Megan Wakefield on the vitality and benefits of peer-to-peer learning, artist-led and artist-focused organisations

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Megan’s notes from her intro speech for #MAPsymposium:


Firstly I looked at peer learning as a result of engaging with organisational membership groups with a focus on The Spike Associates Group at Spike Island – (around 90 artists and curators here have a programme of activities and events and a dedicated workspace in the building). A similar model to this is Extra Special People, a membership group attached to Eastside Projects in Birmingham. I also looked around 10 DIY artist-led groups in Bristol and around the UK.


What do artist-led / artist-focused organisations achieve? I’ll pick out a handful of threads form my own research here:


Particularly in the Transition Periods after leaving college –

Groups offer support, resources and opportunities, studio space and research spaces. Not everyone can afford to do an internship or volunteer and artist-led groups have offered a chance try out different art-related roles within a flexible, supportive framework.


Participants talked about the importance of building self-belief to sustain a practice, and a sense of some sort of artistic identity. Engaging with artist-led groups and membership giving them a sense of affirmation and belonging as well as motivation.

In the research people talked about the value of being part of a wider ‘conversation’ about art as well as a wider community


Artist-led initiatives can also provide access to a reflective space in which to experiment with the identity of practices. Many artists I spoke to talked about the pressure to self-promote and manage their visibility and artist-led initiatives had often given them a less codified platform where they felt able to make mistakes or have an amorphous/’undecidable’ practice-identity.


I was interested in the entanglements that came from dwelling with one another: Regular contact in groups can lead to shared histories – a shorthand can develop between artists that leads to collaborations.


This sense of shared owner ship and control in ARTIST-LED groups also produces an extended community or group alumni: in Transmission, Catalyst and Outpost, members, ex-members, ex-committee members still felt emotionally invested or interested in the progress of a group and can influence it’s activities and act as a source of distributed tacit and explicit knowledge.

People often speak about artist-led activity in overtly ethical terms, referring to hospitality, generosity and reciprocity, but I found that there is a real tension at certain stages where friendship meets a strong desire for rigorous critique. So, artists also talked about wanting new, unfamiliar input within groups that would rupture the status-quo.

With this in mind, I am particularly interested in the differences that emerge between artist-led DIY groups and these membership groups attached to larger organisations.

More galleries are initiating membership groups for artist-development– Fairly recent examples would be Aspex Artists Associates in Portsmouth and Plymouth Art Centre Home group. Like DIY groups they aspire to be practice-orientated, but also social spaces.

Members of the Spike Associates talked about this group in terms of it’s weak ties, flexibility and transience, which was sometimes useful to practice and critique – there can be a sense amongst organisers and that you are meant to “graduate through” these groups rather than become dependent upon them. This fosters access to useful resources, information, and contacts, and perhaps less of a sense of community – or do these groups signal a different idea of community?

Looking at the subtle differences in the ways in which artists engage with membership groups started by organisations and with DIY initiatives – what can these models learn from one another?


Megan’s reflections on the day

Good discussions all round, but I had particular responses to Panel 3 about the relationship between artists and organisations.

It was suggested that rather than thinking about public and private, we could think in terms of The Commons (after Hardt and Negri) and think of institutions not only as formal organisations, but also as social practices.

This struck a chord, particularly in relation to other debates during the day where the artist’s relationship with arts organisations and art networks recurred. As David pointed out, students benefit colleges as much as colleges benefit students. I related this to arts organisations offering artists’ development programmes – those with membership groups and similar initiatives. In such organisational structures hierarchies are usually necessarily explicit, but I agree that it is desirable for these reciprocal benefits to be acknowledged for cultures to change, and for the financial distribution of resources in organisations as they relate to students and artists to be made more transparent.

On this panel there were several references to what artists should ‘expect’ and how ‘ambitious’ they could be. Most artists I know are incredibly entrepreneurial and do not, I think, regard themselves as having a right to funding or depend upon it solely to make their work. They can apply for it, but often plan with the assumption that it may not be forthcoming.

Of course, the art world thrives on an economy of reputation and formal and informal relationships blur in almost every aspect of it. However, I felt that it is important to recognise that knots of power exist in non-hierarchical and informal structures too and that such relationship-building is often contingent not only on the practice, but also upon articulacy, assertiveness (Berardi writes about the “injunction to express”) and, at times, one’s facility with trends in particular theoretical discourses. I am aware of the irony of stating of this as someone with a doctorate in the arts! The debate led me to think about the many skills needed to negotiate this landscape without anxiety, the ever-present theme of precarity and its implications for the way we are altering our views on dependency.




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