Rethinking Future Narratives:

Artist-Run Centre Archives and Institutions of History

Johanna Plant-Donnelly

Photograph of Navy Archives Personnel Bess Glenn, 1942, Records of the National Archives and Records Administration, 1789 – ca. 2007, accession number 3493249, 64-NA-372.

Photograph of Navy Archives Personnel Bess Glenn, 1942, Records of the National Archives and Records Administration, 1789 – ca. 2007, accession number 3493249, 64-NA-372.

Archives are not new institutional structures. Nor, at this point, are artist-run centres—the artist-organized, non-profit arts spaces found in cities across Canada. Even when elements of the two are combined to form artist-run archives, any novelty of these structures is debatable: since their inception, many centres have amassed materials that they deem archival, and, if a centre has the means to address these archives, the actions taken towards them often mimic the practices in place in larger, mainstream archives. Newness within the archives of artist-run centres is not immediately apparent.

But to view these archives as smaller versions of governmental, university, or other institutional archives overlooks an important idea: artist-run archives are automatically different because they are produced by community-focused bodies that emerged from the desire of artists to create organizations best suited to their needs. In contrast to larger institutions, these archives generally do not collect materials produced by other entities, and instead work with self-generated records. They are able to organize and present these materials as they see fit, so even if they sometimes replicate mainstream archival practices, and even though some of their actions are dictated by bureaucratic regulations, these archives reflect the operations and values of artist-run centres. Moreover, the degree to which these values are conveyed can shift according to how the archives are managed. Centres have a degree of control over how they present themselves and their past, which in turn affects what might be written about them in the future.

Exploring the possibilities of archival (re)presentation is a way of seeking novelty within existent institutions. These institutions include not only the archives of artist-run centres, but the institution of history itself. While still operating more or less within the confines of an historical apparatus—an interwoven system of places, ideas, people, regulations, and practices—I examine how the management of archival materials might predispose future historical narratives to particular forms and interpretations [1]. In doing so, I am building on art historian Keith Moxey’s suggestion that accepted knowledge is the outcome of compelling argument. Writes Moxey, “If there is nothing necessary about the current shape of our knowledge, then the future will be determined on the basis of argument” [2]. These arguments, in turn, will be built upon primary and secondary sources: the oral and written records produced in the course of daily affairs; the photos, videos, and other documentation of events or works of art; the books, journals, conferences and forums in which arguments are posited and debated; and any number of other materials that “count” when it comes to writing about and discussing the past. The ways in which these materials are made available—or not made available—will affect which arguments might be supported, and which might be dismissed or overlooked completely.

How can artist-run centres select and present their archival materials to foster the construction of narratives that reflect the community-based and arts-focused principles upon which many centres are built? Could deliberately different archival management practices facilitate the creation of flexible narratives (or other historical productions) that better match the multitude of voices and visions that ultimately comprise the bodies we recognize today as artist-run centres?

In this essay, I will use the term “archive” to refer to a collection of unpublished materials generated by an artist-run centre in the course of carrying out its daily activities. These materials might include things such as mandates and minutes, correspondence with artists, photographs and promotional materials for exhibitions, financial statements, grant applications, and other similar digital or hard copy records. I will exclude books and other publications from this category, even though my research indicates that at least some centres count their libraries as part of their archives, or otherwise include them in a larger conception of a resource centre [3].

In addition to this definition of archives, I am making the assumption that artist-run centres are invested in their own histories, and, moreover, believe that these histories should reflect their own dual identities as both social structures and as organizations that promote artists. The former idea is supported by the many anniversary-inspired publications created by centres— MAWA’s Culture of Community, or YYZ’s Decalog, to name only two of many examples. The latter notion follows author and artist Clive Robertson’s assertion that an artist-run centre is both “a movement and apparatus”: “a hybrid model of aesthetic and social organization,” or a place where the concerns and needs of the members and the ways in which the organization conducts its business are, or were, at least as important as exhibiting, producing, and promoting works of art [4]. I extend this idea to archives and their presentation: the materials generated by a centre and presented as archival should tell about the artists who have exhibited and/or worked there, and about the organization they have created.

