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Ian Carr-Harris

A Space [1987]

C Magazine #16, December 1987
[ 1,749 words ]


I have been asked to comment on A Space as it has functioned over the last two years or so. I accepted because I wanted to make certain points about the gallery that I feel are important; for the most part, however, this commentary will be a broad historical perspective rather than an attempt at investigative journalism, and I think it is necessary to start at the beginning.

Why A Space at all? In 1970, Toronto lacked the options open to young artists that we are familiar with now. Indeed, there were few serious options for anyone: [Carmen] Lamanna and [Av] Isaacs both had solid continuing commitments and could only take on new artists infrequently. Yet Toronto in the late sixties was experiencing the pressure of the postwar generation; it is clear that in 1970 fresh options had to be found which were independent of the conservative imperatives of the small Canadian art market.

In fact, A Space was forged out of the collapse of an attempt to establish an option which did depend on the market. Chris Youngs opened his Nightingale Gallery in 1968 as a commercial attempt to show different work in Toronto, largely American painting, but very quickly expanded to include experimental work from both Toronto and the U.S. By 1970 it faced financial collapse; in an attempt to save the gallery, Chris turned for support to a circle of artist friends who recognized the importance of the venture; it was agreed to fold [the] Nightingale [Gallery] as a commercial concern, and reopen as a public corporation — the Nightingale Arts Council — dependent not on the art market but on a charitable status through which it could appeal for private donations and most especially for public funds. The gallery became an aspect of the new charitable foundation, and was called simply: A Space.

In making this transformation, the founders of A Space stumbled upon an option which provided a solution to a structural hole in Canada's postwar efforts to construct, through the Canada Council (created in the late fifties), a national visual arts culture. By providing competitive grants to artists and operational funds to public galleries, the Canada Council established a need for serious exhibition space which in 1970 neither the commercial galleries nor the public museums were in a position to keep pace with. A Space, or more correctly the Nightingale Arts Council, posed a relatively inexpensive solution, since it combined the do-it-your-self-as-you-starve economics of artists' cooperatives with a legal structure for the protection of public money. The rest is history, as they say, and the parallel network was born.

The rest is also a curious and continuing mixture of structure and mandate. A charitable foundation legally requires a Board of Directors, a President, and so on. In its early version, A Space's Board was simply that: a requirement. The operation of the Gallery fell to a rather fluid assortment of artists and others who, while theoretically a Board, were also an undefined management and caretaking staff responsible for everything from programming to renovations. The inherent contradictions between a publicly funded corporation and the highly personal and focused dynamics of artists' cooperatives which A Space represented finally brought trouble. Following complaints that A Space's purpose to offer disinterested service to its community was not being met, the Canada Council suspended funding in March of 1978, providing a $10,000 grant for the specific formation of a consultative committee to redefine A Space's structure and mandate. That committee reported to the September annual meeting; its report was never adopted. Instead, A.A. Bronson of General Idea and Art Metropole proposed that A Space change its name and find a new space from which it would operate as a 'museum without walls': an office for managing projects throughout the community at large. It would, in other words, 'inhabit' or 'appropriate' the continuing structures of the community, rather than echo the dubious validity of the art museum, and its mandate would clearly reflect that ideology. The proposal was accepted, though not with a change of name, and A Space reopened in its current location in an office building at 299 Queen St. West. The Canada Council, satisfied that the original charges of mismanagement had been dealt with, reinstated funding; but the question of service to the community was more difficult.

Accompanying this new mandate, two important structural changes were made as well. The Board of Directors was transformed from a legal fiction into an accountable reality by opening up its membership to the vote of the majority of members at the annual meeting. This very accountability, a basic requirement for establishing A Space's new mandate, presented also a basic weakness: with a membership as small and potentially as ad hoc as A Space's, the vulnerability of the Boards to complete changes of membership and direction at the whim of the annual meetings was, and is, obvious. Correspondingly, the lag in programming options arising from the commitments to programming established by the previous Board introduces a further frustration to any sense of direction.

