Leaving space for the grassroots


As funding cuts continue to carve deeply, GEMMA TIPTONexamines the health of the grassroots, artist-led art scene and asks which comes first – the artist or the art institution?

WHICH IS more important: the individual or the institution? In the world of art, do artists create the institution, or does the institution create artists? The question is relevant now, perhaps more than ever, as funding cuts bite deep and Ireland’s institutions feel the pinch. Some, such as Carlow’s flagship venue Visual are now holding just four main shows a year, and all have cut back on their exhibitions programmes. But does that mean there is less art going on? On the contrary: the grassroots, artist-led and self-organised arts scene is thriving, despite, or perhaps because of the recession.

In the boom, high rents and the speculative eyes of developers saw a lack of affordable spaces for studios, and a dearth of exhibition spaces outside the “official” galleries and venues. Gentrification, which once followed the arrival of artists into an area (Soho in New York, Shoreditch in London, Temple Bar in Dublin) swept across swathes of Irish towns and cities without a preliminary look-in for artists at all. This is not to suggest that there was a lack of exhibition opportunities, rather that anyone wishing to operate outside the established system of galleries and curators found it hard to find spaces in which to so do.

It is probably over-simplistic to say that times of plenty encourage people to think big, while times of paucity drive one to think differently. Nevertheless, as the recession continues, and institutions have their funding pared back, it is grassroots organisations that are at the forefront of sustaining the dynamism, variety, experimentation and excellence of the arts. At the same time, artist-led and grassroots arts groups are in greater demand than ever before with establishment arts organisations, perhaps to lend that extra cutting-edge element to their programming. In Cork and Limerick the City Councils have caught on to the idea, and enabled creative groups to work temporarily from, and exhibit in, vacant shops and “Nama-ed” spaces.

The Complex in Dublin’s Smithfield (thecomplex.ie) is a dynamic theatre space housed in a disused warehouse; online collectives such as Mutant Space (mutantspace.ie) advocate and encourage the sharing of skills. The Print Block initiative (printblockstudio.blogspot.com) is a new collective for artists working with textiles. The Good Hatchery collective (thegoodhatchery.wordpress.com), based in Offaly, are a visual art group aiming to demonstrate that, with broadband internet, you don’t have to be in the cities to be part of the art world in Ireland.

Meanwhile, one of Dublin’s newest galleries, KTContemporary (ktcontemporary.com), operates on a short lease out of a former gym in Donnybrook and is using the space to exhibit the work of young artists, with no piece of art costing more than €1,000.

These are initiatives that rely on those setting them up and running them to be fast on their feet and able to take advantages of opportunities in the gaps, rather than having to follow mainstream planning processes and work within formal structures.

An overview of many of the artist-led organisations in Ireland can be found online at theartistledarchive.com.

All of this filters through to the institution, and Irish institutions are quick to embrace the energy of artist-led and grassroots groups. Those groups are also quick to be so embraced. In Cork, the Black Mariah group are now curating an exhibitions programme at the Triskel; and in 2007, while closed for a rebuilding project, the Royal Hibernian Academy “adopted” the Monster Truck group, which began life in a disused shop space on Dublin’s Francis Street.

In some instances this process can happen too quickly, and artist-run spaces do have a habit of developing to “become” the institution. The Temple Bar Gallery, once an artist’s collective, housed in a former shirt factory, is now one of the key organisations in Dublin’s Temple Bar Cultural Quarter. Monster Truck have moved to Temple Bar too, though they still maintain their Francis Street space. And the process continues . . .

A recent exhibition in Monster Truck was by another new group, White Wolf Projects (whitewolfprojects.com), set up by NCAD graduates, Anne Hendrick and Ciara O’Hara. The pair sum up the grassroots mood when they say, “we feel that the dreaded recession is in fact an opportunity for artwork to be true to itself, not bound by commercial pressures.”

