On Artscape, arts infrastructure, and culture for what's coming

On Artscape, arts infrastructure, and culture for what's coming

UKAI’s research lead, Jerrold McGrath, worked at Artscape for 18 months and served as the program director for Artscape Launchpad, a 30,000 sq-ft creative space on the Toronto waterfront. Artscape is now being threatened with receivership and there has been much discussion about what to do next. We suspect that Artscape is but an early example in a series of impending failures as large arts institutions deal with the compounding crises of COVID-19, lockdowns, changing tastes, wealth inequality, and their own lethargy.

As a result, we have friends out of work and uncertain of their future. We have friends concerned that their home will no longer remain in the hands of those looking out for the interests of artists.

UKAI’s vision is “culture for what’s coming”. We are skeptical that current institutional models of arts creation are appropriate to respond to rising authoritarianism, climate harm, artificial intelligence, or mass pandemic. Nevermind the issues we haven’t even thought to name.

Over the past five decades, the arts sector has gradually internalized the logics of the systems it initially served to critique. The hyper-commodification of NFTs was not an aberration but simply a more ridiculous manifestation of an ongoing trend.

The arts used to get its money from tobacco until that wasn’t allowed. While at the Banff Centre, our research lead secured huge sums from oil companies and their foundations. Their motives were not always transparent, though we hope that some good came from it.

Toronto isn’t built on oil, though. It’s built on real estate development and banking. And so, Toronto arts institutions fight for the right to take money from developers or bankers that are making our home less livable.

What kind of world do you imagine we will inhabit in 10 years? In 20? Do we honestly believe that the current model of making and sharing art can have anything useful to say in a world that will be profoundly altered socially, ecologically, and politically? This is not a statement on the work of artists but rather on the contexts within which art is produced and the means by which it is shared and valued.

We don’t have the answers, but we are keen to test out solutions and to support others to do the same. This month we signed a sublease to occupy 7,000 sq. ft. of unused commercial space at Spadina and Adelaide. We are offering open studios, game nights, AI workshops, and an unofficial Nuit Blanche event to showcase what we’re thinking and some artworks left without a venue after the sudden events at Artscape.

In November we went to Bristol, UK to spend two weeks at Watershed working with their community to imagine and inhabit new cultural infrastructure. Later that month we were in Milan, digging into the poetics of synthetic language through a sustained engagement with the paper and printing industry there. Next year, we’re in Iceland for a month, animating the myths we might need to make sense in a world of ecological devastation and ubiquitous artificial intelligence. We are experimenting with durational works in conversation with the world around us. Very little of this is funded.

We need to be OK when tried-and-true adaptations no longer serve us. We are already seeing a withdrawal of funding in the arts as recovery money is removed from the system. Public funding is but one path, but we worry that more and more of these already scarce funds will be directed to propping up institutions whose models no longer reflect the world we live in or the people in it.
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