Last Friday I had the pleasure of attending Artspace’s 40th Anniversary party and hearing the story of its early years.
While the whole night was a treat, I was particularly inspired by Joe Stable’s slideshow presentation on the early history of the co-operatively run art gallery.
Back in 1974 there was almost nowhere for Peterborough artists to show their work in town. Even outside of town the options were limited, and rarely would they pay a decent wage for art, if at all.
This is part of the reason why Artspace, as well as many other artist-run art galleries, got started up: to pay artists a living wage.
Artspace always stuck by this ideal, ensuring proper pay for all whose art was exhibited within it, and creating blacklists of galleries who didn’t do so. Fearlessly, these lists often included places like the National Gallery of Canada.
When Stable said that, I was amazed by the concept of such a collective.
Here is a group of people with certain ideals about how the world ought to be. Rather than just advocating for those ideals they put them into practice and started something that’s still operating today, 40 years later. As their Mission states to this day, they compensate all artists whose work they exhibit “with fees that exceed recommended CARFAC rates.”
In the main gallery, the words first written by Artspace co-founder David Bierk “I will not grow old in Peterborough because old Peterborough is a pain in the ass” are painted in large black letters on the wall by his son Alex Bierk.
“Old,” to me, doesn’t refer to age. The work is much more a warning against becoming stuck in your ways, not adapting to change, and not continuing to adapt to a changing world. At 40 years, Artspace has yet to grow “old.”
But it seems to me that Artspace is even more fundamentally built on the idea that if something is wrong with the world then it only makes sense to do something about it—to attempt to solve that problem—even if it’s just on a local scale.
Not only did the founders of Artspace advocate for decent pay for artists, they created a space where those ideals were embraced. The result is a testament to the importance of turning ideas into action.
If, in 1974, those artists hadn’t decided to move into the old Boy Scouts’ office on the corner of Brock and Water, there certainly wouldn’t have been an Artspace, and there likely wouldn’t be the same thriving local arts scene that exists here today.
The beginning wasn’t glamourous—if too many people stood on the floor of the gallery it would sink—but over time, and with much support from like-minded folks, the gallery grew into what it is today.
Actually, that process wasn’t glamourous either, and creative solutions were employed along the way to make it happen. For example, Stable recounted during the slideshow how they enlisted the help of volunteer construction workers from a construction program offered at Fleming at the time to renovate Artspace’s second home on Hunter St. while saving on labour costs. Through government grants, they were able to compensate them.
Artspace is an inspiring example of what can happen if enough people stick with a project long enough to see it through.
What exists now is a nationally renowned art gallery that any city would be proud to have.
On the one hand I imagine that no one involved in Artspace’s early days could have imagined this is what it would look like 40 years later. On the other hand, I think this is exactly what they had in mind, and exactly the reason why they started it.