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Beyond the fringe: Artist-run initiatives take the lead

Written by Lauren Carroll Harris on August 2, 2010

Wander through the labyrinthine lanes of Chippendale to Marrickville, and it will strike you: Sydney has been hit with a tidal wave of new galleries. Galleries like MOP in Chippo, At The Vanishing Point on south King St and First Draft in Surry Hills are among a new generation of art spaces that are strictly not-for-profit, often self-funded and always run by and for artists. They’re called Artist Run Initiatives (ARIs), and they’re blasting a fresh gust of air through the art community.

“An ARI isn’t commercially focused, it’s community focused, it’s art focused, “ says Mark Wotherspoon, a glass artist and a director of Marrickville’s ESProjects, which profiles local emerging artists, and takes no commission on sales. He says an ARI has “a different set of values to a commercial gallery. It doesn’t have the commercial imperative that those galleries are running on and that some people are making a living out of. This whole thing is an incorporated not-for-profit, nobody can make a profit here, everybody’s a volunteer. That works well because it means we can have very low running costs and makes it cheap for the artist.”

ARIs first emerged in the 1970s, with the rise of conceptual, performance and non-objective art and a disaffection with traditional art institutions. Many artists, particularly those who practice was centred on temporary performances or installations and therefore not able to be bought and sold, wanted spaces that were non-commercial in nature. The new wave of ARIs have emerged as spaces where new artists can grow outside the pressure of the commercial gallery system, and build their confidence while their art-making practice is developing.

“It’s not a money thing, that’s for sure”, says Wotherspoon. The DIY nature of ARIs lends them a different flavour from the public galleries, like the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the commercial galleries that operate along free market lines. “Sydney’s changing into this creative centre, alot of artists are coming through the city and realising that the commercial galleries aren’t that open. Most of the commercial galleries are booked up for the next two years with the artists they already have on their books, so they’re not prepared to take a risk on someone unless they’ve already established themselves and they’re going to sell their whole show. So there’s a couple of needs – there’s a need for showing, and there’s a bigger creative society happening as well. [Showing your work allows you to] get experience, some critical review and some peer review of your work. It doesn’t matter necessarily if you sell. One of our targets is to keep [the gallery] as cheap as possible so that it’s not such a big deal for an artist to have an exhibition.”

Though Wotherspoon thinks there’s still undoubtedly a place for commercial galleries, the independence and space that ARIs provide is vital for art school graduates, emerging artists and established practitioners.

Providing exhibition opportunities and experience to these artists is key to ESP’s mission, says Jen Wotherspoon, another of the ESP directors who believes the new generation of ARIs are part of a general resurgence of art in popular culture. “Art is seeping into the mass market. Having events like the Biennale is one reason for this.” She believes artist-run spaces are about making contemporary art more engaging and accessible, particularly for those who don’t often engage in their local arts community.

Artist-run spaces are playing a vital formative role in the Sydney arts community, ensuring it remains more of a community and less of an industry. No longer relegated to the fringes of the scene, they’re allowing audiences to see works often excluded from the commercial realm, and empowering artists.

“It’s really important to sell an artist’s work so an artist can survive,” says Jen. “But I feel it’s also really important just to show people’s work, to be that inbetween person that allows an artist to show their work to other people. I think that’s really amazing.”

Suss out ESProjects, or apply for a show, online:

For more info on other local artist-run galleries, residencies, studios and publications, check out the Sydney ARI guide:

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