In June 2017, several artist-led organisations entered Arts Council England’s national portfolio for the first time. Among them are Art Gene (Barrow in Furness), Backlit (Nottingham), Grand Union (Birmingham), In-Situ (Pendle), KARST (Plymouth), and The NewBridge Project (Newcastle upon Tyne), joining several existing artist-led NPOs. Within the portfolio, the legacy of artist-led initiatives’ contribution to the visual arts in England since the 1960s can also be clearly seen – the portfolio includes the organisations Project Space Leeds (The Tetley), Spike Island (Artspace Bristol) and Ikon Gallery, all founded by artists and guided by them through the early stages of their existence.

Do the decisions of June 2017 signal an unprecedented validation of artist-led activity within an increasingly centralized system of public funding for the arts? How can these newcomers best navigate the requirements and constraints, as well as the opportunities, of public funding within the current framework of neoliberal economics and under the dominant culture of audit?

At the same time there appears to be a rise in the visibility of artist-led collective endeavors, both nationally and internationally from Assemble winning the Turner Prize in 2015 to the media profile of the Guerrilla Girls. However, away from the heady heights of the art world’s glitterati, there is evidence of the precarity under which much of this activity is undertaken. This precarity continues to surface, signaled recently by the closure of artist-led initiatives such as Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun (Leeds) and the decision of the committee members of Transmission (Glasgow), also in June, to postpone their annual Members’ show, citing the intense strain and ‘multiple burnouts’ experienced by the current management committee. For Transmission there is a need to critically reassess the organisation’s operational model, 34 years on from its founding.

Given the enormity of recent changes to the landscape of public funding and the welfare state, what does the future hold for Transmission’s influential and much copied, but voluntary, model? Does closer working with national funding bodies such as ACE, and adoption of all that this entails, offer the only route to an artist-led future? What support structures do and might exist outside of the national portfolio? How can we rethink the model given the continued emergence of multiple artist-led initiatives annually, and the increasing visibility, internationally, of critical writing on the subject such as Gregory Sholette’s ‘creative dark matter’? Can we still think of the artist-led as a sector or movement, and where does this label leave us now?

What we are?

At this critical juncture in the sector’s trajectory since the 1960s, the Artist-led Research Group [ARG] seeks to revisit some key texts, question the dominant narratives, engage with the formation of cultural policy, and debate the future of this critical, yet continually undervalued, part of the UK’s visual arts ecology. We want to undertake this activity collaboratively with artist-led initiatives both in Leeds and further afield, with a view to moving collectively towards an international symposium and associated programme in Leeds in autumn 2018, hosted partly within the School of Fine Art. Therefore we are seeking, through this open call, potential partners, collaborators and researchers within this field who would like to contribute time, space, thought and conversation. We aim to secure support for this initiative from the University of Leeds, public funding bodies, and other sector partners.

The ARG will initially take the form of a reading group, which will convene monthly, in order to debate the key problematics and generate ideas through collaborative discussions, aiming also to galvanise the group’s members themselves. The ARG will also be well placed to inform the development of a Visual Arts Strategy for the region, which is currently in its early stages, through a partnership led by YVAN (Yorkshire and Humber Visual Arts Network).

ARG also seeks to bridge the divide between the University and artist-led practice through collective endeavor, and sessions will be hosted alternately at the School of Fine Art, History of Art & Cultural Studies, and at artist-led spaces around the city.

Who we are?

ARG is convened by Kerry Harker and John Wright, PhD candidates at the University of Leeds, active as artist/curators within the artist-led sector. Kerry Harker was co-founder of Vitrine (2004-6) with Pippa Hale, co-founder and Director of Project Space Leeds (2006-15) with Pippa Hale and Diane Howse, and Co-Founder and Artistic Director of The Tetley (2013-15). She is currently Founding Director of Curator Works, an artist-led organisation based in east Leeds. Her research focuses on the artist-led sector across the UK, particularly in relation to notions of value, place, and the institution.

John Wright is a research-led curator and co-founder of artist-led collective, The Retro Bar at the End of the Universe (2014-present). Wright has worked in a number of prominent museums and galleries including the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, The National Science and Media Museum and The British Library to develop his curatorial practice. Wright has curated freelance projects/interventional works at Leeds Art Gallery (2014), Espacio Gallery, London (2015) and with artist John Ledger at the Bowery, Leeds (2016). Wright’s current research is centered upon investigating the nature of the contemporary artist-led collective in relation to the wider socio-cultural context.