‘Artist-run spaces’, ‘off-spaces’: somewhere in their hazy definition is an acknowledgement that they operate as an alternative model to the mainstream commercial or institutional artworld. It is hard to pinpoint where the notion of the alternative ends and the mainstream begins, but the categorically uppercase OUTPOST gallery in Norwich is an interesting case study. Formed in 2004, catalysed by a symposium on artist-led spaces held the year before, during the Norwich-based East International biennial (an event that saw the crowd bemoan the lack of permanent arts spaces in the area), OUTPOST is nonprofit and volunteer-run, with a rolling committee administration model based on Glasgow’s veteran Transmission Gallery. So far, so ‘alternative’: but it also received £117,000 in project funding from Arts Council England last year, and has installed strict programming and brand-design structures that, despite the changing personnel, have been adhered to since its inception. There are always 11 exhibitions a year, for example, opening on the first day of the month and closing on the 21st. These are primarily solo endeavours (bar one annual group show of work made by artists signed up to the gallery’s members programme). Each exhibition invitation is issued in a different font (displaying a consistency in inconsistency), and all images on the website are monochrome on a yellow background.
More important, however, is the role the gallery plays in the local arts ecosystem. In that, bar a couple of other, later, more modest artist-led initiatives, such as the Promontories screening programme and Stew Gallery, it practically is the local ecosystem. There is little alternative, or ‘nonalternative’, to OUTPOST. The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, in the same city, only stages a couple of shows a year, so if any of the many artists turned out by the 1,800- student University College of the Arts (whose numbers are prolific enough to fill three studio complexes in the city, one of which is run by OUTPOST itself), or other interested members of the public, want to see a show, or just generally congregate more often, then it’s OUTPOST they must visit. Otherwise they face a lengthy train or car journey to Wysing Arts Centre (with whom OUTPOST has a close relationship) or the new Firstsite space in Colchester.
The rolling committee helps the organisation maintain a sense of democratic diversity within its relative monopoly, however, with each member, all of whom live locally, serving for 12 months, during which time they have the opportunity to suggest artists to show in the barnlike gallery space (a converted skittle alley), found tucked away beside an optician on a backstreet close to Norwich Cathedral. Full of light, with beamed, arching ceilings, the space was, on my visit, exhibiting the colourful, Pop-inflected, flyposted prints of the busy Glasgow-based artist Ciara Phillips (Phillips augmented these with a series of painted newspaper tears, again pasted on the wall). In February the Dutch artist Peggy Franck will be exhibiting work that continues her interplay between photography and sculpture.
OUTPOST is plugged in through its extended network of committee members and former members: it frequently identifies younger artists, picked from far and wide, just before they become (usually deservedly) voguish. It is this quivering on the edge of the mainstream and the underground that sets the institution apart from both other artist-run spaces and their publicly funded and commercial brethren. It is able to maintain a foot in both camps precisely because, due to its location, it is not defined by the force of other local institutions.
This article was first published in the January & February 2013 issue.