Should private funding models be underwriting new “public” art spaces?
By Jeffrey Spalding
Without much fanfare the shape of the arts waterfront has dramatically altered in western Canada. First it was the Rennie Foundation Collection, now joined by the launch of two new lavish-sized ‘privately-funded’ art exhibition spaces: The Esker Foundation in Calgary as well as the Equinox Project Space in Vancouver. Each is a marvel and blessing, each adds immensely to our lives. For voracious art aficionados impatient and frustrated by the paltry number of venues and far too infrequent changing exhibitions, these additional options are a much welcomed bonus.
My personal favorite is the Equinox initiative. It was coaxed out of a forlorn and dilapidated warehouse site, a financially-lean conversion into a crisp, clean no-nonsense handsome venue that humbly directs your attention towards the art, rather than compete via architectural flourish. Equinox’ maiden voyage of Fred Herzog work, followed by their current collage show, "Cut and Paste," tackle ambitious projects, intelligently curated. Previously, public art galleries would have taken these leads. Individuals of their own free volition chose to found and fund art institutions and make art services available for all, free of charge. Gratitude expressed; justly deserved.
Despite the celebratory shout-out, perhaps reflection is also in order, coupled with a modicum of caution. The proliferation of variants upon the model of the private art foundation amounts to a sea change. Is this evidence of a cultural revitalization, an irrepressible Darwinian evolution? Foundations are poised to be the agencies that will increasingly be privileged to select which art is shown to the public. What does this foretell? Truly, the last time we experienced such a fundamental re-ordering of this magnitude was with the inauguration of the first artist-run centres in the early 1970s.
Prior, the structure and governance of art exhibiting institutions was fairly uniform. All levels of government worked together with public subscriptions, memberships and private individuals to define, fund, and guide the evolution of a collective enterprise: the public art museum. Corporate and private patronage flowed through these agencies and their largesse was recognized through naming opportunities. Many consistent contributors have found their way onto governance boards. Influence upon the conduct, direction and programming of these agencies remains a witches’ brew, complex negotiations and jockeying between a m»lange of divergent stakeholders representing competing interests, demographics and values.
In Canada in the 1970s, it was the artists who rebelled. Tired of waiting for museums to energize and embrace the contemporary art scene, they lobbied for the creation of publicly-funded, artist-governed spaces dedicated to advanced art. They strove to exercise direct control over the delivery system that shapes art, and the centres became places for rapid deployment, bringing timely attention to the most intriguing and challenging developments. Now, perhaps the realities of bureaucratic funding procedures may be dampening their abilities to exercise a playful, spontaneous nature. Once a nimble speedy skiff, they too may be evolving into lumbering steamships, difficult to navigate, unable to adeptly turn as current conditions dictate.
In 2012, it’s become the collector’s time to exert their suasion. Rather than electing to direct his benevolence to amplify the lustre of pre-existing facilities at favoured institutions, the extraordinary gifts of philanthropist Michael Audain generously enabled new creations — the Audain Gallery at Simon Fraser University, plus the Audain Art Centre at UBC. Privately-funded art prizes and awards are similarly in ascendency. Unquestionably, each evolved for their own unique reasons, pursuing individual aims, and it's thrilling to see someone step up. But remember — it’s their money.
What they see, is what you get. At least with public institutions, as I have experienced, you can rally and toss the bums out.
The recent dismissal of Paul Schimmel, the highly regarded long-standing Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles further exposed fault lines in the public realm. All four of the internationally prominent artists on their board resigned. It demarked a fundamental rift in vision concerning institutional governance, and the artist-defectors defined their reactions as a principled defense of scholarly autonomy against the untoward influence of billionaire art collectors. Others considered it an overdue democratization of the viewpoints embraced by the institution, and rebuff of the dominance of privileged elite artists. Somewhere between these polarized discordant views lies reality.
In my opinion, we definitely need a national campaign, a dedication to collectively, massively enrich and appropriately endow our public institutions. If we do, I'm confident that they can inspire us with vital, relevant, socially responsible programs that fulfill broad-based requirements. If we won’t, then get ready for a return to reliance upon Versailles, the Vatican, and the interests of the 1%. As I recall, that hasn’t always worked out.
Recently appointed artistic director of the Museum of Contemporary Art — Calgary, Jeffrey Spalding is an artist, curator, former museum director, past president of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art and member of the Order of Canada.