Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Artist-Run Centres

Yesterday, while mixed-metaphorically paddling my surf board into that ocean known as the Web, I came upon a story the Huffington Post picked up from the CBC. The headline reads:

"Vancouver's Western Front, Critical of Developers, Gets $1.5M From Developers"

While the words in this headline are true (the Western Front is a perfectly critical institution that applied to a City of Vancouver competition and received a share of a nearby development's cultural amenity money in order to buy its building), there is something about the headline's construction that prefigures what follows from it -- something beyond a contradiction and closer to a moral problem associated with doing business with those who, if the context were different, would like nothing more than to add your land to their next block assembly. But was the Western Front wrong to take this money? Are they "hypocrites," as one CBC post commentator described them?

The Western Front is not the first artist-run centre to buy its building. In 1973, a group of practicing artists purchased that same building to create an art-as-life palais in which to live, work, exhibit and distribute (some of these artists were the sellers of the current building to the Western Front Society). Other artist-run centres who own their spaces include the Grunt Gallery (recall those mid-1990s ads in the Western Front's now defunct Front magazine that featured the Grunt Gallery's Glenn Alteen shoelessly shilling for the development that houses the Grunt's current space) and Artspeak (whose mortgage was recently paid off through the extraordinary benevolence of an artist and a private gallerist). The Or Gallery, which does not own its space, has been trying for years to match a one-time government award to purchase an apartment for its residency program, while that sub-leasing juggernaut known as 221A is, at least for now, post-ownership.

The argument for owning the building in which one does business (be it private or public) is a sensible one, as it remains the best way to protect oneself from soaring land values (and the soaring rents that accompany them). While increased land values also bring with them increased property taxes, owning one's building allows its owner the freedom to modify the building in order to capitalize on aspects of it. Whether this results in the Western Front Society leasing out sections of its building as a hedge against property tax increases remains to be seen. But if that is a consequence of artist-run building acquisitions, where does it end, and at what point does an artist-run centre's capitalization schemes begin to stand in for what we once referred to as its art?

At bottom is a picture of the current VIVO space, located at what was once the unthinkably distant address of 2625 Kaslo. For years VIVO occupied the main floor of a building between 3rd and 4th Avenues on the west side of Main Street, and for many of these years had an opportunity to purchase the building from its artist-friendly landlord. Had VIVO done so, it would be the wealthiest artist-run centre in the country. But like Melville's "Bartleby", it ultimately preferred not to, and there is something to be said about the integrity of this gesture when compared to what can accompany ownership -- and the context in which we experience its art.

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