The importance of artist-run centres in times of crisis
Local artist-run centres remain committed to supporting community through global and local crises
From the climate change to war, homelessness to pandemics, there is no shortage of crises in the world. Community is crucial to not only navigating and surviving these crises, but also thriving in such times.
Over my last few years as part of the arts and culture team, I’ve seen how important not only art is for brining communities together, but also the artist-run centres that house these works.
Hamilton’s artist-run centres, including Hamilton Artist Inc. and Centre for Artistic + Social Practice, are core components of not only the city’s arts community, but also the larger Hamilton community. These centres have been committed to holding space for community from the day they opened.
Art is something many turn to in times of crisis and these artist-run centres can act as waystations, holding space for this work and offering refuge and an opportunity to connect with others.
“A lot of times art is a way for people to reflect on what's going on around them. It's a way for them to cope and to grieve and to heal and to find hope. For a lot of folks, art is a way to find meaning but also, it's where they find survival and solace. An artist-run center is a way for people to come together around those sentiments and it's a way for us to gather but also share,” said Lesley Loksi Chan, artistic director of Centre.
Like everyone else, artist-run centres have been profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve had to close their physical location, shift their programming online and contend with the challenges each new wave brings. However, they have actively risen to the challenge, continuing to host thoughtful exhibitions and valuable programming while supporting artists.
For example, the Inc. has continued to support artists financially as they had prior to the pandemic, while also expanding their staff, keeping individuals employed throughout the ongoing crises.
“We've committed to finding experimental and innovative ways to pay artists. During this time, our artists fees and the amount of money we're pushing out into people's pockets has not decreased . . . Artists are also experiencing this crisis. Things like the housing crisis are affecting artists who are primarily renters and in a precarious position, so we want to find ways to support them,” explained Derek Jenkins, the executive director of the Inc.
Centre has also worked to create new opportunities for artists through workshops and the opening of their new studio space this past November, while recognizing crises affect different people in different ways and as such, people will need support in different ways.
“As an artist run center it's really our responsibility to pay attention to those different types of effects that are being played out in the community and to really try to offer everyone the support that they need . . . even in terms of what does it mean to offer artistic support? For some people that is equipment; for some people, that is time and space; for some people it is moral support,” said Chan.
To offer the support the community needs, it’s important to understand the issues. The artists behind these centres are often politically and socially engaged individuals and they have been working on building an awareness and an understanding of these crises internally over the years through symposiums and workshops.
“We're constantly doing consciousness raising . . . when there was a fever pitch around helplessness and encampments and there was a lot of work being done in the city, but . . . we were in a position to understand our relationship to that work because we had been building this capacity internally,” explained Jenkins.
The housing crisis has been a concern for many in Hamilton these past few months. For the Inc., part of their response to this local crisis included issuing a statement in support encampment residents and Black housing advocates, following the violent actions of the Hamilton Police Service at the end of November.
“It's an act of solidarity. I think it's important, but it's not material, right? It doesn't actually impact people's safety in ways that are material and we do want to find ways with our internal
and external policies to support people and to make them feel safe and welcome in our community. . . We want to find ways we can contribute to the work people are doing to take care of their neighbors and actually do work to help our neighbors feel safe and feel supported,” said Jenkins.
There is a debate around the effectiveness of statements as a tool, as while they can be an opportunity to show support and share resources, they also run the risk of being performative.
Centre also recently released a statement in solidarity with Ukraine, and both Jenkins and Chan spoke further about how the decision to issue a statement can be a difficult one.
“There’s so much conversation that goes into it...and I feel like [the statements] are there to actually encourage discussion,” said Chan.
Both viewed statements as an important way of showing support and solidarity but stressed that it cannot be the only action taken; it should be done in conjunction with other, including sharing resources and considering possible adjustments to internal policies.
There will never be any shortage of crises in the world, but one does not have to face them alone. Hamilton’s artist-run centres continue to support the community through these times and to holding space for conversation and connection.
“It's an important thing to remember...it’s not a one-way relationship and building those relationships and building and practicing good relations involves recognizing whole people, recognizing whole communities and our attachments [and] obligations to each other,” said Jenkins.