Beyond the fringe: artist-run initiatives take lead

Wander through the labyrinthine lanes from Chippendale to Marrickville, and it will strike you: Sydney has been hit with a tidal wave of new art galleries.

Galleries like MOP in Chippendale, 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 focussed, it’s community focused, it’s art focussed”, said Mark Wotherspoon, a glass artist and a director of Marrickville’s ESProjects, which profiles local emerging artists, and takes no commission on sales.

As an ARI, ESProjects has “a different set of values to a commercial gallery”, he added. “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, everybody’s a volunteer. That works well because it means we can have very low running costs and make it cheap for the artist.”

ARIs first emerged in the 1970s with the rise of conceptual, performance and non-objective art, and growing disaffection with traditional art institutions.

Many artists, particularly those whose 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 work outside the pressure of the commercial gallery system, and build their confidence.

“It’s not a money thing, that’s for sure”, said Wotherspoon.

The DIY nature of ARIs lends them a different flavour from state galleries, like the Museum of Contemporary Art, and commercial galleries that operate along free market lines.

“Sydney’s changing into this creative centre, a lot of artists are coming through the city and realising that the commercial galleries aren’t that open.

“Most 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.

“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.”

Wotherspoon believes the independence 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 ESP’s 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.”

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.

ARIs are playing a vital 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 allow audiences to see works often excluded from the commercial realm, and empower 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 in-between person that allows an artist to show their work to other people. I think that’s really amazing.”

[For more info visit Esprojects.com.au and the Sydney ARI guide.]

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