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CCCA 20th ANNIVERSARY SYMPOSIUM

The Winnipeg Effect: Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

The Winnipeg Art Gallery, November 3-5, 2016


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PANEL 2
The Winnipeg Effect (those who came and stayed)



hannah_g


hannah_g: Institutional Generosity

What do I mean by "institutional generosity", a term I coined earlier this year as I was thinking about the vision I have for aceartinc and also how different institutions have impacted me? Well, let's start by looking at the definitions of the words "institution" and "generosity". An institution is an established organization which often has a public role and is recognized as being important or having significance in a society. An institution can be comprised of a small or large staff and serve majority or minority interests. The word "generosity" means showing a readiness to give more of something than is strictly necessary or expected. It's characterized by a freedom from pettiness in character and mind. Now, most if not all institutions have a mandate or mission interest that describes its purpose and often the spirit in which the purpose should be realized, enshrining the notion the Heidegger described so beautifully as "the means should correspond to the dignity of the end." And all those mandates are delivered by people. An institution is an idea or several ideas that have been systematised in order to create action. The idea or vision can be delivered to the letter and thus literally fulfilled or the spirit can also be fulfilled and this is where the idea of generosity comes in and thus the people who make the organization work. Attitudes about generosity bring in geography now and thus local cultural priorities.

Before I describe my experiences in Winnipeg I think it might be useful to briefly outline the 7 years I spent previous to my move here. My primary income came from my mostly full time employment by a national museum where I became the assistant learning manager. But my primary passion was squarely situated in the Cube Microplex, a small Indie cinema, exhibition space, music venue, bar and hub for artists and cultural producers. It was here that I learned about programming and operating a contemporary art space. I ran events, I ran the bar, I projected films, I wrote copy, hosted artists, managed other workers, put on a festival, and watched, watched, watched and listened, listened, listened to what everyone else did and how. I soaked it up. The Cube at the time was self-funded and anti-grants and we all worked for free. You learnt by finding someone who'd teach you or by discretely copying what someone else did.

I was part of the 3rd wave of volunteers, as it was called, and it was a heady time. If you turned up and if you persisted and if you worked hard and danced 'til 3, then you earned peoples' time and interest in you. It could be a bit of an intimidating place though. As well as the Cube I was also volunteering and working at several other places across the city. I ushered for two arthouse cinemas, I house managed for a classical and contemporary music venue, I worked the door on various club and DJ nights, I gallery invigilated, I ran a music exchange, put on a couple of exhibitions, and undertook various street art projects, or stenciling as it was called then. I loved contemporary art, I loved film, I loved music, and so I turned up where I could find it and worked and volunteered as I was too skint to afford tickets or the cover. Despite all this, I don't think I registered within the scene in Bristol and this was as much a confidence thing on my part as symptomatic of the city scene. The only place which took me as one of its own was the Cube, and because of this, my loyalty and love of the place is unshakeable to this day. It created the dream within me that I wanted to run a place where I could bring artists together and let ideas and imagination have a free reign. And it turns out that ace was the place I could do that, but Winnipeg's artists and other artist–run centres would make me finally realize my own artistic practice. When I arrived in 2008 and after being asked the two compulsory questions to newcomers (why did you move here?, and have you experienced a Winnipeg winter yet?). The third question would be, naturally enough, how long were you planning on staying?. "2 or 3 years", I'd reply breezily, "If that."

There's a reason why the number plates on cars here say "Friendly Manitoba". The friendliness really unnerved me at first. One doesn't expect one's new landlord, a stranger, to pick you up from the airport with a funny sign, or for that same person, (Talia Syrie), to provide you with a challah chicken sandwich and endless anecdotes about the inhabitants and places of your new home. One doesn't expect one's new colleague to come to work on Monday at 9 am even though the gallery is closed on Mondays, and doesn't open 'til 10 am on the other days, because he had a feeling I would show up on that day when I wasn't meant to, and besides it was nicer to meet me in person than emailing me. That was Garth Hardy. One doesn't expect to meet well in excess of 100 people at the first opening, each of whom knows one's name and wants to say hello. It was crazy. I happened to email Shawna Dempsey out of the blue, having no idea who she was, but sharing a mutual acquaintance. I received such a warm and friendly email back that I googled her and was confronted with a photo of a woman in an enormous vulva costume which, I admit, I didn't quite know how to interpret, but I accepted her and Lorri Millan's invitation to be toured around the good grocery shops and delis of the city, so I knew where to get some good food in this secret place and she didn't, I'm sure out of respect for a presumed English reserve, show up in the vulva costume. There was the time my mum visited me and I took her to a class at Martha Street Studio and the instructor, (Darren Stebeleski), taped up an emergency PG Tips tea bag to a piller in case this English Lady should require an urgent cuppa. When one is the recipient of such good humoured and easy welcome one internalizes it and then passes it on to other newcomers. "This is the way it is done here and this is how I can do it too." This friendliness isn't only deeply pleasant, it grows one's confidence to access the resources that are held by the institutions these people work for. It inspires confidence to ask questions, ask for help, talk about ideas and projects and collaborate to make them happen. Maybe it's because there's a feeling that Winnipeg has plenty of room here for more artists to come and live and work, that they're not threatening resources, that there's still a unaffected hospitality that perhaps our friends out west and east might be tempted to buzz–define as 'radical' because it is perceived as rare, at least there. But this hospitality is a generosity, and it is a characteristic of the artists and other people who live here. And because the people are generous it means that there is a high baseline of generosity to begin with within institutions. Artist–run Centres tend to have small staffs and small budgets here and so collaborating is important. The size of these centres makes us able to be nimble in our responses to artists or our sister centres‹ needs — because there is a basic trust and cultural basis for reciprocity. It minimizes bureaucracy, it makes it a pleasure to fulfill our mandates in their fullest and most generous sense.

And because one can see what happens to artists — one experiences it oneself as an artist — when they are given opportunities to create, given space, equipment, time with directors and artist administrators, because one sees wonderful things happen, then you want to keep on doing it — it's a cycle of generosity.

Generosity is a kind of openness and a kind of confidence. A centre is not going to lose prestige or deplete resources or be impoverished if it's a place that artists and other arts organizations can approach with their ideas and events that can be put on alongside their regular programming or that resources can be put towards. In my view, it makes the centre more responsive to artists' imaginations and thus keeps it relevant and on the up–curve. It guards against nepotism.

Through their systemic generosity there are several centres here and one in the UK that have changed my life and those of many other artists. It makes me want to create more and support other artists#39; creations. But systemic generosity isn't something that is created through bylaws and policy, though this can certainly support it. Systemic generosity within an institution ultimately comes from the workers and the culture of their workplace — like, can breed like. I'm not saying that every centre in the city operates on this principal, they don't, but most do. And I'm not ignoring questions of privilege either, but I do believe that once a person finds the courage or the means to approach a place to volunteer, or with an idea, and if they are given a chance and given a few smiles and a bit of our time and encouragement then they'll stick around, make a positive contribution, and be able to fulfill their ambitions and take us all with them as we take them with us.