What is the difference between Melbourne’s artist-run-initiatives (ARI)? Some of them, like Mailbox 141, a bank of glass-fronted mailboxes in the art deco foyer of 141 Flinders Lane, are obviously different kinds of exhibition spaces to the standard gallery. Some are obviously in different geographical but many are in the same basic location; Seventh and 69 Smith St. are only one tram stop apart.
So what is the difference between TCB Art Inc, Bus, Kings, Blindside, Utopian Slumps, 69 Smith St., Conical, Ocular Lab etc.? To the casual visitor – absolutely nothing. Regular visitors may notice trends in some of the ARI exhibitions. Only the insiders would know the different clichés that run the galleries. There is no overt ideological or stylistic differences, no overt competition and very little co-operation aside from Via-N via-n.org a hub website. The only real exception is The Narrows in Flinders Lane; this is one ARI that has clearly defined itself between art and design.
And what is the difference between an ARI and a rental space gallery, like Brunswick Street Gallery or Hogan? To the casual visitor – again nothing. Regular visitors may not even know or care. Only the artists renting the space and the committee running them know about the differences.
Many people involved in ARIs are enthusiastic about how an ARI mollifies the economics of art for the artist, as if money is a major aesthetic feature. Supporters of ARI argue that ARIs assist artists in their careers, as a step to commercial galleries. And for this reason many of Melbourne’s ARI’s attempt to look the same as a commercial gallery.
Although many of the ARIs pay lip service to a fading idea of the avant-garde of gallery art. The exhibition spaces provided are conservative, replicating the standard white cube gallery space. Most of ARIs do not want to visually distinguish themselves from any other gallery; there is no sign above the door saying “Artist Run Initiative” (Kings Artist Run, is an exception). Consequently there is nothing substantially different about the art that you might see in an ARI gallery and any other contemporary art gallery. They are nothing like the chaotic, dynamic mix of studios and exhibition space in the art squats of Paris and Berlin.
Maybe ARIs were important or, at least, relevant, when they emerged in the early 1980s but decades have past and it would be wrong to believe that this was still the case. Apart from providing exhibition space is anything happening at Melbourne’s ARI? Is providing still more exhibition space in Melbourne’s over crowded gallery scene of any great importance? Still more ARIs have opened this year.