In an ever-renewing cycle, as groups become more established and embedded, new ones spring up. Another artist-run group, Pallas, now in their fifteenth year, collaborated on the curation of a series of projects for the Hugh Lane Gallery in 2005, and this year curated an off-site exhibition for Lismore Castle Arts in Waterford. Facsimile, by Martin Healy, had previously been shown at Dublin’s Rubicon Gallery, so in a sense, the presence of Pallas in the mix simply adds the cachet of the artist-run to Lismore’s programming.

Pallas started life in an old knitwear factory, then moved to a block of abandoned local authority flats in Dublin’s North Inner City, and to a converted milking parlour in Stoneybatter, before taking up their most recent home, in a former pawnshop on Dominick Street. The project with Lismore Castle Arts is evidence both of a lively exchange and dialogue within the arts, but also the fascination, which very different types of art organisations have for one another’s worlds.

There is a certain inevitability to the course that takes the cutting-edge towards the centre: a group sets up, becomes successful, applies for funding from the Arts Council, employs an administrator, creates a board of directors, the administrator asks for a more effective job title so that they can communicate with their peers, the administrator becomes the Director, which sets them apart from the artists they represent.

Sooner or later, the paid staff are the only permanent members of the organisation, with all the institutional implications that go along with that. It’s hard to stay on the margins, as the system ultimately sucks everything in. In Galway, 126 (126.ie), get around this situation in the same way as Catalyst (catalystarts.org.uk) in Belfast, by refreshing the organisation with a constantly changing group of directors, who take on the responsibility for running things for a limited period only.

Nevertheless, 126 are just as keen as any group to work with the gallery system, and their recent Wishful Thinking evening of films was curated by the Glucksman Gallery’s Matt Packer. Perhaps there is less critical distance between edge and centre than one might think.

This creates an odd balancing act, as most institutions would like to be at the centre of the art world, whilst also claiming that they are on the cutting edge. It is a problem that besets all institutions, and particularly large ones like the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma) struggle with. In fact, such organisations are always contradictory by nature. When the Museum of Modern Art in New York (Moma) first opened in 1929, Gertrude Stein famously commented that you could either be modern, or a museum, but not both. Ever since then, museums of modern and contemporary art have tried both to reflect what is happening at the highest levels of the art world, and participate in the creation of the narrative of what contemporary art is.

Both Moma and Imma would wish to be seen as operating at the cutting edge, even as they seek to collect “blue chip” works by established artists.

If the boom was about mega-shows, massive building projects, and large-scale art fairs where the art had price tags to match then the bust is about crowd funding, pop-up spaces, co-operatives and itinerant artist groups, colonising spaces, and then moving on.

This is not to say we can do without the institution all together: of course, the artist needs the institution – institutions can broker international relationships, and act as a focus and showcase for ideas and conversations going on around the world in art.

Nevertheless, the dynamics of large institutional projects, such as Dublin Contemporary 2011 have called into question funding strategies for the arts. Is a healthy arts scene best supported by massive high-profile initiatives, or by enabling artists to live and make work, and be their own ambassadors for the arts in Ireland today?

All of the major movements in the story of contemporary art have come from the ground up, usually with the formation of a group around one or two charismatic individuals. Like the Bloomsbury Group in literary circles, and the Abbey Theatre in drama; Andy Warhol’s Factory created a whole new idea of what art could be – just as did Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists. More recently, in 1988, Damien Hirst organised Freeze, an exhibition in an empty London docklands warehouse, and with that the Young British Artists movement was born, which gave rise to the stellar careers of artists including Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume and Michael Landy.

So what is the lesson of all this? If there is one, it should be that if and when we recover, and the economy begins to thrive again, we need to remember to leave room: not to overpopulate the arts with official bodies and institutions, and not to get carried away with the promises and rhetoric of juggernaut events and organisations; but to remember to leave some gaps, for grassroots to grow up in the spaces in between.