After a morning lecture introducing a range of our projects to the 11 participants of Curating Lab 2014, we proposed a challenging exercise: to define a succinct "about us" paragraph for three imaginary institutions. (Named after the first three Pacific hurricanes of the 2014 season, no less.) Following the root of word "institution" (to establish, to set up), the task was not an architectural challenge nor a branding exercise, but one that first asked what practices are imagined to be initiated, how programmes are established and for whom are they set up.
Participants took into account the parameters we described for each of three art-institution typologies – a residency/studio programme; an annual festival and a commissioning body. After a one-hour brainstorm within each group, participants came up with a paragraph that concisely communicated the "vision and values" of the new entities, responding to "what we do, how do we do it and why we do it that way".
The task wasn't oriented towards building a "business plan", though an integral part involved consideration of funding models, and who or what has a stake in the imagined organisation – city/state, philanthropists/donors, users/members/tickets, prizes/open calls, etc. We didn't expect job descriptions, but participants were encouraged to consider what kind of roles the staff within the imaginary institution might take up – would it have a core full-time team or occasional collaborators? What skills or roles would be taken up across curating, producing, publishing, researching, hosting, leadership, and so on?
The exercise was not to come up with a pitch to potential supporters (i.e. in future tense), but to exercise imagination in the present and to define what an organisation stands for and actually does in a succinct way. The aim was to think holistically about their "pet" organisation, its different programme strands and its relation to its local/international network.
1. CRISTINA – A residency/studio programme
"Cristina provides residential, and studio facilities for national and international artists. It is based in several live/work spaces and as yet undefined rooms in a former school building in a small town on a remote island in an area of outstanding natural beauty. It is a day's travel to the nearest city. The local community of 800 people are mostly involved in fishing and farming."
2. AMANDA – An annual festival
"Amanda is an event-based format and is based in a major densely-populated prosperous city with a strong corporate and media culture as well as several world-renowned museums, contemporary art centres and universities. The events take place in a specific block of time and involve organised, extended presentations and places for viewing them."
3. BORIS – A commissioning body
"Boris invites artists to make temporary artworks in public spaces and locations that are not galleries or museums. It is based in a provincial port city that used to have a thriving economy based on heavy industry. The city is suffering from high unemployment, there are many abandoned buildings and wastelands."
A few days ago Rachel Spence of the Financial Times published an interesting article on "Artist-run art schools". It features a range of initiatives that are being developed with different profiles and results: from Ryan Gander's Fairfield International, a residency for artists set to open in 2015 (with business partner, creative consultant Simon Turnbull), to Wael Shawky's MASS in Alexandria or Marina Abramovic's eponymous institute with a focus on 'long durational work' (and her ego?) in upstate New York for which she has already raised more than $660,000 through a crowdfunding campaign.
Rendering of the Fairfield International art school to open in a former Victorian primary school building in Suffolk. Photo: Fizzy Dawson Mayer.
In the article, Spence makes an interesting point about the differences between the Gander and the Shawky approach: a key element of Shawky’s Independent Art Studio & Study Programme are the trips abroad "as the contemporary art scene is still limited in Egypt". Last year its participants worked as interns at the Sharjah Biennial and visited Documenta 13 in Germany, initiatives that helped them think “about the concept of the work rather than how they craft it. The discussions they have when they come back about what they have seen are really important", as Shawky explained.
At Gander's Fairfield International – read more about his plans in this Artforum '500 words' feature – there will be a sense of it being a retreat and its by the seaside, away from "all the art world distractions that don’t help an artist work". As Gander explains, “the two most valuable elements for artists are time and space with no need to earn money”. Here residents will be chosen according to both artistic excellence and financial needs, becoming "something between an art academy and a residency, entirely free to the  students who are also provided with a living stipend."
The article also highlights the common reasons for starting such projects: the failure of the public sector to provide a service [artistic education] and, secondly their sense that "artists who have enjoyed certain opportunities, have a duty to fill the gap".
This makes us think about which artistic-led educational model could be more applicable in a Spanish context – Shawky's "outwards" or Gander's "inwards"? A mixture of both? And in particular, which financial models could make it happen in a context with little philanthropic tradition or the luxury of a "sense of duty" to fill the very same gap Gander and Shawky talked about? Perhaps what we are really missing the most is an internal debate within the artistic community about if such models are desirable and if so, how can they be taken forward.
In summer 2011, we initiated Campusat the Espai Cultural Caja Madrid in Barcelona as a tuition-free, unaccredited, pilot art school. Four one-week working sessions were held during consecutive weeks, each under the guidance of international artists. This was a one-off temporary project (the Espai closed later in December 2012) which in part aimed to provoke such a debate in the context of the diminishing arts infrastructure of Barcelona and the upsurge in artists leaving the city to pursue careers abroad.
Work space during week 1. Photo: Latitudes
Having visited Glasgow and Dublin in recent months, two cities more-or-less comparable in size to Barcelona, and visited a wealth of artists, impressively well-equipped studio facilities, and numerous artist-run-spaces, one can clearly trace back the importance of generating a robust artistic community from a strong basis of residency-based models and art schools [Glasgow School of Art's Master in Fine Art being a particularly key example of this]. These feed directly back into the artistic capacity and ambition of the type of work being produced, as well as creating exchange, an influx of new blood, aweness of the work of international peers, and generating curatorial discourse.
Related reading on artist-run / self-organised art schools initiatives:
– In 2012, frieze featured 'New Schools' profiling artist-run art academies and education programmes The Silent University, The School of Global Art, The External Program, MASS Alexandria, SOMA in Mexico City and Islington Mill Art Academy.
– Most recently, David Batty of The Guardian [@David_Batty] wrote 'Alternative art schools: a threat to universities?' profiling the tuition-free OpenSchoolEast, which began last September in London, backed by c. £110,000 from the Barbican and Create London. In return for a year's free tuition and studio space, their 12 participants give one day a month of their time to community activities in the borough.