The Ministry of Casual Living
1442 Haultain, Victoria, BC
In 2002, Dave Gifford and Stephen Nguyen found themselves in the not uncommon position of being art-school students with no place to live. While many would simply resign themselves to a period of complaisant couch-surfing, Gifford and Nguyen took their homeless state and combined it with a desire to provide artists with more freedom in exhibiting, as well as with a keen interest in community-based practice. From this heady blend of physical need and philosophical exuberance, an artist-run, live-in window gallery quixotically named The Ministry of Casual Living was born.
Nestled in a quiet neighborhood, The Ministry of Casual Living seeks to re-negotiate many of the familiar structural relationships that exist between artists, art, viewers, and galleries. The first tack is the institution’s physical and very purist manifestation as a window gallery. This, in philosophical essence, frees viewers from the tyranny of the White Cube, but it’s also a more proactive approach to showing art that has affinities with the guerilla-style visual attacks of street art. Gifford sees the window broadcasting art; in his opinon even the brief rubbernecking of a bus passenger counts as a 'hit'. The gallery projects work out into the community space rather than requiring viewers to submit to a gallery space and while people may thus be shanghaied into confronting art when it’s the last thing on their mind, they are afforded a vast degree of psychological freedom in the engagement.
The other channel of conceptual negotiation is the Ministry’s organisational structure as a live-in, artist-run centre. More often than not the successive curators live in the gallery. Their rent enables its continued existence, and they're afforded a privileged perspective on the continuous flow and reaction of intentional and unintentional viewers. Another intense dynamic is brought in by the mobile wall that separates the living space from the installation space. It's positioned at the artists’ discretion. The formal elements of a given piece have a visceral impact on the living conditions of the curator in a curious mechanism that seems almost to invert the object-subject relationship between human being and artwork. Gifford describes the set-up, overall, as a monastic training ground for young curators.
The relationship between curator and artist is also relatively unique under the Ministry’s operating structure. The original curatorial mandate was to facilitate rather than to program. Ministry curators have always sought out interesting work but, generally speaking, any artist who approaches the gallery is given a show, as well as complete freedom in the installation of their piece. Gifford, who's maintained a position on the gallery’s board of directors, has found over time that some curatorial guidance is actually welcomed by most artists. He now likens the role to that of an editor. Current curator Gerry Gauthier feels one of his most important contributions is ensuring the artists challenge themselves to seriously consider the particulars of the space and the viewing arrangement.
An additional tenant of The Ministry of Casual Living has been to represent as broad a spectrum of artists as possible: emerging, seasoned and ‘submerging’ (a Ministry coined term for artists who’s careers have encountered a hiatus for one reason or another.) As a result, exhibitions have taken myriad forms over the past 7 years, from a gigantic wave of living turf that breached the main window (Ride the Green Wave, Bamsy Franks, 2007) to a painterly wall-application of intricate, modular soft sculpture (Eden Veaudry, 2009.) A recent show by Vancouver artists Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky (Carpet World, 2009) combined a bold pop esthetic reminiscent of Jeff Koons with the quietly decaying sensibility of Eva Hesse’s work in a bright and luxuriously chaotic installation of clutter that demanded an extended period of visual exploration.
The diversity of the Ministry’s artists is only surpassed by the variety of their often unintentional audience. This theoretical and functional openness and breadth of scope has no doubt contributed largely to the relative longevity of this artist run gallery. It will likely ensure that the Ministry of Casual Living continues to challenge, intervene in and question both the artistic community and the local community at large for many years to come.