Essentials of opening an ARI

Opening an ARI can be a challenging, but rewarding process. Here are some pointers to set you on the right track.

Following on from the last discussion around the challenges faced by ARIs (artist-run-initiatives) and their integral role in the arts ecology, ArtsHub poses the question: ‘Is it a good time to open an ARI?’

‘Starting an ARI [artist-run-initiative] is like having a baby,’ says Alice Rezende, Co-Chair of ACT’s Tributary Projects and previous member of Outer Space in Brisbane. ‘You’ll never truly know if it’s a good time to care for one, but the learning and growing that comes with doing it is a reward in itself.’

Priscilla Beck, Co-Chair of Constance, an off-site ARI in North Hobart, shares this view: ‘Being involved in an ARI is an amazing experience and is also a supportive incubator for emerging arts workers to learn from on the ground experience, and contribute knowledge and skills to the organisation.’

For Blindside’s Artistic Director and Gallery Coordinator, Martina Copley, it’s ‘always a good time [because it’s] a necessary time for us to hear voices, ideas, share experience, and make changes’.

‘ARIs operate on the understanding that it is artists, not organisations who lead and show us alternative ways for organising,’ Copley says.

So, with these points in mind, here are the key considerations when it comes to opening up an ARI.

Key considerations when opening an ARI

Consult and reflect: for whom and why?

Bus Projects Board Chair, Nella Themelios says: ‘There is a strong history of Australian artists collectivising to self-determine and create their own independent spaces. ARIs can take many forms, but they usually arise out of a need to challenge the prevailing discourses, politics or structures of art at any given time.

‘They arise because community is so central to artistic practice and ARIs are inherently collective and peer-based structures. So, in my opinion, the biggest question to answer in starting an ARI is “Why and for whom?” and the rest will flow from there.’

Blindside’s Alex Walker adds: ‘[Think about] what are your priorities when presenting art? Do you want to show a particular type of art or career level? By defining these parameters you can ensure you have a solid framework and, if working as a group, you are all on the same page for where you’re headed.’

Try writing down some of your key values and attributes, and see how you can embed them into your ARI, from communication to engagement. Think about what gives your ARI a distinct style, but also gain an understanding of the artists and their practices in the local area – what can you offer to each other?

Look at peers in the industry who are already doing this work; reach out to see if you could start a conversation.

Blindside, Bus Projects and Constance are part of All Conference, a national network of 17 artist-led organisations that have banded together to maximise impact.

Rezende says that resources like NAVA’s ARI Factsheet Guides (available to NAVA members) are invaluable, but also ‘you’d be surprised how much people are willing to share when you talk about wanting to start a space’.

Structures of support

Luna Wenxin Xu, founder of Puzzle Gallery, says to consider the recourses need to operate an ARI. This doesn’t includes funding and operational costs, but also your own labour.

Xu reflects: ‘When I first started the space, I handled everything on my own for a long time, which was exhausting, especially since I had another full-time job. However, I realised this year that one person cannot do everything, and having suitable partners is crucial, especially since running an ARI is often financially challenging and demanding, with limited personal energy and creativity.’

kelli mccluskey, Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director of pvi collective, adds to ‘secure seed funding first [and] pay yourself for your labour. In-kind doesn’t pay the bills’. Also, ‘be mindful of burn out, pace yourself and don’t force it’.

Lastly, ‘think about who you can pass the baton to, it doesn’t all have to sit on your shoulders,’ says mccluskey.

A new funding program that is available to artists and small arts organisations is ArtsPay Foundation grants, currently open to applications for a pilot round (closes 9 May) with $5000 and $10,000 grants.

Read: Funding and the changing face of ARIs

Don’t be afraid to explore!

One of the most rewarding qualities of small arts organisations such as an ARI is the flexibility and agility to change and adapt.

mccluskey says that you can ‘start with a plan [but] allow it to evolve and shape-shift in response to the community’.

She continues: ‘There is a unique energy and sense of collegiate generosity that is palpable in an ARI – we are in it together, giving our support to each other, welcoming others in, always open to new ideas, not locked into rigid programming cycles, pushing practice forward.

‘And it’s also an opportunity to bring in our audiences during the making process, to test with us, to give insights and feedback, to be part of the making process with us, as opposed to at the end of the life cycle of a work. That’s such a valuable thing and it creates a much broader sense of audience investment,’ mccluskey says.

Rezende shares similar advice: ‘Emulate, but don’t replicate exisiting models/programs/ways of organising. Copy and paste ideas from organisations you love, but also think about all those things your local arts scenes do that are weird, strange or incongruent that you wish could be done differently/communicated better.

‘Think how you personally would approach it, and then make your vision happen.’

Rezende also raises the importance of digital offerings, a collective shift prompted by COVID, which also presents new opportunities.

’There is a lot of space to be reclaimed online that is apart from social media platforms and the overhead for putting together resources, exhibitions and community spaces is comparably low,’ says Rezende.

‘Ideally, digital programs should be hybrid and involve physical coming together opportunities too. Innovation is key,’ she concludes.

For more insider tips, check out how to set up an artist run space.

Celina Lei is an arts writer and editor at ArtsHub. She acquired her M.A in Art, Law and Business in New York with a B.A. in Art History and Philosophy from the University of Melbourne. She has previously worked across global art hubs in Beijing, Hong Kong and New York in both the commercial art sector and art criticism. She took part in drafting NAVA’s revised Code of Practice - Art Fairs and was the project manager of ArtsHub’s diverse writers initiative, Amplify Collective. Celina is based in Naarm/Melbourne. Instagram @lleizy_