Working Together: The Impact of Artists on Institutions. Organised by Wysing Arts Centre on behalf of Contemporary Visual Arts Network, East

The symposium aimed to explore the complex and relative dynamics between artist, curator and organisation. It focussed on collaborative methodologies associated with new commissions and their impact on institutional processes: one recurring question of the day being the extent to which such projects and working relationships do in fact allow such processes to be challenged and changed.

This discursive day built upon research trips to the Low Countries undertaken by members of CVAN towards the end of 2014.  The trips were intended as exploratory visits with a view to learning from other models of arts institutions and ultimately, of establishing networks with the possibility to evolve into future collaborations. I was fortunate enough to visit Amsterdam and Utrecht alongside CVAN colleagues and was eager to revisit the conversations and the flow of thinking that had been sparked by some of the fascinating and generous meetings that had taken place.

Connections between the Eastern Region and the Low Countries have historical precedents involving trade and migration due to their relative proximity. Indeed, Joe Hill (Director of Focal Point) highlighted in his welcome, Southend’s rather infamous pier. Stretching over one and a half miles in length it is claimed to provide the closest point in England to the Netherlands.

The invited speakers were drawn from many of the institutions that had hosted us. The opening keynote comprised of the eponymous Beatrix Ruff and artist Ed Atkins.  Our visit to the Stedelijk has been one of the most insightful, particularly in relation to how they had managed the lengthy closure of the galleries as it was redeveloped. The public programming team had been effusive about the hiatus had pushed the gallery’s work into alternative locations and buildings across Amsterdam to foster collaborations, whilst increasing the significance of their work through its increased visibility.  Liveness and performative practices continue to be placed at the very fore of their work.

With this in the back of my mind, plus the added knowledge of Atkins and Ruff’s working relationship spanning multiple projects and institutions, I was keen to understand how their artist/ curator dynamic would speak to the theme proposed for the day. Their keynote was in fact an ‘in-conversation’. As a format, it can often make me nervous as an audience member: a misguided tendency towards a lack of research and preparation is all too common, leading to a scenario where there is nowhere to comfortably hide for speakers, or those listening. The informal tone, however, seemed to suit the approach and structure of the day and initially raised some very salient points about the role of institutions. Ruff noted the public relevance of art institutions as key organs of societal development and described the ongoing- as well as evolving- establishment of them as reflecting contemporary understanding and thinking of vacuums in current cultural provision.

The conversation quickly moved on to directly address how artists and institutions best work together. Atkins referred to the critical importance of dissolving institutional apparatus and reducing the complexities of institutional dynamics to enable artists to drive them forward. And in this, I believe I was not alone in thinking he had a very valid point: placing artists at the centre of how we operate and negotiate our work within institutions is of paramount importance, especially those whom consciously assert they are ‘artist-led’. Indeed, there were also many nods in the room when he discussed emptying out of institutional fixations and the importance of organisations remaining open to new ways of working and continually reflecting upon their local, national and international relevance.

Atkins maintained an idealistic approach to working with galleries in his claim that making organisational infrastructure disappear in order for artists to have their entire focus on the making of work or exhibition was paramount. The artist was quick to credit Ruff with allowing him to maintain a distance from institutional structures, mechanics and bureaucracy and the significant impact of this on the success of his and Ruff’s ongoing working relationship.

 As a Curator, I aim to remain aware of the criticality of freeing up as much creative space as possible for artists to work. I wholeheartedly agree with Ruff’s didactic remark that it is in endemic in our supportive- rather than parallel or competitive -role and professional duty to be ‘enablers’. This comment did, however, set off an interesting- and personally productive- chain of thoughts about the expectations and limitations that occur naturally when artists and organisations work together.

My instinctive reaction was an interminably practical one. There are always physical, ideological and financial restraints in any artist-institution scenario: the manner and speed with these are honestly outlined in the early stages of a working relationship are the variables. The relative boundaries of any institution will always impact the work shown or produced by the artists involved. And whilst this may constrain certain types of working or presentation, it strikes me that such perceived ‘limitations’ can act as rich starting points for artistic exploration; whether it is the uniqueness of the physical space of the gallery, the different audience that may be reached, or the niche of the organisation on offer to artists. A mutual understanding between artist and curator of these facets which help make up any given institution would seem to lessen the need to eradicate all institutional structures and mechanics.

The presentation by artist Cally Spooner and Bart Rutten of Stedelijk emphatically highlighted the potential for both artist and institution when this mutual understanding is clearly embraced. In divulging how they had initially come to work together, to how their working relationship had evolved, they spoke with a clear sense of shared respect and experiences. That both seemed very at ease in the context, meant their discussion remained free-flowing, humorous and engaging.  Their approach to working together foregrounded reciprocal trust and strong instincts , whilst their on-going discussions post project – which resulted in Spooner’s work  moving from a performance piece to part of their collection- testifies to expanded possibilities when institutions seek to work  with artists in a sustainable and open way. It was a fitting close to the Case Studies and the stand out discussion of the day.

Defining Space: Making Studios Work

The Ethics of Presenting Film-Based Work: Reflections on a Study Day with Curator Dan Kidner, Wysing Arts Centre