Finally, in discussing possibilities for the archives of artist-run centres, I must acknowledge that I am setting aside the very real concerns of time, money, and mandates. Resources can be chronically scarce for some centres, and mandates may require an organization to focus primarily on the present: the concern is often with the promotion of contemporary art practices, rather than the management of physical and digital records. In recognition of these factors, this essay should not be understood as a critique of inaction, but rather a call to consider a larger role for archives as artist-run centres engage in their continuous processes of reinvention and repositioning.

With these assumption noted, I turn now to the archives of artist-run centres, and to their digital archives more specifically. Records are increasingly born digital, and a digital content management system may be the most achievable option for centres. Digital archives also have the potential to reach many more users than physical archives, and most importantly, the non-physical nature of digital records allows for changeable methods of presenting documents, images, and other things created in the past. While respect des fonds—the established archival principle that the records of a creator should be kept together, and maintained in their original order “whenever possible to preserve existing relationships between records and the evidential value inherent in this order”—is not a principle that needs to be abandoned, its relevance in the case of digital artist-run archives is questionable [5]. In the non-physical environment of, for example, an online database, where records can be viewed independently of each other, and where any relationships resulting from original order are not necessarily preserved, what “evidential value” can be determined? Instead, it is perhaps more productive to set aside notions of original order, and to accept that the relationships between digital records are not only multiple, but also the basis of an argument rather than “evidence.” This shift is an initial step towards reimagining how we might write historical narratives.

If respect des fonds has a less significant role to play in the digital environment, then it is the materials selected for online presentation, and the ways in which they are presented, that will form the basis of what can be written and supported according to accepted historical practices. As archival scholar Eric Ketelaar points out, the acts of ordering and presenting records in an archive are deeply intertwined with notions of knowledge-power, and indeed, it is “the logical ordering of digital archives [that] expresses knowledge-power” [6]. Artist-run centres can express their knowledge-power according to their own understandings of what constitutes “logical ordering,” and can further exercise this power through the selection of what appears online, and what remains hidden from view.

A number of Canadian artist-run centres currently operate digital archives, and offer examples of the types of presentation and ordering practices currently in place. Grunt (Vancouver), Stride (Calgary), A Space (Toronto), Gallery 44 (Toronto), and Modern Fuel (Kingston), for instance, allow public access to digital records [7]. Each site features records of exhibitions, and offers different ways to find this information. In some cases, researchers must scan a chronological list of exhibitions (Stride, Modern Fuel, A Space, Gallery 44). In others (Grunt, A Space, Stride), researchers can search by keywords or artist names.

By presenting information within these categories, centres emphasize artists and their works, as well as chronology. In doing so, they also express their own desires to be known as organizations that exist to encourage contemporary practices—a reasonable and laudable goal, given the mandates of most centres. Choosing these methods of organization also suggests an interest in participating in future art historical narratives that are structured according to these relatively standard criteria; they are asking future researchers to make arguments based on information about artists, exhibitions, and dates. This approach, however, also leaves some notable absences.

What is excluded from these sites are records of other things—whether minutes or correspondence or other (now-digital) paperwork. In addition to suggesting that these centres value artists and their works over their other activities, this selective presentation suggests that the administration and operation of a centre is not considered an area worthy of study and dissemination [8]. Such an approach does not take into account the dual identity I discussed previously. It does not show artist-run centres as multifaceted organizations, or as hybrid artistic-social bodies. While the potential consequences of such choices may not be immediately obvious, they are worthy of consideration.

The reasons for framing artist-run centres as more than just vehicles for advancing artistic careers become evident in a series of articles and letters published by the now-defunct magazine Fillip. Over the course of several issues, Keith Wallace, Michael Turner and Reid Shier, Jonathan Middleton, and Lorna Brown entered into a dialogue about the history, current status, continued alterity and relevance of artist-run centres in Vancouver [9]. This dialogue points to the continually renegotiated and reinterpreted history of centres, and suggests an ongoing lack of consensus around these organizations and their past, present, and future roles. These conversations are important, and are indeed part of the historical apparatus I mentioned earlier. But what matters more is a point made by Brown, which offers a concrete example of why materials related to the operations of a centre, and not just documentation of exhibitions, is an important component of an online archive.

