, the task of the first is to collect, to bring art to the general public and to write the canon by means of retrospectives, while the latter busies itself with the market and the value of art expressed in money. Between museums and galleries are the smaller art spaces, the whole of organisations that are smaller than museums, that are not market-oriented and which might accept very diverse forms of work: ranging from nomadic artists’ initiatives and temporary collaborations to institutions with permanent exhibition space.

Small art spaces

What connects this heterogeneous group is an experimental programme with space for young or lesser-known artists, close collaboration with artists, experiments with curatorial methods, a flexible programming, a local embedding and an international orientation. These organisations often work for a longer time on a specific subject spread across exhibitions, publications and/or lectures because – other than museums and galleries – they are not bound to a regime of quickly changing new exhibitions. They are not bound either to a large, expensive building and ditto collection, so they can afford a more flexible form of organisation. They are not only heterogeneous in their operating manner but also in the means with which they do so. Artists’ initiatives, for instance, often operate on the budget brought in by the artists involved, other small institutions receive grants or generate income through renting out spaces or selling publications. The deployment of personnel ranges from working with volunteers to four or five full-time employees (often spread across multiple functions by means of part-time constructions). The operating budget, the size of the team and, of course, the content of the programme play a part in determining the kind of space in which the institutions work. Nomadic institutions search for a suitable space for each project, others might use premises provided by the municipality and ‘no-budget institutions’ might even organise projects in their own living spaces.

What troubles the division of tasks between museums, galleries and small art centres is the fact that museums, large art centres and galleries increasingly tread on the terrain of smaller art spaces; think of the project spaces of museums where young art or new developments in art are shown or the curated exhibitions at art fairs that are not necessarily meant to sell. Historically, the smaller art spaces displayed the experimental and young artists who could not yet get into the galleries and museums. This clear distinction can no longer be maintained because of the increasingly hybrid forms of organisation. Small, alternative galleries specifically grow more alike small art spaces because they show young, lesser-known artists (of whom sale is not guaranteed) and increasingly implement a discursive programme with lectures and workshops. Some journals as well are rather directed towards developing a discourse and work with artists and theoreticians as curators do in a small art space; by developing projects, handing out commissions, deepening themes. Such journals might also, in a way, be regarded to function as small spaces.

This blurring of boundaries increases the complexity of the role and function of small art spaces; their distinctive position is no longer self-evident. However, there is a substantial difference between the project space of a museum, an alternative gallery and a small art space. This is due to the context in which the institutions work, the history of small art centres and their methods.

Art ecology

If you approach the art world as an ecology which has to consist of a wholesome mixture of education, artists, galleries, collectors, curators, art fairs, museums, critics and journals, art spaces are indispensable in this structure because of their flexibility and experimental nature. They are places in which artists hold their first exhibition, where curators and directors learn the profession, where the visitors encounter unknown artists for the first time and where new methods and presentation models are tested and valorised. Much of the knowledge, talent and innovation produced in small art spaces eventually finds its way to galleries, museums and the general public. Thus they are an indispensable link in the visual arts ecology, both in regard to the supply of new talent as to the innovation in the field. Furthermore, small art spaces, artists’ initiatives and journals have an important local function. They determine the local art climate and the liveability of a city for art lovers, artists, curators and theoreticians.

They have this local function both despite and thanks to their international orientation. Small art spaces work with international artists, engage in international partnerships and implement an international oriented programme. The international network of these organisations consists of similar institutions, the more experimental galleries, (young) curators and theoreticians. Within these networks, artists are exchanged, collaborative publications are published, websites are connected to each other and curatorial concepts are critically reflected on. The fluid and self-evident international methods of small art centres is unique in the art world because they are not hampered by, for instance, market competition or complex loan procedures.

The importance of these small art spaces for the development of the visual arts and the art climate is insufficiently acknowledged by politics, press and public. In the current political and economical era, this is a regrettable situation.

Political pressure

Small art spaces are heavily pressured internationally and their continued existence is threatened. This is caused by the dangerous mixture of governments which increasingly withdraw, the redefinition of grants as investments that reward high visitor numbers and a high revenue (two things that are inherently difficult for small art spaces), and the fact that life in big cities has become so expensive that operating independently is nearly impossible. The British Common Practice group has therefore recently carried out a study among small visual arts organisations to bring their importance to attention and to point out that the current political measures for this sector are disastrous1. The researchers convincingly set forth that small art spaces fulfil a crucial role in art ecology (because, for example, they give commissions to artists or develop new formats to reach their audience), that in doing so they operate significantly different than, for instance, the museums and large art centres, but that, despite this, governments and grant providers submit them to the same measurement systems used to assess museums or festivals. The requirements which are set in, for instance, England and the Netherlands with regard to audience outreach and own revenue are based on large institutions and on implementing a popular programme. Small art spaces, however, serve an inherently different goal than museums or commercial institutions, just as vital for a healthy visual arts ecology, but not as measurable and quantifiable in the same way.

