Run by: York Lethbridge and Sarah Robayo Sheridan
Elysa: So I saw you guys have been around since the ‘70s!
Mercer Union: Yes, that's right. We were founded in 1979 so this July is the close of our 30th anniversary celebrations.
Elysa: Don't know if you are one of the founders, but wondered if you knew about the goals for the space when it started and how that transformed over the years?
Mercer Union: No, actually I was also born in 1979 so Mercer Union and I are the same age. I do know some of the history though. MU was founded by a collective of artists: Michael Balfe, Peter Blendell, Richard Evans, Peter Hill, Jamie Lyons, David MacWilliam, John McKinnon, Robert McNealy, Jaan Poldaas, Renée Van Halm, Joy Walker, and Robert Wiens. It was founded as a non-profit space and the first address was 29 Mercer Street, hence the name.
At that time, the artists themselves really fulfilled the curatorial function of selecting work. But from the beginning they were always showing work by artists other than the members.
Elysa: So how does it work now?
Mercer Union: We're a registered charitable organization and our principle funding comes from public sources: the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council and the Toronto Arts Council. We also rely on private donations and other fundraising activities to support our activities. Our board of directors is comprised of artists, some of whom serve on a programming committee. In terms of staff, currently we have two co-directors, myself and York Lethbridge, and an install technician who is here part-time. As director of exhibitions and publications, I oversee the programming aspects of the gallery. Oversight or programming is my responsibility and York leads the fundraising exercises. We have 2 submission deadlines a year but I also solicit works and perform studio visits. We also draw from the board for the programming committee and together we review submissions and programming proposals.
Elysa: I saw you guys have some creative donations campaigns, like the chair campaign. Also wondered if fundraising was a group activity or if one person is dedicated to this activity.
Mercer Union: We do have a fundraising committee -- comprised of artists from our board and overseen by our Director of Operations and Development. We relocated to our current space in Fall 2008 and as a result our operating costs have increased making innovative fundraising exercises an important priority for us at the moment.
Elysa: With programming, do you and York come up with proposals?
Mercer Union: All members of the programming committee may suggest programming ideas. But, back to the changes in the space overtime… today staff serve a much more central role in the organization than at the time when a lot of these centres were started. Artist-run culture in Canada is pretty strong and probably quite distinct historically from other models so it's interesting to compare. Although all of us ARCs have different ways of running... one common thread is that we all pay artist fees. These fees are held to the standard developed by CARFAC... which might be an interesting place for you contact.
Elysa: That's huge! So legally you're required to?
Mercer Union: It's not necessary for our charitable status but it is a requisite with our public funding (artist-run centre operating grants). All ARCs agree to abide by CARFAC rates, which are determined in accordance with the scale of the institution.
Mercer Union: What's more significant to individual artists is that there are grants to artists at the emerging, mid-level and senior career levels through the arts councils. These councils are run on a peer-evaluation system... which I also understand to be pretty distinct to Canada.
Elysa: I also saw that you guys have well-established ties to funders, like various Arts Councils. Is that consistent year-to-year or do you have to reapply?
Mercer Union: In our case, we are lucky to have established a record of operating grants. We report annually on these.
Elysa: Are there any stipulations on programming that come out of the types of grants you get?
Mercer Union: Oh, well, one of the imperatives of the councils is of course to promote Canadian cultural development. In my mind though, exhibiting Canadian work alongside international production is important for maintaining a connection to a wider sphere of cultural production.
Elysa: And you guys also make publications and sell artist prints?
Mercer Union: Yes, we do have a record of artists' publications and multiples.
Elysa Lozano: I'm impressed by how much you guys do with just three staff members! Is the board very active?
Mercer Union: Yes, we do try to activate our board as much as possible. Especially where event-based programming is concerned. The board lends support for parties, clothing swaps and other one-off event fundraisers.
Elysa: so were a lot of the operating strategies of the space already in place when you arrived?
Mercer Union: Yes, for sure Mercer now has a long history and a kind of institutional culture all its own. By virtue of the frequent rotation of staff and board over the last 30 years, it’s also a pretty maleable framework and each cohort shapes it along the way.
Elysa: What were (are) your ideas for the things you'd like to see there?
Mercer Union: Overall, I want our programming to serve the role of sampling latest practices with a close understanding of the history that got us here. Because it's our 30th this year, this has given me occasion to be rooting through the archives a lot!
Mercer Union: One of the exhilarating things about this space is the good deal of autonomy that we have in programming. We don't have specific media criteria or fixed ideological framework. We haven't done a painting show in a very long time... but that is always open to change :)
Elysa: Since it already existed before you came on board, did you feel that there was already a high level of community engagement and participation?
Mercer Union: Yes, of course, Mercer has an important place in Canada. I feel like people are watching what we're doing. One thing though that is interesting to observe is how communities are constituted and reconstituted over time. For example, with the move up to our new location (on one of Toronto's busiest streets), it's changed who drops by the gallery. The gallery itself is more formal and looks more formal than it used to. We used to be in a tucked away warehouse building (which meant lots of late-night parties), now our character is different, maybe a little more grown up with the new digs!
Mercer Union: Since you’re interested in survival stories... I should say that one of the issues that always plagued us is that we don't own our building. So we often find ourselves at the mercy of landlords!
Elysa: That's interesting how much the new space has changed the social character.
Mercer Union: Yes: the space and the location. The location now is interesting because we're in the west end of the city... in a neighbourhood that's going through change. This happened before my time too with the old site on Lisgar Street... it was slated for condo development so we had to move. When they first moved out there in 1999, it was perhaps still a little isolated but, by the time of the move in 2008, it had become a fashion/art/condo neighbourhood. Often, these little art spaces serve a kind of gentrifying role... because we're all attracted by cheap spaces... it's all we can ever afford. In a way, we end up kicking ourselves out when the rents become too high, or the neighbourhood changes, we have to move out. This is our 5th space... but I have to say, having documentation of the old spaces in the files, it's our best exhibition site yet!
Elysa: How did the move campaign work out?
Mercer Union: Yes, that just preceded my arrival. It was a direct-ask campaign to help support our move. We got private donations from individuals to help us through the transition. The primary funding though for the renovation of our space (a former neighbourhood cinema turned dollar store) came from public sources. My only beef with these funders is that they haven't constituted a stream of funding yet that would allow us to own our building. They fund renovations and infrastructure improvement (which ultimately benefits landlords) but not acquisitions. So it's a question of sustainability. That said, VERY happy that we had these renovation funds!
Elysa: It’s odd that it wouldn't be structured to give you guys more financial stability in the future.
Mercer Union: Yes. Lots of us are in the same boat. Most ARCs are run on leases but I'm sure this is not unusual worldwide. What goes into your overhead limits our programming. And a move can be traumatic for small operations—it takes a lot of energy and draws away from other priorities.
Elysa: absolutely! I also wanted to ask you if you guys have an ongoing rotation of volunteers
Mercer Union: Yes, we usually accommodate about 1 intern a semester plus we have a large listserv of volunteers who mostly help us run events -- bar tending, door, etc. Also, it should be said that we get lots of help from peers in the community... discounts at framers and other little perks like that... barter of equipment with other orgs.