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Features / August 6, 2014

9 Thoughts on Running a Gallery—Without a Gallery Space

How do you run a gallery… without a gallery space? Given the rising rents in cities across Canada, this is a question a number of organizations have been grappling with—including Halifax’s Eyelevel Gallery, one of Canada’s oldest artist-run centres. In late 2013, after lengthy deliberation, the gallery decided to give up its permanent exhibition space. But in an interesting turn, Eyelevel framed the shift as an opportunity rather than a crisis. In April and May, the gallery packed its biennial Reshelving Initiative (a books-and-multiples exhibition) into a car and took it on the road to eight Maritime locations. In June and July, it held its annual emerging-artists show in a downtown shopping mall. In August, September and October, it is co-presenting talks in Halifax and Berlin. And also this fall, it’s bringing a series of performances to the iconic Citadel Hill. Here, Eyelevel executive director Katie Belcher shares a few key insights on the gallery’s experience so far, and what has made it work for her organization.

1. A lot of contemporary art may not need a gallery—and might even be stifled within it. “Critical contemporary work at this moment isn’t entirely based in a gallery,” Belcher points out. “There’s a lot of emphasis on performative work, installation work, site-specific work, things like that. That’s basically the niche that Eyelevel has been existing in for some time—and I think that those have been some of our most exciting projects.” Even when the gallery had a permanent space, for instance, it was programming residencies at Point Pleasant Park and using alternative spaces during its World Portable Gallery Convention project.

2. Local context is key. Halifax has a number of solid university galleries, so Eyelevel didn’t feel the pressure to also maintain a pristine white cube for local audiences. These “university galleries have really great space—quite expansive, double height, excellent wall condition, excellent lighting. So Eyelevel didn’t need to fill that role, in my view,” Belcher says. At the time Eyelevel decided to go “spaceless,” another artist-run centre in town, the Khyber, also a large gallery space at its disposal—though that has changed in the interim. “The news on the Khyber front [of late] was pretty disappointing”—as is the lack of rent control and municipal arts funding in the city, Belcher admits. But she’s planning to “hold out to see what’s happening with that in September,” when City Council is due to deliver a decision on the Khyber’s space situation.

3. Do what’s right for your gallery’s history and mandate. The decision to give up a permanent gallery space made sense for Eyelevel, Belcher says, because it was founded 40 years ago to push the boundaries of what an exhibition can be. “In our case, I think, strategizing for the future had a lot to do with looking back on our past,” Belcher says. “I think there has been a push in the last 10, 15 years for artist-run centres to become these highly professional, really organized, well-funded tiny organizations—and to me that’s counter to our really alternative history…. I’m trying to maintain professionalism in the things that matter, like bookkeeping and critical writing. But in terms of content of exhibitions and ways that you present exhibitions, for me it should return to the question of criticality, ideas, alternative models, community involvement, artistic innovation—things that are not maybe about finished work and clean gallery walls and expected locations. At least for us.”

4. It’s about bang for the buck, not necessarily saving bucks. By forsaking a permanent exhibition space, Eyelevel hasn’t saved money per se—it’s just been able to devote more of the limited money it has to programming. “For example, [if we were] to rent a gallery for 12 months a year, but due to limited programming money and funding at all levels, we could only program two or three major projects a year, then we are essentially renting a space that we are not using properly,” Belcher says. “So what we have decided is to make a better financial move, which is to spend money on our program when it happens. And that may mean spending just as much on rent but spending it on a location which his perfectly suited to the project”—or on a publication that will live on well beyond a performance-based event.

5. By going “spaceless,” a surprising amount of space might open up to you. On tour with the Re-Shelving Initative, Belcher says, “was a chance for Eyelevel to really say, well, we’re not in a space in the city now and because of that we are spaceless—and yet we now have access to the entire Atlantic region as our space, and maybe farther [via Skype, which was used in one of the tour’s artists talks]. So that was the jump.” Later, during its mall exhibition, Eyelevel found a space made available on a sponsorship basis that opened up to new possibilities.

6. Get ready to be exhausted—and stimulated. Belcher says that on her road trip for the Re-shelving Initiative she was home for two days out of 30. “I think I’m still tired,” she laughs. “But it was definitely about acknowledging this sort of slap-happy quality of being spaceless and celebrating it…. [It] was kind of crazy, and yet I’ve never felt so fulfilled.” Running programs without a set space can also require more volunteer support and board resources than running more typical exhibition program, Belcher says, “so we’re just working out those kinks in terms of how to maintain a really active engaged group.”

7. Prepare to encounter new audiences. During the exhibition at Park Lane Mall in Halifax, Eyelevel encountered many audiences—like mall-roving teens—that it didn’t usually see in its old space. “One thing I was super-excited about was… teens hanging out in the mall stopped in and really engaged with the work.” Belcher says. “I think it proved to me that your audience will step up if you ask the most of them. And it was it was incredibly satisfying for me to have a number of people coming in that we don’t normally access.”

8. Ultimately, giving up a permanent exhibition space isn’t the right decision for every gallery. Eyelevel took a long time to make the decision to give up a gallery space—at least five years, possibly more, in Belcher’s estimation—because in the end the decision is a difficult one with various risks and opportunities. In preparation, Belcher did research on other artist-run initiatives that had gone in this direction, like Third Space in New Brunswick and Dare-Dare in Montreal, and was warned in advance to be aware of changes to things like insurance fees and other matters. “It [giving up a permanent exhibition space] isn’t something that I think works for everybody,” Belcher says. “But it is so related to our history and our mandate and what we are doing,” that it is right for Eyelevel.

9. Still, being “spaceless” could be the new normal for a selected array of art centres. Belcher says she applied for her job last year knowing that Eyelevel was considering giving up its exhibition space, and she forsees it being the way the gallery will proceed for the next three to five years at least. “We’ve received really good feedback from the province and from the Canada Council about our shift in model,” Belcher says. She’s also looking forward to exploring alternatives to the annual members’ exhibition that remains a fallback for so many artist-run centres. “Small artist talks or screenings, access to a wall in a business if we can find one or a local business or café… and also kind of putting our backing behind members’ projects” in terms of publicity support are all options she is exploring for member engagement. Again, she says, this is reflective of the fact that contemporary artwork “doesn’t all happen on the wall”—and of reinforcing that Eyelevel is excited about moving beyond that, too.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is news and special sections editor at Canadian Art. A graduate of NSCAD University and McGill University, she has also written for the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail. She welcomes tips, corrections and comments any time at leah@canadianart.ca.