What is an Artist-Run Centre?
Artist-run Centres (ARCs) are non-profit organizations that support new and innovative practices in the visual and media arts. Artist-run centres play an essential role within the wider visual arts sector by providing an alternative to what is available in the commercial sector, and by also acting as a training ground for the emerging community of art professionals, whether artists, administrators, historians or educators. Though artists often get their start at ARCs, they also often return to this structure to explore and engage in research and creation for new projects and towards new forms of artistic expression and community engagement. As sites of discovery and exploration for contemporary visual artists and audiences, artist-run centres are unique in their support of living artistic culture in cities and regions across Canada. They provide an array of essential services and community support. This support is fostered through peer-to-peer engagement including socio-professional networking activities, access to formal exhibition spaces and project rooms for public presentation, as well as exposure to new, thought provoking art forms and knowledge that cater to audiences of all ages and levels of experience. ARCs are run by a Board of Directors, which is elected by the centre’s membership at the Annual General Meeting (AGM). For the most part, the Board consists of professional artists. Members of ARCs are actively involved in the arts community and are typically highly educated arts professionals including: artists, curators, art historians and educators.

Since their inception in the late 1960s, ARCs have played a defining role in the development of contemporary art practices in Canada. By providing a framework in which to showcase experimental and non-commercially driven art, ARCs have been vital to the development of new artistic practices and have contributed to the expansion of critical discourse on contemporary art. ARCs have formed a pan-Canadian network of artists, curators, critics and arts administrators, as well as regional, national, and international alliances. By sharing the mandate of serving the artistic community and expanding contemporary art practices, ARCs in Canada serve as an autonomous network of many kinds of spaces for the production and presentation of art including: galleries, presentation spaces, artists’ studios and specialized production facilities, collectives, archives, publishing houses, magazines, bookstores, and festivals. There are approximately 170 ARCs in Canada. The mandates of certain centres are based on the development of particular practices (such as video and new media, performance, and print-making), while others focus on the exploration of particular identities through art (e.g. feminist and queer art, First Nations’ artistic production, or Francophone cultural production in English Canada).

Cultural Contribution
With a rich history that spans over forty years, ARCs have had a significant impact on cultural ecology in Canada and around the world. Generally, ARCs present contemporary art that parallels larger public institutions and private commercial galleries – offering an alternative to artists in determining how to present their work. Accordingly, ARCs can be said to fulfill the “Research & Development” needs of the Canadian visual arts sector. In fact, we can historically trace the development of practices such as performance art, video, and new media back to programming and education initiatives of ARCs. ARCs strengthen their community and Canadian cultural identity, increase the visibility of local artists, and contribute to the circulation of contemporary Canadian art on local, national and international levels. Most of Canada’s internationally recognized contemporary visual artists have come out of the artist-run movement, including Peter Doig, Jamilie Hassan, George Bures Miller and Janet Cardiff, Marie Chouinard, General Idea, while established artists such as Edward Poitras, Bob Boyer, Rebecca Belmore return to artist-run centres for pilot projects; the Canadian artist-run network is now an integral part of Canadian heritage and is envied the world over.

Professional Development
ARCs play a key role in integrating new generations of artists and cultural workers in the professional visual and media arts sector. ARCs often serve as stepping-stones for emerging artists to exhibit work in a professional context, but also provide young members of the artistic community opportunities to network and learn about cultural management by volunteering on committees and attending AGMs. By providing hands-on experience to emerging artists and cultural workers, ARCs bridge the gap existing between higher education training and professional artistic practice and cultural management. In fact, approximately half of all ARC employees are under 35 years of age.

Community Engagement
ARCs actively seek to expand their audience through community-engaged programming and activities, and has established partnerships with local community and educational organizations throughout its history of operation. In terms of artistic dissemination, many ARCs produce publications including exhibition catalogues, artists’ books, and critical anthologies. Publications produced by ARCs contribute to the promotion of Canadian art on an international level and participate in the advancement of artistic knowledge.

According to a study commissioned in 2007 by the Artist-Run Centres and Collectives Conference (ARCA) – an organization representing the Canadian artist-run community, most ARCs’ annual budgets are between $100,000 and $200,000 (including subsidies and self-generated revenue). ARCs usually have between 2 and 3 employees. Individualized artists’ use of the presentation and/or production space is at the heart of an ARC’s operations. Use of the centre’s resources and space is determined by either a curator/artistic director or by a committee of peers following a public call for project proposals. Because resources are limited, a centre will only be able to accommodate a small amount of proposed projects each year. Having their project selected by a committee of peers is an important form of validation for an emerging artist. ARCs encourage established artists to experiment with new ideas and techniques, providing them with support that they would otherwise not receive from a museum or a public or commercial gallery. Production resources and presentation spaces are then allocated to each artist/project according to their needs. Some ARCs also host production residencies that afford artists time, space and resources to realize new work. In addition to these exhibitions and residencies, ARCs often program free public events including artists’ talks, screenings, workshops and performances. In small localities, ARCs often constitute the only space dedicated to the production and presentation of contemporary art. Thus, ARCs contribute to the retention and attraction of creative individuals in these regions.

This content was modified from materials available on the websites of the Canadian Arts Coalition & the Artist-Run Centres and Collectives Conference.