What: The fifty fifty 10th anniversary exhibition and party
Where: Fifty fifty arts collective, 2516 Douglas St.
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
The odds were against the survival of the tiny white gallery on Douglas Street from the beginning.
Yet, entirely dependent on volunteers and too small to qualify for most operational grants, the fifty fifty arts collective has somehow reached its 10th birthday — exhibiting works by an estimated 300 artists and hosting performances by more than 500 musicians. No small feat for an artist-run centre of its modest profile.
But the struggle is key to its survival. “The idea that the fifty fifty could crumble at any time created the drive from people who were committed to it,” Alan Kollins, who served as a board member from 2003 until 2010, said on the phone from Vancouver. “We were always in potential crisis, but it was a blessing in disguise, because it often produced interesting and viable creative results.”
Kollins was among the dozen or so artists, musicians and filmmakers who created the collective for emerging artists. When a friend offered his storefront space on Craigflower Road, home of the fifty fifty for its first year, they took it. “None of us had any prior experience in running an artist-run centre, so it was really done on the fly,” he said. “It wasn’t through some grand design. It was through a cool space falling in our lap and us just [saying], well, we should make this happen.”
There were few opportunities at the time for young artists to show their work in Victoria, he said. But it was also a time of growth and creative energy, which included the opening of the Ministry of Casual Living on Haultain Street about six months earlier.
In a move away from the common model of artist-run centres in Canada, according to Kollins, the fifty fifty has never received operational grants. It means freedom to determine programming at will and on a whim.
“When you receive multi-year funding, you kind of have to lay out the next three years of your programming. What that does is it can prevent new work from being shown,” he said.
Instead, it has relied on events like the popular Rock Lottery at Logan’s Pub. Despite a lack of guaranteed income, the gallery has never changed its policy of taking only a 30 per cent cut from art sales — significantly lower than the 50 per cent taken by most commercial galleries.
Among the main challenges Kollins experienced as a board member were clashes with the City of Victoria relating to zoning regulations, which limited the capacity of the space for large gatherings.
“That, in and of itself, is part of the history of [do-it-yourself] culture and artist-run culture. A lot of the reasons why underground spaces in cities like Vancouver don’t survive is eventually the city catches up to them with zoning restrictions on what you can and cannot do in certain spaces.”
But the fifty fifty has had many successes, too — among them increased foot traffic from the move to Douglas near Bay and larger-scale programming, such as co-ordinating roles in the Integrate Art Crawl (formerly Off the Grid).
Kollins, who left the fifty fifty in 2010 when he moved to Vancouver, called the gallery a “miracle,” saying few spaces can survive on that model.
Many of its members have gone on to work in artist-run culture, including Kollins, who moved to Open Space before ending up at VIVO Media Arts in Vancouver.
“It helped me and a few other people find our direction in life,” he said. “We were learning on the fly so that environment fostered skills that we didn’t even know we had. And the pressure of trying to make it happen — the fact that it could fall apart at any time — I think produced a great learning and working environment.”
Since Kollins left, a new guard of board members has taken the helm, including Renee Crawford, Laurie Luck, Brianne Chisholm and Jzero Schuurman.
They have implemented a shift toward increased professionalism and organization.
“We wanted to rope everything together — get our finances together, staff the gallery, bring in higher quality art and make sure that it was still financially viable,” Schuurman said.
That has meant budget planning, programming shows six months in advance and making volunteer scheduling a priority so the gallery doesn’t sit closed after a show opens. They’ve also made community outreach a bigger priority, according to Schuurman — including a recent project in collaboration with the Burnside Gorge Community Centre, where the collective organized and co-ordinated experimental art sessions for youth on a drop-in basis.
Financial stability remains the biggest challenge, but thanks to planning, the board has a little “nest-egg.”
“I know it’s not always going to be that way, so we have to be constantly looking at the future for fundraising events,” Schuurman said.
It can be exhausting for board members, who continue to work on a volunteer basis. At one point, Schuurman and Crawford considered moving on, but opted to stay when they felt it might mean the end of the fifty fifty.
“We really feel passion for the local arts scene,” he said. “We want to continue promoting emerging artists, because there isn’t really anyone with the same sort of admission process as we do. Most of the galleries in town are revenue driven, so if it doesn’t look like an artist’s work is going to sell, they’re not going to book that artist.”
The anniversary show and party features works by artists who have exhibited at the fifty fifty in the past. They include: Chris Savage, Aimee Van Drimmelen, Lee McClure, Stefan Thompson, Jason Stovall, Caitlin McDonagh, Don Smith, Jzero Schuurman, Renee Crawford, Laurie Luck, Cameron Kidd, Tyler Witzel, Mitchell Villa, Teagan Campbell, Brianne Chisholm, Theresa Slater, Jennifer Trail, E.R. Gott, Wayne Parrish, Mikhail Miller and Peter Allen.
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