The fact that high visitor numbers and a high own revenue are difficult to realise for small art spaces is exactly down to their indispensable, unique position in the field of visual arts; they conduct an experimental programme with mostly non-established names. Last year during a debate at the Dutch House of Representatives, Ann Demeester compared the small art spaces with so-called corner shops. These are smaller, specialised stores that, other than the large supermarkets, offer a distilled range of goods that is aimed at a smaller group of aficionados. (And this is quite apart from the fact that many small art spaces would be infrastructurally unable to accommodate high numbers of visitors). Because small art spaces work for an audience of enthusiasts and because hospitability and approachability (you do not have to pass revolving doors, security, cloak rooms and cash registers) are integral parts of their method, all activities are generally for free. These two factors are the reason that small art spaces are no match for, for example, museums and festivals when it comes to visitor numbers and own revenue. The fact that they are crucial because of very different reasons (supply of talent, development of new formats, experiment, functioning as a laboratory, a ‘learning space’ for the curators and directors of the future) is insufficiently acknowledged.

Circular Facts

The book Circular Facts, which was published by Sternberg Press in October, is a good example of the methods of small art spaces. The book is part of a long running study of three small art centres: Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory in Utrecht, Objectif Exhibitions in Antwerp and The Showroom in London. This international partnership made commissions to artists, organised symposiums and collected their joint knowledge on a shared website2.

The aforementioned briefly sketched questions and problems are also the approach of the book. The initiators of the project write in the introduction, for instance, that they want to qualify their relationship to the public (p. 5). The Circular Facts programme was initiated to investigate shared interests and ideas and to bring the functioning of small art spaces to the fore. The three initiators share concerns about the future of small art spaces and, in this book, they explore the role, quality and impact of these institutions in relation to the local and international art world, the existing and desirable relations with artists, and the direction in which small art spaces might be able to develop and the function they might take on now in light of the disadvantageous political and financial climates.

These questions are investigated by means of eight (mainly European) case studies. The different stories of small art spaces show how the context in which the institutions work also determines what can be done (Heejin Kim who runs Art Space Pool in Seoul is probably the most extreme example hereof), how divergent the methods of small art spaces can be (ranging from Bétonsalon, located within a university, to Bulegoa Zenbaki Barik, which operates as a collective), and how the current political pressure to institutionalise, to professionalise and, therefore, to bureaucratise produces resistance and friction (this is articulated well and entertainingly in the text by Francis McKee of the CCA in Glasgow and in the contribution of Will Bradley about the Kunsthall Oslo).

Take care

The opening text ‘Take Care’ by Anthony Huberman constitutes the book’s spine. He characterises small art spaces in terms of their behaviour, he places the how above the what. He writes, for instance, with regard to the blurring of boundaries between museum, galleries and small art organisations, that museums and galleries might perhaps take risks with what they show, but that they do not do so in their methods (p. 11). For example, they do not question the logic and structure of exhibitions, and museums continue fighting for higher visitor numbers. Small art spaces, therefore, have to distinguish themselves in how they operate and how they behave.

Instead of regarding an exhibition as a means to keep objects and processes under control and to use them to prove a point as a curator or to prove a statement, you might use the exhibition to discover, along with the visitors, how the point you wanted to prove behaves itself and how it develops. You would be publicly following, with others, the life of an idea rather than having your explanations ready in advance. The opening of an exhibition is the start of a process of thought, of a curatorial idea and not the end thereof.

Traditionally curators play the part of the interpreter who was to enlighten the visitors who are ignorant of something. They are – here Huberman uses terms introduced by Jan Verwoert in his essay ‘Exhaustion and Exuberance’ (2008) – experts in the field of ‘I Know’ who do not want to associate themselves with the ‘I Don’t Know’3. But as a curator you could also embrace a fragile relationship with knowledge and as an institution you might stop behaving as an interpreting machine. Instead you invest in the equality of intelligences (here Huberman draws on Jacques Rancière) in which they who know something engage with those who know something else (p. 12). So this is not a plea for abandoning the expertise of the ‘I Know’ in return for the anti-intellectual ‘I Don’t Know’, but for going beyond these binary positions. As an alternative Huberman introduces the affective curatorial approach of what Verwoert denotes as ‘I Care’ (p. 13). The focus of the institutions thus shifts from ‘knowing’ to ‘caring about’ or ‘caring for’. It is more important for your visitors to care about something, than it is to understand. It is more important to thank artists and to honour them, than it is to teach and analyse them.

