The Lacey Prize: Recognizing Artist-Run Centres in Canada

Archival image silkscreened by A. Coutu-Marion, reproduced in Historique de Skol commentée , Y. Théoret, S. Russo & A.-M. Proulx, © Centre des arts actuels Skol, licenced under CC BY-N,  2011

In the late 1960s, artist-run centres began to emerge across Canada. These art spaces and galleries, established and run by artists, focused on experimental art production and alternative practices that were not being shown in larger institutions. From exhibitions and performances to cooperative studios and publications, these artist-run centres encouraged creative freedom and self-determination, while also existing as a supportive network within which artists could produce their work.

London, Ontario, was at the forefront of the movement, when local artists such as Greg Curnoe founded cooperative galleries, including the Alpha Centre and the Region Gallery. In Vancouver, Intermedia emerged in 1967 as a place where artists, architects, engineers, academics and musicians could explore new technologies and address timely and critical issues in their work. “It is our intention that Intermedia be a place where creative exploration [can] take place on an interactive basis between artists, between technologists and between seriously interested people. The only criteria that we have is that it is far out, creative and exploratory,” said artists Victor Doray and Joe Kyle in a CBC Radio interview in 1967. “We are, in a sense, discovering this thing into existence.” Initially operating out of a former macaroni factory, this artist-run centre remained active until 1974.

Michael de Courcy,  Intermedia at 575 Beatty Street, Vancouver, c. 1970. ©  The Michael de Courcy Archive

More than 60 years later, artist-run centres continue to exist in large numbers across the country (Artist-Run Centres and Collectives Conference [ARCA] currently represents more than 180). Unique in their programming and mandates, some of these centres have a general focus, while others support specific regions, mediums and groups – such as performance art, print-making, feminist art, disability arts or Indigenous representation. Most of these non-profit spaces do not sell work and instead pay artists and other contributors for their presentations.

For many artists and industry professionals, these centres – some of which also offer residencies, production facilities, as well as mentorship and publishing initiatives – are an entry-point or stepping stone towards working or exhibiting in major museums and galleries. For others, they are places within which to establish and sustain lasting careers. “There’s often a debate within artist-run culture about whether these centres are a training ground upon which emerging artists can eventually become affiliated with larger institutions, or whether they are actually an alternative to the system,” says Anne Bertrand, Director of ARCA. “No matter the position, these centres play a key role in the legitimation of artists, providing peer recognition for their work, a sense of community and opportunities for involvement in governance and programming decisions at the grassroots level.”

The majority of Canada’s artist-run centres are non-profit spaces that receive support from the Canada Council for the Arts (CCA) and some private, municipal and provincial funding. Many centres also undertake fundraising or offer services to generate additional revenue. These funds are used to pay staff, compensate artists, curators and freelancers, and cover operating costs. According to a 2012 report commissioned by the CCA, however, many centres have “expressed their difficulty in simply trying to keep pace with increases in operating costs due to lack of funding, which is said to be impacting negatively on programming resources. The overall challenge of increased funding for Artist-Run Centres remains at the heart of their future development and growth in the visual arts ecology.”


It is in this context that the National Gallery of Canada’s Lacey Prize was launched this year. Funded through a gift by Dr. John Lacey and his late wife Naomi, and supported by the National Gallery of Canada Foundation, the biennial Prize will recognize small arts organizations and artist-run centres across Canada through a cash prize of $50,000 to the winner and $20,000 to two runners-up (the inaugural submissions deadline is August 30, 2019). “Art is terribly important to one’s well-being,” comments John Lacey. “What we’re hoping to do through the Lacey Prize is to bring art to the people, rather than people to the art: To provide a financial boost that will allow these centres the freedom to do more, to connect to their community more effectively, and to network with larger organizations who can offer additional guidance and support.”

The Lacey Prize will also facilitate a more active relationship between these centres and the National Gallery of Canada, with a contemporary art curator travelling from Ottawa to visit the winning centre. “Not only will the Lacey Prize recognize outstanding artist-run centres, but it will also allow us to pay better attention to, and learn from, what these organizations are doing,” said Nicole Burisch, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the Gallery, who previously worked at artist-run centres in both Calgary and Montreal. “These centres are risk-takers, often working at the forefront of critical issues and innovative ways of thinking. They are an integral part of the visual arts landscape in Canada.”

Ultimately, the Lacey Prize will not only provide financial assistance, it will also recognize the vast network of artist-run centres currently operating in Canada – acknowledging their rich histories and raising awareness of their important contributions to Canadian art.


The National Gallery of Canada will accept nominations for the 2019 edition of the Lacey Prize until August 30, 2019. The three winners will be selected by an independent jury and announced in late November 2019. See also the Gallery's YouTube video on the Lacey Prize. For more information and to download the application form, click here. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.

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