ARI Who?

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 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. 

About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

3 responses to “ARI Who?

  • xero


    I’m not an enthusiast, but I thought the benefit of ARIs was obvious and widely known. Yes, the more accessible justification is that they are a stepping stone to commercial viability, but I suspect the ARIs themselves would baulk at this explanation. Their raison-d’etre is to support art that is not commercial. So they would argue that there is a fundamental difference between what was shown at them and at commercial galleries.

    The argument is that if an artist is making art unconcerned or unconnected with money, then their creativity is more free to roam into dangerous, controversial, idiosyncratic and interesting spaces. Even that the commerciality of contemporary art was in fact an undesirable constraint.

    The counterargument is that commerciality is the fundamental feedback mechanism by which an artist operates, and without that they are likely to wander into self-indulgent irrelevence.

    Really, both are partly true. Maybe the art in ARIs and commerical contemporary gallery looks the same, but really it isn’t.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Yes, seriously. The benefits of ARIs are unproven claims and not common knowledge, just assumption and justifications by those who think that it is obvious and widely known. Not all ARIs in Melbourne are focused on non-commercial art. And ARIs are not the exclusive providers of non-commercial exhibition spaces – there are other non- commercial exhibition spaces in Melbourne. There is generally too much exhibition space in Melbourne and I think that this effecting the quality of the exhibitions in an effort to fill the space. But congratulations on being the first person to comment about this polemical piece in the 10 months since I published it. I think that feedback on exhibitions is a problem for ARIs and this is one reason why I started this blog.

  • Types of Art Galleries « Melbourne Art & Culture Critic

    […] Artist Run Initiatives – (ARI for short) Galleries (or other spaces, like the advertising cabinets at Platform or the mailboxes at Mailbox 141, both are ARIs) run by artists. Some are basically same as rental spaces except run by a group of artists, for example Brunswick Arts or 69 Smith. Other ARIs have a more alternative program, like TCB, Seventh or Westspace. Some ARIs do receive a small amount of government support. (See my blog entry about Artist Run Initiatives – ARI who?) […]

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