To care about something, to care for something also implies that you have to pay attention to it. Thus, you have to slow down and take your time, for example, by repeating an exhibition, by doing long running research, by setting up a programme, by opening an exhibition for the duration of eight months (p. 15). But this stopping and getting of the train also means you fall out of the news cycle and that you will reach a smaller, more involved audience (p. 16). Finally, Huberman asks the small art spaces to remain unadjusted to the art world, which is obsessed by knowledge, power and scale, and to be proud of this unadjustedness (p. 17).

Future

The questions Circular Facts wants to address with this book are not all treated as explicitly. But those who read the book carefully are handed valuable handles that might help when reflecting about the future of small art spaces. As outlined above, Huberman urges us to review our methods, our behaviour, to care more about things, to care for them and to take our time.

At the same time, his assertion that the affective curatorial approach will draw fewer visitors is frightening. Because, even though this might be acceptable effect of the affective curatorial approach for the small art spaces – for we all want an involved and engaged audience after all – the government wants visitor numbers to climb4.

McKee does have an answer to this. In 2005, he had to rescue the CCA from a situation comparable to the current climate, i.e. nobody believed in the value and function of the institution. He writes that the financial malaise was beneficial rather than detrimental for the institution, because it forced them to answer questions about their right to exist, their role and relevance. When you know how to answer these questions convincingly, it is easier to explain to others why you have to exist: “Then you can change their opinion rather than have to adapt to their ideology” (p. 49). Instead of going along with the ruling market ideology and the accompanying demands about increasing audience successes and own revenue, we have to formulate our own answers. In his Strombeek lecture ‘Vermoeidheid, cultuurpolitiek in Vlaanderen’ (‘Fatigue, cultural policy in Flanders’), Gerard Mortier also lamented that profit oriented thinking dominates everything. On every occasion the question is asked whether this or that is efficient and if it will generate a profit5. Escaping this by not adjusting to this ideology is vital for small art spaces will not win the battle for their existence on the economic field. Their importance, their indispensability lies somewhere else, in the public, the social and, let us not forget this, the artistic field.

A second tasks is to, as Bradley phrases it, not to let “the bureaucracies, the flights, hotel rooms and train times, the funding structures, the audience figures, the white paint on the walls, the advertisements in international journals, the evaluative workshops” overshadow the existence of your institution and to not let them come in-between you and your goals (p. 65). A certain degree of professionalism is of course necessary to successfully run an institution, to know what you represent and where you want to go. Bureaucratic processes, however, create a distance between an institution and that which the institution represents: art, artists, the development hereof and the dialogue with the audience. You have to remain light-hearted as it were, facilitate flexibility and continue being open towards experiment. A viscous, bureaucratic manner of operating directly opposes that which characterises small art spaces and what distinguishes them from other players in the art field. Some institutions incorporate innovation by appointing a different curator every couple of years, by not renting a permanent exhibition space or by giving priority to the temporality of the initiative. Small art spaces are not temporary by definition, but in practice they often turn out to be. Museums, with their large buildings and cumbersome collections incorporate the suggestion of an eternal existence. Small art spaces, meanwhile, always have to have the option of abolishing themselves in their sights. Why you exist, the fact you have to exist, is not set in stone by definition and in advance. On the one hand, this renders you fragile because your right to existence might be questioned every single time, but, on the other hand, it hands you an unbridled and liberating space to continue changing, innovating and evolving. And this is, in the end, a great thing.

 

Circular Facts book: compiled by Mai Abu ElDahab (Ojbectif Exhibitions, Antwerp), Binna Choi (Casco, Office for Art, Design and Theory, Utrect), and Emily Pethick (The Showroom, London). In addition to reflective essays, ten exhibition initiatives have donated a contribution to the theme: Artist’s Institute, Art Space Pool, Bétonsalon, Bulegoa Zenbaki Barik, CCA, Konsthall C, Kunsthall Oslo, Kunstverein Amsterdam and Les Laboratoires D’Aubervillers. Published by Sternberg Press. www.circularfacts.eu.

Size Matters was commissioned by BAM, the Flemish institute for professional contemporary visual, audio-visual and media art. With thanks to Dirk De Wit. An abridged version was published in HART, December 2011.

Translated by Jacoba Bruneel.

 

 

  1. The study can be downloaded through the website www.commonpractice.org.uk 
  2. All projects of this partnership might be found on www.circularfacts.eu 
  3. The essay can be downloaded as a PDF-file on viaabstraction.uwaterloo.ca/MainContent/exhaustexuberance.pdf 
  4. Moreover, this problem is primarily a European issue because small art spaces exist mainly thanks to grants from the public sector. This public support is increasingly accompanied with utilitarian and market oriented reasoning and the call for more and bigger. A development which directly opposes the nature and methods of small art spaces 
  5. The lecture was held on 19 December 2010 at Cultuurcentrum Strombeek