Artist run initiatives (or ARIs) tend to be underground, unconventional art spaces. A garage instead of a white cube gallery or a warehouse in a suburb you haven’t heard of, where the art is more often than not a trialling of conceptual ideas, rather than an aesthetically primed series of work. ARIs show off emerging talent and are not driven or bound by saleability of the artists’ work. As such, they are free to experiment with a mishmash of values, forms and methods. There are a variety of structures and styles with varying objectives, but each space adds great value and vibrancy to the fabric of any local art community.
Sydney plays host to a number of artist run institutions, initiatives and exhibition spaces. These spaces add colour to the weekly roster of Wednesday and Thursday 6pm–8pm exhibition openings throughout the city, perhaps mostly through their commitment to different art forms, be they performance, interactive works, site-specific installations or experimental experiences.
Perhaps the appeal and charm of the artist run space is also born out of a commitment to break with tradition, or conventional ways of showing art. Alaska Projects established an exhibition space in a forgotten mechanics office in the basement of a Kings Cross car park in November of 2011 and has been showing a truly diverse range of art forms from an array of artists since then – making it a bright beacon on Sydney’s contemporary and alternative art scene despite being four floors underground. Alaska Projects director Sebastian Goldspink says that while the definition of an artist run initiative is fluid, the distinction is their creative, rather than commercial goals. “At the moment, some of the most exciting and innovative work is coming out of ARIs,” he says. “The value of ARIs is that they offer opportunities for artists to exhibit and experiment with ideas.”
In Chippendale, artist run MOP gallery has recently celebrated its 10th year in operation. The concept for MOP (an acronym for Modes of Practice) was devised one afternoon (over a late lunch in Surry Hills’ Hotel Hollywood) in response to the very limited number of opportunities and exhibition spaces available to artists in Sydney at the time. An exhibition held in honour of the past decade showed work from 10 now established and successful artists, (Ms&Mr, Mitch Cairns and Newell Harry to name a few) who all found their feet in one way or another via the MOP program. Co-founder and director George Adams says that the gallery “has always adapted itself to the changing of ideas, times and styles, so there is always the trial and error effect, which keeps it new”. MOP exists as testament to ARIs’ adaptability, only ever being confined or constricted by the creativity of the artists involved.
“As community venues, ARIs provide a meeting space and the opportunity for critical dialogue between artists, curators and the communities they work within,” says Belem Lett, director of recently opened Wellington Street Projects – a space between studios on the bottom floor of a large warehouse, also in Chippendale. This idea of community forms the foundation of most artist run spaces, where artists are given the chance to interact and engage with other artists in a social and convivial relationship, as opposed to a strict commercial representation or agreement. Lett says that Wellington Street hopes to nurture this artist base as it grows.
“The brief of the space when we set it up was to provide a space which can support artistic exchange, and which can foster a sense of artistic community at a local, national and international level.”
ARIs prove themselves as a vital support for more vibrant, energised and creatively thriving cities. Indeed, the artist run world exists outside of the priorities, expectations and convolutions that surround the commoditisation of art. Lett contends that the gain or reward from artist run spaces is found through “building cultural capital for an artist and the space, and engaging with artists from various positions within their career”.