Following recent disputes with Arts Commons—including an instance in which an installation by a trans artist was shut down and commanded to be removed—five artist-run galleries have announced that they will no longer be programming spaces at the large multi-purpose arts facility in downtown Calgary.
The five artist-run galleries ending their exhibition partnerships with Arts Commons are Marion Nicoll Gallery, Stride Gallery, the New Gallery, Truck Contemporary Art and Untitled Art Society.
At least a few of these galleries have been exhibiting art and artworks at the Arts Commons +15 Gallery spaces for more than 20 years—sometimes more than 25 years. But as of November, that will be ending for most of them.
At issue, say the departing galleries, is not just recent conflicts, which also include concerns about a Jordan Peterson lecture at Arts Commons and the related impact on their artists and audiences. The galleries, at root, say there is a longtime lack of transparency and respect in communications with Arts Commons decision-makers.
“They [Arts Commons] just refused any kind of creative solutions” to recent differences around B. G-Osborne’s A Thousand Cuts artwork, says Stride Gallery director Areum Kim. “And they did not respond in a timely way” to that and other concerns. “We thought both those things were pretty disrespectful given that we are partner organizations in the space.”
Stride Gallery, where Kim works, has been exhibiting art in Arts Commons +15 since the 1990s. And feedback from older Calgary arts leaders at a September 25 open forum indicated that censorship and crossed wires at Arts Commons is not a new issue.
“So this is what we are doing now, because they refuse to change and communicate,” says Kim of the five-gallery departure.
The fact that these centres prioritize artist perspectives helped make the decision even surer. “Untitled Art Society had two more trans artists programmed for the windowspace and of course, they didn’t feel comfortable being in that space [now],” says Kim. “In the end, a lot of artists align with our values as well, and they are not happy to be showing in Arts Commons, either.”
The challenge for these artist-run spaces looking ahead is determining new ways to make sure emerging artists have space to exhibit.
“We acknowledge that this [Arts Commons +15] was an important space, especially for emerging artists,” says Kim. She explains that, for instance, the next artist that Untitled Art Society was planning to show at Arts Commons, Dan Cardinal McCartney, will do a performance in the UAS mainspace instead. “Not having a set venue does put a lot of pressure on the workload for logistics,” Kim admits, “but maybe this could be a chance to experiment with different forms.”
Some other venues in the city are stepping up to help the artist-run centres in question. The privately funded Esker Foundation has a street-level window project space that will host artists programmed by Truck and Untitled Art Society next year.
“At the Esker, we totally support the artist-run centres and their decisions,” says Shauna Thompson, curator at the Esker Foundation and a member of Truck’s board of directors. “I think this has been a moment of reckoning about our values as arts organizations and whether those values are being reflected in Arts Commons as a partner organization. I think we all felt that we cannot, in good conscience, bring programming into a space where we don’t know if the artist’s work will be supported.”
Thompson hopes there can be a “positive in a negative situation” found here. “This action has made me feel really proud to be in Calgary and working with people in the community,” she says. “We are now thinking what other opportunities could be available for emerging artists in the city.”
For its part, Arts Commons is also trying to consider what’s next.
“We are saddened to see these galleries exit these spaces, but respect their decision to do so,” said an Arts Commons spokesperson via email. “We at Arts Commons realize there was a misalignment of expectations and communications between our organization and these groups. In future partnerships, we will clarify our own guidelines and expectations.”
These +15 windowspaces were, for decades, offered for free to local arts organizations, and were renovated in 2014. Arts Commons has confirmed it will continue offering these spaces to other local partners, “giving emerging artists more exhibition opportunities” as well, the spokesperson stated.