This post is brought to you by the boundless curiosity of Alex Megelas, whose original interview with Anne Bertrand led Anne and I to a thought-provoking three-month email exchange. This is the first of several posts exploring some of the interesting nuggets from our conversation.
“Is it possible that creativity in arts organisations not be limited to the gallery space?”
Anne Bertrand has been flirting with this question for as many years as I have known her. When we first met almost a decade ago, she was asking it from a place of frustration. She had spent several years working for an artist-run organization and was feeling quite disheartened as a result. How can it be, she would say to me in exasperation, that so many art organizations are run like machines? How is it that artists, who claim to be such creative free-spirits, so often end up creating organizational cultures that are practically void of this spirit?
A few years later, in 2004, Anne became a coordinator at Skol, a non-profit art gallery in Montreal that supports emerging and experimental art practices. In this position, her orientation to these questions became more generative as she began to experiment with ways of bringing an artistic state-of-mind to organizational life.
What if Skol was itself a work of art? What would it look like to take an artistic approach to managing accounts, running meetings, writing funding applications, greeting visitors when they walk through the door, or building a culture of trust and responsibility? How could the daily organizational life of Skol generate the kind of artistic pleasure that comes from creating, from making something new, from making something happen?
Pondering these kinds of questions wasn’t simply an intellectual exercise for Anne. Lived experience was what she was after. She wanted to create a work environment that would feed her and her colleagues as artists and as whole people, rather than as mere functionaries. And of course she wanted to do this while continuing to maintain a commitment to top-notch programming. She also believed that Skol’s members were interested in having a more holistic relationship with the organization- to see the gallery not solely as an instrument to help them achieve notoriety, but as a vital community space where they can connect to their peers, learn from each other, and feel validated as artists.
Skol’s experiments in expressive organization have taken many forms over the years. Much like the process of making art, the staff seem to be approaching organizational life as a constant dance between design and emergence. They have moved away from pre-determined schedules and towards more organic and participatory approaches to planning, they run their daily activities in a way that is less rote and procedural, and they have challenged traditional role boundaries, as Anne describes here:
Everyone takes turns working the reception desk. For many years, it was a position held by an intern because regular staffers were too “busy” to take time out from their workday to spend the afternoon chatting with visitors, answering questions, and talking about the exhibitions. Taking turns allows us to stay connected with our audiences and pay attention to their astute comments and body language; visitors are always surprised when they learn that the coordinator also takes a turn invigilating on Saturdays too.
Skol has also taken a more expansive approach to their programming:
Skol has slowly moved away from acting as a venue for the quick succession of object and installation-based exhibitions, toward supporting projects that can cross-over into other realms of human activity. We are contributing to a change in how the art world perceives the figure of the artist, not as a the solitary genius figure but one engaged in a variety of activities – education, research, information sciences, activism, community work – activities centered less on the production of objects than on the sharing and circulation of knowledge. We are presently in that transition with periodical moments of floundering and other bursts of what I shamelessly call The Sublime.
In many ways, Skol is exploring the space where art becomes organization and organization becomes art.
The visuals accompanying this post are works of Anne Bertrand herself who produces assemblages composed of materials collected from everyday life and chosen for their forms colors and rhythmic motifs.