YYZ Artists' Outlet
Toronto, Ontario

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YYZ in the 90s
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What is your relationship to YYZ Artists' Outlet?

I have been coming to the gallery in its various locations since I started to come to Toronto to look at contemporary art in the late 1980s. This is one of the places, along with Mercer Union, that I counted on to always have something interesting going on. Then in the early 2000s, I was living in the city and writing as much as I could about art, especially for Lola. Kym Pruesse, who I originally knew from the Theory and Criticism program at the University of Western Ontario, contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in board work. Kym said that she thought that my background as an editor would be a help, especially with YYZBOOKS. On the board I had the opportunity to be involved in all aspects of the running of the organization from nuts and bolts of accounting rules to "visioning" what kind organization we should be to helping to make programming decisions. For two spells I was the chair of the board. It was a huge privilege and a never-ending challenge.

YYZ Artists' Outlet today arguably functions as a service organization. Could you comment on the role that YYZ Artists' Outlet serves today in the Canadian arts community, and how that evolved during the time you have been associated with YYZ?

I would argue against YYZ being characterized as a "service organization." Service is undoubtedly part of the equation. No one gets involved in an artist-run organization if service is not part of why they are there, even if it is service that benefits a narrow community. At the same time, the board with significant input from staff and volunteers decides who or what it likes and doesn't like, what it wants to show and not to show, whose work it will seriously consider and whose it doesn't want to look at. It would be nave to think otherwise. That is, the organization isn't set up to strictly altruistic or fair. It is set up to show what the board thinks is excellent or important or provocative work by artists who we think should be supported.

What is YYZ's relationship with the arts councils today? In your opinion, does YYZ function as an extension of the arts councils, or is it solitary? To what extent does receiving public funds factor into the decision making process?

While I am not exactly sure what the organization's current relationship with the arts council is like, I can say that simply tried to deal with the arts councils directly and professionally. It was smartest and easiest thing to do. We would tell them what we are doing, or not doing, and give them the reasons why in terms that they would understand. Overall, the approach of YYZ was, don't worry too much about the councils, just focus on good programming and good publishing and assume that the rest would fall into place. That is exactly what has happened with the exhibition program. Publishing was/is a different situation.

I don't see YYZ as being either an extension of the arts councils or solitary. The organization obviously operates in a way that is consistent with what the councils are looking for, what they want their money to help achieve. With that said, we had near total autonomy over what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it. Did we feel the expectation of the councils to have, say, coherent governance structures or the involvement of accountants in examining our finances? Absolutely. But by meeting those fairly modest standards of professionalism we could create the kind of organization we wanted to be a part of.

Public funds factor into the decision making process by helping to define what you are able to do as an organization. We had enough money to rent an accessible space in downtown Toronto where we would put up shows, run a residency program, operate a modest publishing program, pay a director and a group of part time staff and interns, and get involved in whatever else we can afford and have time to do. That is, the goal was break even and to put to work every dollar we would receive from arts councils along with the few dollars we could raise or earn.

How does the board approach programming? Who makes the decisions? How is a decision made, and under what terms?

When I became involved on the board programming was done in a very straight kind of way. While we would fire through slides or pay attention to video work, we would take turns reading aloud the artists's statement and highlights from their CV. I always found the process a bit hair raising and a bit nauseating because you had a tremendous amount of disparate information being thrown at you simultaneously, while at the same time you knew that you owed the artist full empathetic/critical attention. Sometimes or more of us was acquainted with the artist's work, but more often than not, we needed to be introduced to the artist and their work. If we liked someone's work enough to offer them a show, we usually ended up showing more-or-less what they proposed to show, a completed body of work. When we would receive packages from people who were proposing to create a wholly new project, we were at times a bit flummoxed. Can we take a chance on something that we haven't seen? Should we ask them to develop their ideas and then contact us? Unless we were very familiar with the artist and their work, we shied away from inviting artists to bring something brand new.

Then, starting in 2006 or so, we paused things and did some thinking about who we are, what we have been and where we want to go. The questions were, should we change into something else, perhaps really professionalize the organization, hire a director-curator and create an institute of contemporary art? Should we just continue doing what we are doing? Or should we do something else altogether? At one point, after interminable meetings facilitated by a consultant, Gregory Elgstrand, our inspiring director at the time, invited AA Bronson to come to lunch with the staff and board and to talk to us about the history of artist run centres. His talk at the gallery was highlighted by his enthusiastic description of the Vienna Secession and their model of looking at artists they are interested in, artists whose practices they want to support, and their insistence on inviting people to create new work in their space. When we heard that, it gave the group the direction it was looking for. Once we committed to that pursuing that type of programming model, one that truly empowered artists and embraced risk, and that arguably returned the organization to the fundamentals of artist-run culture, a whole range of exciting possibilities presented themselves. The first and in my mind most emblematic of this new way of programming was the residency program.

How does the board look at accountability in respects to YYZ Artists' Outlet?

Within the organization, decisions are made by consensus. For that reason everyone is accountable to one another in the sense that everyone is, or at least should be, aware about what is being decided and what the decision is. The organization is very flat and non-hierarchical. Chair, vice-chair, treasurer are just specific jobs, they don't imply hierarchy. Thus the accountability comes out of active participation, discussion, argument and transparency.

 

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