"It's important for spaces of art to be able to be different. Some of the most interesting and innovative displays don't look much like galleries any more."

Tom Clark, Editor of the Transformer website

Being an artist on a small island like Malta can be difficult, especially when it comes to recognition on an international scale. 

Transformer takes place over two years, starting in 2017, as part of Valletta European Capital of Culture programme. As well as public talks, workshops and residencies, Transformer involves a multi-site exhibition, running from 8 September-14 October 2018. 

Tom Clark is the editor of Transformer’s website, and an adviser on the project. Our Capturing Valletta student journalist, Sarah Zammit Munro, asked him a few questions about AROs.

What kind of art projects do AROs usually support or exhibit?

Generally, you could say the kinds of projects that are accepted are more exploratory and experimental. They are not always driven by pressures required by the market or institutions of art history. They might be lower budget. They might be open-ended research projects.

They can often be the stepping stone for an artist to achieve recognition in the market or among institutions. This last point can be a contentious one, though, as AROs may feel aiming for ‘market’ or ‘institution’ recognition threatens their ability to define their own value. They may prefer to enter into the market on their own terms.

The diversity within AROs means they exhibit a wide variety of projects, and this is a great strength of the model. AROs are often run on a voluntary or minimally funded basis. They are made up of the interests of the organisers leading the programme. 

The importance of collaboration and of the organisers' own networks is hard to understate. Such networks can go back to the organisers’ art school peers. They grow to explore and generate a discourse or community of practice around founding interests.

Since Malta is a smaller country than others, should we consider government funding for restoration of small spaces, or funds to support cultural start-ups?

A strong and healthy cultural sector is really important to support. There's an argument for continuing to support existing spaces, but it’s also important that you help new spaces start and develop. However, there is also an argument for innovation. If a new space has to work around the problem of funding, it can make itself more durable, sustainable and exciting. 

I don't think that it’s a good idea to just keep pouring money into an unchanged system of cultural institutions run only around the museum/gallery model. It's important for spaces of art to be able to be different. Some of the most interesting and innovative displays don't look much like galleries any more. Funding policies need to be more open and flexible to encourage this, and art spaces should think about how they contribute to this collective future as well. 

Ultimately, I think the arts and humanities are worth it, and there should be more funding allocated to these sectors in general. But this should be led by those sectors and their users, not just from above. Government policy can often see value through a political frame, with more importance being given to tourism and heritage than to innovative contemporary art.

In your opinion, should the government be investing in possibilities for young people from all backgrounds – not just those studying art – to express themselves in this way?

In policy terms, it’s important that funding for the arts is protected from simply being a venue for narrow, professional training. 

The arts are often treated as different from other areas of economy or society. However, anyone should be able to participate in art. This needn't mean an expectation it has to appeal to the lowest common denominator, nor that art should always achieve worldwide recognition. 

Often the most impactful projects are those that create the forum for conversations and artistic expression situated in their local context, but not limited by it. The community arts centre model from the UK in the 1970s–90s is interesting to look at in this sense, especially since it had its funding progressively removed as the focus shifted towards internationalisation. Funders in the UK and organisations now seem to be trying to fill that hole, one which they helped create. 

Is an ARO a stepping stone to helping an artist produce work in a gallery? 

That's been the historical journey – hone your craft and get visibility in the ARO and then move into a museum or the art market, where you can get paid ‘properly’. Since structural funding for AROs is so competitive (in many cases increasingly so), AROs are often run on the enthusiasm and energy of the organisers. Sadly once this runs out, the organisers will often have to move up the organisational food chain, just like the artists. 

This is changing. Fewer AROs are being set up, and artists are increasingly using social media and other tools to raise their own visibility. People are also coming together to run output-oriented models of AROs. Studios were at one point the way to do this, but with rising rents even this is difficult. Digital services are more the way now – and this increases the need for innovation.

Why should people come to Transformer’s multi-site exhibition in September 2018? 

This is a rare project bringing together an international network of participants and organisations with a locally-situated set of concerns and needs. It works with a really interesting group of artists and there is a real opportunity to build a network of AROs where there hasn't been one like this before. Hopefully we will develop the conversation and research further so we can leave with something genuinely useful for everyone involved.

Tom Clark is an independent curator, editor and writer. He teaches and has run workshops on curatorial and publishing practice internationally. He is currently an AHRC/CHASE-funded doctoral student at Goldsmiths, University of London. His research explores infrastructural figures, politics and culture in art institutions.

Transformer is presented by Blitz in collaboration with Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London. It is supported by the Multi-Annual Support Grant, Arts Council Malta, and the British Council. Artists involved include Kosmas Nikolaou, Ro Caminal, Laila Hida, Mohamed Fariji, Dustin Cauchi, and Francesca Mangion.

Sarah Zammit Munro