Boxcopy: Run by Artists, for Artists

Boxcopy is an artist-run contemporary art space established in Brisbane in 2007 in response to a lack of exhibiting opportunities for local artists. Our focus is supporting artists to present creative works and exhibition projects that contribute to a rich critical dialogue in Australian art and a diverse national arts industry. Central to our model is to commission new works by artists and ensure the payment of artist and writer fees, which we have thus far achieved. Coming up to our ten-year anniversary, Boxcopy is historically one of the longest running artist run spaces in Brisbane.

It is important to recognise that small organisations are a unique and vital element of a multidirectional arts ecology and to problematise hierarchies or any simple linear story of progression, bigger is not always better. The greatest asset of artist run initiatives (ARIs) is their difference, from each other, and from other galleries and institutions, and this makes a vital contribution to the diversity of both local and national arts ecosystems. Artist run spaces operate at a grass roots level and are directly engaged in local communities. Nimble, responsive and adaptable – these characteristics are some of the key strengths of small organisations and collectives. Equally significant is the ethos of the ARI; to be artist-focused in all aspects of programming and management. Central to the capacity and potential of ARIs is for artists to be self-determining and self-organised. Just as importantly, they provide open, relational, social spaces connecting artists and creating communities of practitioners. ARIs like Boxcopy provide space for artists at diverse stages of their careers to play, test ideas, take creative risks, explore new directions in their practice and to connect with other practitioners and audiences.

ARIs are facing similar issues to other arts organisations within an uncertain climate of decreasing public funding and a general undervaluing of artists and the work they do. There is a disconnect between the audiences who enjoy and participate in the arts and the independent artists who subsidise the industry with their unpaid labour. Like many ARIs across Australia, Boxcopy is run by volunteer staff and we rely on donations, fundraising, sponsorship and funding to support our programs. These challenges are exacerbated by a dominant corporate model and metrics as the prerequisite for funding, with narrow definitions of organisational development and ‘growth’ and increasing bureaucratisation as the expected norm. ARI directors and volunteers face burn-out or a slow death by a thousand paper cuts. They also operate under priorities that are not reflected in short-term data collection. ARIs make long term contributions to the creative sector by investing in independent artists, in terms of both professional and practice development, which in turn benefits the broader arts ecology and creates a rich, diverse arts industry for today and tomorrow.

To appreciate organisational ecology is to understand the way that different elements support and nurture each other, to recognise diversity without succumbing to homogenising systems. One of the great strengths of ARIs is their ability to adapt, modify and reinvent existing institutional frameworks and to create new ways of thinking, making and engaging with art. Yes, partly necessity leads to invention, and working with limited resources requires ingenuity, and an economy based on sharing and time-giving. However, this also goes to the core of how and why artists work together and self-organise; not to mimic or replicate on smaller scales the dominant, market based institutional frames and models of governance, but to challenge and reimagine the present and future possibilities of organising and participating in the arts. Sustainability is more than just survival. Artist run activity is responsive, adaptive and the duration of projects varies depending on context. The challenge of running such spaces is to maintain these key characteristics within an increasingly hostile climate. It is important to resist competitive frameworks, to emphasise solidarity and forms of collectivity. One way we are doing this is in the formation of All Conference, a national alliance of artist run spaces. Collective agency is the foundation of artist run activity; the powerful practice that working together offers both strength and diversity.

Rachael Haynes

Director of Boxcopy