Industry conferences are nothing new. However the 21st Century Artist conference, held at Artspace, Sydney on 24 & 25 October 2013, presented a number of new approaches to modes of practice for artists and the existing structures they engage with – the studio, the art school, peer networks, and the conference model itself.

It’s notable that artists were chosen to lead these conversations about artists. Often academics can come to dominate the discourse around art, and although several speakers at the conference also teach in art schools, their art practice was paramount to how they placed themselves in the context of the discussion. Former Artspace director Blair French pointed out that placing the conference in a gallery was a simple way of making the artist central to it (although no exhibition was on show at the time, and few artists chose to show slides, making the conference strangely image-less for the most part).

In the roundtable discussion Why make art now?, artist and Institute of Contemporary Art Newtown co-director Alex Gawronski discussed how ICAN chooses to operate outside of the government funding model that artist-run spaces traditionally rely on, as it frees it from the vulnerability of the possibility of losing that funding. (A number of contributors to Runway Issue #23, PROTOTYPE, also explore new and existing ARI models in Australia.)

The discussion Everything the artist does (and still does art) centred around the form and role of the studio. Participants agreed that the traditional notion of the artist’s studio has been usurped by the myriad of locations and networks necessary to undertake the multidisciplinary practices that characterise today’s art world. Sydney artist Emma Price’s forthcoming Redfern space, the Bearded Tit, is a dynamic new model of a social creative space which will be a combination of bar, studio and bohemian hangout – a place outside of an individual’s studio, or exhibition opening, where creative individuals can gather together, take up ‘residencies’ at the bar, and see what happens. Spaces like this will become increasingly important as creative practices evolve, and will foster the community presence necessary to counteract our increasingly online existences.

Danish historian and curator Sine Hebert gave the keynote lecture on the second day. Hebert’s work at the Funen Art Academy in Copenhagen is an eye-opener in terms of the possibilities of a new model of art school, where students are actively involved in determining the structure of their classes, and no specific degree is awarded at the conclusion of the five year independent study program. The instability which can arise from an open model such as this needs to be controlled and made productive. By Hebert’s account the students find it rewarding and the program is in demand, however acceptance of its alumni by other art world institutions is a work in progress.

Discussions in the art community tend to pose a great deal more questions than they answer, and the 21st Century Artist was no exception in this regard. However it was encouraging to see this manifest in the constant search for new ways to respond to changing and sometimes hostile external attitudes to shared values. No doubt the lively discussions which began in Artspace in late October will continue to simmer.

You can explore the conference online.

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