photos: fifty fifty arts collective members (left to right) Don Chessa, Graham Macaulay, Jzero Shuurman, and Laurie Luck. Photo: Pete Kohut.

Placing our bets on the fifty fifty

A hub for emerging artists thrives in Victoria.

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A 15-minute walk from Victoria’s downtown, the corner of Douglas and Bay streets may not seem like a cultural hub, but the members of the fifty fifty arts collective are looking to change that. Slowly growing over the last decade, the collective has started to hit its stride and won Best Gallery for 2014 in Monday Magazine.

That’s no small feat for a gallery that’s completely volunteer run. It’s a win 
that Laurie Luck, gallery coordinator and collective member, chalks up to an increasingly high calibre of shows, not to mention longer hours that she and her colleagues have been putting in to create an artist hub that meets their ambitions. “We beat everyone,” says Luck of the Monday Magazine distinction. “[It] was really amazing.”

Other than its all-volunteer, non- profit status, what sets the fifty fifty apart from other galleries in town
is the priority it places on emerging artists and engaging new audiences.

“It’s pretty simple, really, but it’s important,” says member Graham Macaulay, a recent UVic graduate who had his
own first exhibition at the fifty fifty.

An open community channel
Macaulay stresses the importance of keeping an open channel with the local arts community. Most of the promotion is done on social media, but the gallery also relies on its member base and word of mouth.

“The location is a bit out of the way,
 so it’s important to let people know what’s happening at the gallery,” he says, explaining that more outreach leads
 to more interest and a more diverse audience, which in turn leads to a more diverse and exciting submission pool.

The fifty fifty is most similar to Victoria spaces like the Ministry of Casual Living and Olio, but it’s not a competition and they work with the community and other galleries on events.

They’ve been involved with the Integrate Arts Festival for several years, held screenings for the Antimatter 
Film Festival last fall, and worked with Pride Victoria, hosting an exhibition that coincided with celebrations.

Reaching beyond the arts community, the Burnside Gorge Community 
Centre approached the collective to facilitate a series of artist workshops with their drop-in youth centre.

Fostering new work
More proof of the fifty fifty’s success is the 45 submissions the collective received in its latest call.

Luck and Macaulay, along with other collective members Jzero Schuurman, Renee Crawford, and Don Chessa, will whittle the submissions to 10 artists who will have the opportunity to exhibit their work in the gallery. Shows last for three weeks. True to the DIY ethic of the gallery, participating artists pay a $50 deposit but no fee, and are responsible for their own promotion, set up, and tear down.

“If we get a submission for a show and it seems like that person is quite well- established already, we’re less likely 
to choose them,” says Luck, though this changes if that artist is trying out a new or experimental medium.

“Our mandate is to foster new and innovative [work],” she says, adding that “it’s great” if they can make a sale, but that isn’t a priority either. They have seen the fifty fifty kick-start artist’s careers, like that of local artist Morgana Wallace. Her work was recently picked up by the Madrona gallery, an historic and contemporary art gallery downtown. “That’s brilliant to see her take off and we’ve been a part of that,” says Luck.

The group makes decisions about shows together. “We say that we vote on it, but it’s really a consensus decision,” says Luck.
Because each show requires so much time and effort, the collective would only ever pick an exhibition everyone feels strongly about. Artists submit previous work and an idea of what they want for their proposed show, giving them a lot
 of freedom to develop their concept.

“We just selected someone who wants
to build kind of a like a spaceship in the gallery,” says Luck. “He doesn’t have any drawings, but based on his previous work and the way he described the project, we felt that it was interesting. There’s usually a surprise as to what we’re going to get.”

Room to grow
Luck says things usually run smoothly. But volunteering at the gallery also provides room for practical learning. After an artist disappeared with all her work after the opening, the members decided it was time to develop a contract. It’s not so much legally binding as a social contract that outlines everyone’s responsibilities.

Their flexibility and relationships with local artists also helps if a show goes south. When they had to cancel a show, Taryn Coulson and Chris Savage stepped up to
fill the void. In the artist-curated show, Coulson’s giant canvases of abstract shapes found a striking dynamic with Savage’s detailed, black and white Sharpie drawings.

“Their work was so different that it worked together brilliantly,” says Luck, “so that was really refreshing, to have
a near disaster and then have it totally saved by this really excellent show.”

Luck says she is curious to know what people think about the collective, but would also like to dispel some myths. She says they’ve been accused of being cliquey and giving shows to friends.

“We definitely don’t do that,” she says. “If we know someone and we know they’re a reliable person that helps, but we’re not choosing people based on who they are.” What most people don’t realize is that the fifty fifty is run entirely by volunteers. “We don’t pay ourselves for any of it, we’re not getting anything financially out of
it,” she says. “Sometimes I think people get sort of frustrated with our limitations or if they think they’re going to get a certain experience and they don’t get it, but we’re doing the best that we can.”

The collective raises additional funds 
by renting out a studio space for bands
to jam in and hosting musical events at Logan’s Pub and the nearby Copper Owl. The latter space is where they’ll be hosting their annual Valentine’s Fundraiser on Friday, February 13. “[It’s] a good way to make a bit of extra money for the gallery and promote local bands,” says Luck. 
In the past Schuurman has also made
fifty fifty compilations of the featured bands that are available for download.

The fifty fifty welcomes new, dedicated volunteers and members, especially students and people who want a career in gallery work.

“I’ve learned as much about the arts and the art scene from volunteering at fifty fifty as I have from school,” says Luck, who, after five years, feels like she’s almost ready to move on. “I think I’ve got what I want out of the experience,” she says. “It’d be really lovely to pass that on now.”

*The print version of this article erroneously refers to Laurie Luck as Laurie Smith. We regret the error.

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