Brown, referring to Turner and Shier’s article, suggests that focusing on only one aspect of a centre’s practice—in this case, the practice of employing curators—is detrimental to other aspects of a centre’s practice. She writes,

Fixating on the individual “running” the space is like fixating on the space at the expense of everything that happens within it. Whether the board is hands-on or hands-off the program, it is ultimately responsible for the organization itself, and is accountable for it. This confused figure/ground perception casts into shadow the activity of hundreds of artists in directing, over time, the persistent operation of ARCs in this city. Even if a reader accepts the greater value given individual leaders, there emerges another unfortunate blind spot: when women greatly outnumber men as “ARC builders” in the city, why are the individuals Reid and Michael name, quote and credit overwhelmingly men? [10]

Brown observes that considering only one aspect of a centre’s work has the potential to obscure another. In this case, it is the contributions of the “ARC builders” in Vancouver. I would equally apply this idea to focusing solely on exhibitions: doing so continues to obscure the work of the many people, and women in particular, who have contributed to artist-run centres, and made them into the movement described by Robertson. Is this how centres wish to be known? Is it sufficient to use archives to promote the work of some artists, while effectively erasing the contributions of artists who have worked at a centre, but not necessarily shown there? Put another way: is it necessary to continue to present only materials that ultimately support traditional “great artist” narratives? To do so downplays the potential differences between centres and other arts institutions, and fails to take advantage of the opportunity to position future narratives as broad, inclusive, and different from the art historical status quo.

It should be noted that the contributions of artist-workers remain recorded in the paper records of centres. But as research increasingly occurs online, these physical records— which may or may not be publicly accessible in a centre—become essentially invisible. An inaccessible record is largely the same thing as a non-existent record. To make this observation is not to suggest that “everything” can be found in an archive or online, or that “everything” can or should be incorporated into historical narratives. Instead, it is a reminder that the choices made around digitization matter. I will not argue with a centre that declares its focus to be upon art and artists, and consciously chooses to downplay other aspects of its existence. But I will suggest that such choices must be deliberate and well reasoned. And I will point out that centres are not faced with a mutually exclusive situation: it is not necessary to choose between artists and operations; both elements can be documented and presented in an archive [11]. What must happen first, however, is a reexamination and expansion of the records that are deemed valuable. What is at stake is how centres may be known now and into the future.

How an organization presents its archival materials can influence the ways these materials are used and the arguments they support. Currently, some artist-run centres present selected archival materials online in a way that aligns well with traditional art historical narratives. These are narratives characterized by an emphasis on individual artists and their works, arranged chronologically. While this is an acceptable approach, especially if it has been chosen deliberately, it is also limited. By withholding operational information, centres discourage narratives about themselves as multifaceted social organizations that are the result of the work of hundreds of people over several decades.

The question I have tried to address here is whether the current practices employed in some digital archives are those that will ultimately point interested parties in a direction that best aligns with the values of artist-run centres. Embracing all types of archival materials may lead to broader narratives that can better convey the range of activities carried out by centres—provided, of course, that these are the narratives a centre wishes to promote. It is not only the future narratives that matter; a centre’s identity, as expressed through its archive and the way it is presented, is also in play in these considerations.

The digital and physical archives of artist-run centres are not neutral repositories poised to reveal the past “as it actually happened” to an intrepid researcher. They are instead carefully designed tools that must be used with a critical eye. It remains, however, that great potential exists to shape and reshape the histories of artist-run centres, while at the same time beginning to push and question the boundaries of art history in the first place. Whether centres will embrace this potential remains to be seen.

