There is new leadership at Peterborough’s beloved Artspace. Dylan Dammermann and Lucas Cabral are the organization’s most recent collaborative co-directors, following a model in which management is distributed across a team, rather than concentrated in a top-down hierarchy typical of many arts institutions.
It is a system designed with fairness in mind, and one which nods to the original form of the artist-run centre: collective, democratic, and with a consideration for local people.
Artist-run centres have a significant history in Canada, many of the earliest examples dating to the 1960s and 70s. Developed to support artists working outside of the commercial gallery system, this freedom from the economic market has generated some of the greatest (and most experimental) contributions to contemporary art in Canada.
Artspace is no exception. It is among the oldest existing artist-run centres in the country, established as a cooperative in 1974 by a group of local artists that included David Bierk and Dennis Tourbin. It has been a fixture of Peterborough’s creative community ever since.
Consistent in its delivery of strong, artist-focused programming over its nearly five decades, the renown of Artspace has long ago catapulted its reputation onto the national scene. Yet, it remains defiantly unpretentious and non-institutional, with a board made up of local artists who have deep roots in, and deep reverence for, the area.
Having started in June last year as newcomers to the organization, Dammermann and Cabral emphasize the importance of incorporating the wider community into its management, reflecting on their own responsibility to become acquainted with the Peterborough region before making any major changes to the way Artspace is administered.
Typical of most arts institutions, however, exhibitions are scheduled several years in advance, meaning Artspace’s newest directors have inherited a programme to execute over the first period of their tenure, granting them time to step gradually into their roles.
Despite this, the co-directors have already noted one area where their expertise can be put to use. With Dammermann’s background in arts and disability, and Cabral’s background in communications and outreach, they have made a priority of accessibility: proposing to remove as many physical, social and cultural barriers as possible in order to welcome diverse groups through the doors, especially those who have not historically had a relationship to Artspace.
This also includes extending the Artspace programme beyond the white walls of the gallery, to integrate sites across the region that are meaningful to community members. In particular, Dammermann and Cabral underline the unique geographic context of Peterborough, and the wealth of natural features in the Kawartha landscape that are a distinct part of daily life here.
This consideration for land reveals a desire to build connections with communities who live outside of the downtown core, in other areas of the city as well as throughout the county at large.
The aim, Dammermann and Cabral explain, is to empower art and to empower people holistically. In a place like Peterborough, with an already large community of artists, this is best done by engaging audiences that may not typically seek art in galleries, if at all.
An element of fun is central to the directors’ vision for community engagement. They each cite examples of past, pre-pandemic instances of the open-doors workshops and parties that Artspace is well known for (“Fake Prom!” comes to mind), and note that they have been brainstorming ways to capture this same energy within current pandemic restrictions.
Yet, the Covid-19 pandemic has posed more than a few sets of challenges to the local arts community. It has been two steady years of province-wide lockdowns, event cancellations and threats of illness. There is general burn out. Not only does the pandemic pose a major obstacle to presenting art to the public, its ramifications have included the closures of other venues in Peterborough, on top of the limited availability of affordable studios for rent, which themselves often double as alternative spaces for showcasing art.
A sense of the usual resilience and vitality of artists in the city has begun to wane, as the regular channels of support for the arts continue to be disrupted by Covid-19. At the two-year mark, the pandemic’s effect has produced a seemingly insurmountable fatigue. The directors at Artspace have their work cut out for them.
Cabral is “proudly pessimistic,” he says, about the realities of Covid-19, and what this means moving ahead for Artspace. Though challenging, he emphasizes that Artspace will need to develop a greater adaptability to unforeseen obstacles, which includes growing a more robust digital presence, with programming that is specific to online spaces.
Already this has been taking place, with the web series Back to the Basement with Ann Hirsch (4 November – 16 December, 2021), and Bennett Bedoukian: The Hidden Anatomy (4 January – 19 February, 2022), a residency-performance which has been divided into drum sessions viewable through Artspace’s front windows, and experimental videos uploaded online.
As well, there will be a more dynamic use of the physical location at 378 Aylmer Street, with former back offices being retrofitted to accommodate studios for a programme of artist residencies. Dammermann and Cabral acknowledge that finding affordable studios in Peterborough has grown increasingly difficult in the last several years, pandemic notwithstanding, and they intend to provide accessible space to local artists that does not dictate or require artistic output. Instead, the residencies are intended to encourage artists to create and experiment freely.
“Art is not just something that you see, it is something that you do,” says Dammermann. The space should feel lived in and comfortable, she explains, and the Aylmer Street site should epitomize the sense of community that Artspace represents.
Artist-run centres are a bedrock of support to artists at all levels and of all disciplines, especially those who largely operate outside of the commercial system. Such spaces have always been important to the ecosystem of the arts in Canada, particularly in Peterborough where there is a long and rich history of local art-making. But as the municipality undergoes changes—due, in part, to the pandemic—it is clear that advocacy for the arts, and artist-run centres, is now more important than ever.
Sarah Messerschmidt is an arts writer, researcher and practitioner with a focus on experimental and non-fiction film. Previously based between Berlin and Lisbon, and her writing has been published by the Burlington Contemporary Journal, Artforum, Art Monthly, Another Gaze, Texte zur Kunst and Third Text. In general, Sarah is interested in “trans-local” arts organising, and fostering community through artistic practice.