The other important structural change concerned the responsibilities of the new democratized Board for the daytoday management of the Gallery, particularly significant now that it functioned in the capacity of a control and planning office. Peggy Gale moved from Art Metropole to A Space to act as the new manager. This in itself caused some concern to those in the community who felt that the structural and ideological relationships between A Space and Art Metropole were in danger of becoming uncomfortably symbiotic. Frictions developed within A Space itself over the lack of a defined role for the managerial position with respect to programming decisions. In 1980 the situation became acute following difficulties between the guest curators selected by the Board to programme the year's events on the one hand, and A Space's manager on the other. It was finally agreed that the role of the manager would be that of an executive director with administrative responsibilities and powers in the operation of the gallery, but that programming choice and decisionmaking would remain with the Board. This clarification reflects the management conditions under which A Space has operated since 1980, although the resignation of Peggy Gale in 1981 and the appointment of a dual executive directorship complicated the picture in 1982.

The last two months of the 1982 Board were dominated internally by the breakdown of the dual executive directorship, and externally through political interference by Toronto Metro Council in voting to deny municipal grant support on the grounds that its programming was offensive to the community at large. While these issues have some interest, particularly the issue of service to the community which in one way or another has been a constant question for A Space, their particular nature rendered them more or less irrelevant to A Space's existence or purpose, and I will not go into them here.

What is of significance, it seems to me, are the issues of A Space's mandate to serve its professional community, and the related question of control over how that mandate is exercised by the annual general membership meetings.

The radical inhabitation of the community implicit in the concept of a 'museum without walls' was never totally adhered to. A Space has continued to provide a gallery space as well as sitespecific programming, and one can find the reasons for this in the relative lack of interest in political ideology that Toronto artists, and in deed artists elsewhere in North America, have expressed. Site specificity in itself is difficult in a country which experiences great seasonal .» changes and in a city which has almost no art press and only a nascent critical establishment.

The programming just was not there. Cosponsorship of events with other galleries has had greater potential, and A Space has at its disposal enough funding to make its joint sponsorship of events with other artist-run galleries an impor tant aspect of its programming, but this role as a kind of middleman between the funding Councils and the smaller parallel galleries is not ultimately satisfactory, or even self sustaining. As the 1982 Board discovered, the modified mandate to pursue the notion of a museum with some walls, a mandate adhered to despite a disappointingly anaemic response to its call for programming submissions from the community, had lost its sense of purpose. The Board, had it evolved through the annual meeting, was prepared to tackle this problem by more aggressively canvassing potential curators; in fact, however, it did not get the chance.

At the annual membership meeting in November 1982, the tensions and vulnerabilities in A Space's fading mandate and democratic structure produced a new Board elected as a slate for the express purpose of opening up A Space to certain defined communities, among them women. Blacks, and what one gathers would be grassroots artists. What this represents is a bit early to say; there are those who see it as an exchange of FILE Megazine for Fuse. Perhaps so, but in a curious way the concept of a 'museum without walls' may find a new purpose, and 'inhabitation' a new dimension,

The new Board, however, returns me to the issue of coherent and committed direction. It seems clear to me that as long as A Space is subject to the vagaries of those who can bring the most supporters to the annual meeting, its presence will be ambivalent. At the last annual meet ing, there were in fact three different contending factions; the new Board represents the faction which most successfully understood its political nature. One assumes that as long as it continues to understand it, the current Board may remain indefinitely; it must simply ensure that its supporters show up next November. Alternatively, it will lose to a new and different ideology. In either case, what A Space as an entity will be is in fact difficult to engage; it is as distant from the professional community as a whole as is the Art Gallery of Ontario.

What, then, is A Space? There is no final answer; it changes as particular pressures reform it. At the moment A Space has been appropriated by a number of committed and energetic members who wish to use it to redefine the social context for art making in Toronto. I am curious to see how long this particular appropriation will last, and what it can deliver.


C Magazine #16, December 1987

Text: © Ian Carr-Harris. All rights reserved.

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