[1] I use the term apparatus here in the sense defined by Michel Foucault. In “The Confession of the Flesh,” a chapter in Foucault’s book, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), he describes the concept of the apparatus (dispositif) as “a thoroughly heterogenous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions–in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements” (194).

[2] Keith Moxey, The Practice of Persuasion: Paradox and Power in Art History (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001), 7. Johanna Plant Donnelly recently completed her PhD in Art History at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her areas of interest include artist-run centres, the influence of technology on the practice of art history, Canadian art, and arts infrastructures. Prior to her latest round of studies, Plant Donnelly worked in a variety of cultural institutions, including a major museum, an artist-run centre, and a municipal public art program. She is currently working as an independent art historian.

[3] This article has its roots in research conducted as part of my PhD at Queen’s University, in Kingston, Canada. During 2013, I sent surveys to a number of artist-run centres in Canada. Results indicated that most respondents had archives, and wished to manage them in some capacity. Any claims I can make, however, only apply to the organizations in Canada who participated. While extrapolation seems reasonable in this situation, changes in staff, boards, and mandates means that my notions will only apply to certain centres at certain times, and indeed, given the differing objectives of centres, will likely exclude some altogether.

[4] Clive Robertson, Policy Matters: Administrations of Art and Culture (Toronto: YYZBOOKS, 2006), iv-v.

[5] Bureau of Canadian Archivists, Rules for Archival Description (Ottawa: Bureau of Canadian Archivists, 2008), xxiii-xxiv. Keeping the records of a single creator together is not a concern in artist-run archives, since the centre itself can be considered a single entity that has generated the records.

[6] Eric Ketelaar, “The Panoptical Archive,” in Archives, Documentation and Institutions of Social Memory: Essays from the Sawyer Seminar, eds. Francis X. Blouin and William G. Rosenberg (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2007), 147.

[7] Grunt Gallery, “The Activation Map,” accessed October 21, 2015,; Stride Gallery, “Archive,” accessed October 21, 2015,; A Space Gallery, “Archive,” accessed October 21, 2015,; Gallery 44, “Past Exhibitions,” accessed October 21, 2015,; and Modern Fuel, “Exhibitions,” accessed October 21, 2015, http:// Note that there are exceptions and variations among digital archival practices: VIVO (Vancouver) provides a limited number of historical documents about their collections; Optica (Montréal) maintains an online presence and points researchers to their physical archives at Concordia University; and Grunt (Vancouver) states that it provides access to its physical archives on-site. For centres like Optica that have donated their records to an external institution, administrative and operational records are generally available for research, although in most cases, researchers must visit the institution in person.

[8] It should be noted that some current information, such as vision statements and mandates, are available on these websites, although outside of the “Archives” section. Past versions of mandates and visions are generally not available online, which limits a digital researcher’s ability to chart the ways in which a centre may have changed over time.

[9] Keith Wallace, “Artist-Run Centres in Vancouver: A Reflections on Three Texts,” Fillip 12 (Fall 2010), accessed October 21, 2015,; Michael Turner and Reid Shier, “Upon Further Reflection, ” Fillip 14 (Summer 2011), accessed October 21, 2015,; Jonathan Middleton, “Responses to On Further Reflection,” Fillip 15 (Fall 2011), accessed October 21, 2015, http://; and Lorna Brown, “Responses to On Further Reflection,” Fillip 15 (Fall 2011), accessed October 21, 2015,

[10] Brown, “Responses to On Further Reflection.”

[11] Note that copyright restrictions, artist wishes, and concerns over privacy (particularly around finance and some personnel matters) may affect the appearance of materials online. These concerns, however, should not be used as an excuse to post nothing administrative online. Policies can be put in place to mitigate these concerns. 

Johanna Plant Donnelly recently completed her PhD in Art History at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her areas of interest include artist-run centres, the influence of technology on the practice of art history, Canadian art, and arts infrastructures. Prior to her latest round of studies, Plant Donnelly worked in a variety of cultural institutions, including a major museum, an artist-run centre, and a municipal public art program. She is currently working as an independent art historian.