From practice to theory
As a consequence of my professional involvement in the art market and my work as an independent curator, particularly my collaboration with the team behind an artist-run gallery, I decided in 2010 to turn these experiences and the questions they raised into a scholarly study. Since then I have been working on my doctorate, on the topic of
“ON OFF SPACES:
Spaces of Artistic Self-Organization in Germany and their Positioning in the Field of Art”
My dissertation advisor is Prof. Dr. Beatrice von Bismarck at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig. 2010-2013 the project has been supported by a grant from the Hans Böckler Foundation.
The study centers on an analysis of the self-organized work structures of alternative art spaces in Germany.
I refer here to collectives who have come together to present their work and positions to the public, whether as a deliberate alternative to the established exhibition institutions or as a way of gaining access to them. Depending on the reasons behind an artist-run space, it can facilitate shared discourse, provide a platform and network for promoting the space’s artists and their associates, and/or aid their entry into the art market.
On one hand, they are quite popular at the moment and growing rapidly, especially among emerging artists and in the metropolises of the art world. The desire to collectively present and discuss art in a self-defined space, without having to answer to third parties (gallerists, curators or institutions), seems to be great. This is linked with the wish for a model of self-organization that has more to offer than producing art alone in a studio or other private space.
At the same time, however, many of the artists behind these spaces operate on a low- or even no-budget level; they invest more time and money than they can bring in through sales or grants, and often the only affordable spaces they can find are only temporarily available. Thus they exacerbate the existential uncertainties with which most of them, as professional artists, are already struggling. These working conditions, in their basic outline, seem to correspond to what has been discussed in recent years under the rubric of precarity.
My analysis takes up the following research questions:
What specifically motivates these initiatives?
What objectives do they pursue, and what definitions of success drive them?
How do they organize themselves, and what strategies do they employ?
How precarious are their working conditions in reality, and do artists critically reflect on them, voluntarily accept them or even prefer them as a constitutive element of self-organization?
The current state of tension can be seen in the way the art field is held up by economists as a model of post-Fordist working conditions. Qualities such as creativity, flexibility, innovation and self-determination—once distinguishing features of the “fine” arts—have increasingly become criteria in the economic field as well, the deviation thus becoming the norm. As Ulrich Bröckling notes (Das unternehmerische Selbst, 2007), every attempt to resist regulation is an integral part of the system against which it is directed.
In fact, not only has the business world availed itself of the cultural sector’s strategies, the strategies of marketing and self-management have increasingly come to dominate artistic ways of life/survival. Thus many artist-run spaces make use of methods of branding (catchy name, location, logo), fund-raising (acquisition of grant money) and public relations (fliers, website, press releases).Their activities go far beyond the production of art, creating informal niche economies and networks of solidarity. Artists become dealers, curators, culture workers and project managers, all in one person—and thus increasingly professional negotiating partners, not to be relegated in these times of financial crisis to the status of mere picture suppliers or passive critics of the labor market.
Consequently, artists are obliged to take a hand in the negotiations over their professional status, and to take positions—in the charged field between resistance to commercialization, on one hand, and affirmation of its structures, on the other—on their role, often reduced to pure economic utility, as “creative workers” or “artistic entrepreneurs.”
One option is setting up an artist-run space.