Dan Goodman, a white man in a black T-shirt with a beard and glasses, stands in front of a brick wall.

Dialogue: Dan Goodman

We discuss ‘meanwhile spaces’, value, funders and fundability with Newcastle-based artist and curator Dan Goodman in the context of their work as System and their recently-completed research.

ANNE: I wasn’t sure whether you describe yourself as a curator or not: I’ve seen in the past you said you don’t think of yourself in that way. Do you see yourself primarily as an artist, curator, researcher, or all three at once?

Dan Goodman: The subject of my PhD, by and large, is System Gallery. I’m not going to bore you with that now, but part of it is looking at how System exists simultaneously as me as a singular entity and also this sort of nebulous, shifting, collective ‘we’. At the same time, it’s this other, abstract thing that existed before I got involved in it, which you could even think of as a structure for marketing: it exists as something else. And then all these have become my PhD — so these separate threads of artist, curator, researcher, have all kind of become just one practice, really.

I guess the thing that links those three identities is the sense that I could fulfil a perceived need. So when I said I don’t really see myself as a curator, I meant that I’m more interested in people than I am objects, and the people that make the objects. I do really love art, but for me, what I saw that I could contribute and what aligns with my values, priorities and politics and whatever else came from the opportunity where I kind of stumbled into taking on System — and with that came a level of agency and clout. And so my thing was to use that as a tool to help other people, rather than just building a career out of it.

I guess you can do both, and to an extent I have, but the sort of thing that leads me is thinking, ‘what can I do to contribute here, or help this person?’ That could be through research, by discussing with somebody how they might present their work, or offering somebody an opportunity to present their work.

ANNE: So is it important to you that System is a framework which you can clothe in different ways? Is it important it’s not you-as-you, but you as System, because you work at a remove: it’s not all predicated on Dan Goodman?

DG: Yeah, I think so. And I guess sometimes it seems a bit silly…

ANNE: No, it makes sense. It makes sense to have a kind of identity even if it’s, as you say, something nebulous, but it makes sense because it means you can navigate things in a slightly more independent way. You can put yourself aside when you need to, and bring yourself to the fore where people need to know that it’s you.

DG: Yeah, and I guess it’s got malleability in terms of how I can talk about or present it, or operate.

ANNE: So, thinking about System: it was a gallery space; it inhabited a physical space. Do you still see it as a sort of gallery space in waiting? Or has it morphed into something else? And I suppose, linked to that, was it ever a gallery space, or was it always something that happened to sometimes take the form of a bricks-and-mortar space, temporarily?

DG: There’s a lot in that. In terms of what it was like before: I took over something like six years into System’s existence without any real prior engagement with it. I know a little about the history and whose hands it passed through, but I don’t know how they operated or how they saw it. I think they operated in a similarly informal mode: they would offer it as space that people could use. I’m not sure if there was as much sense of community surrounding it. I guess maybe I became a bit more embedded in a particular part of the artist community — primarily graduates, recent graduates or current students.

When System was booted out of Bar Loco, it was able to continue to exist, because of the community of people surrounding it — so when I did go to organise something somewhere else, people came. There was a level of trust involved. People would work with me, even though I might not have a space, and couldn’t necessarily offer a space. It was about me, I guess.

ANNE: So going back to the previous question, are you currently thinking of wanting to return to System inhabiting a space or having a closer relationship with a particular space again, or are those days gone?

DG: Not that long ago, I was offered a space, the Reading Room [in Sunderland]. I could’ve had that indefinitely.

ANNE: Ah, I didn’t know that. I thought it came to an end naturally after a couple of shows.

DG: No, but for different reasons, really. Harley Kuyck-Cohen, who I co-ran the space with, and I didn’t have the energy to continue with it. Harley took a step back, and I decided to do the same a bit later to focus on my PhD. Having a space forces you to continue with the cycle of presenting shows, and it’s been quite nice to get off that hamster wheel.

My PhD has been a lot of work, but then it’s also about the thing that I’ve been doing. At times, I guess the whole thing was just quite all-encompassing, you know: what I was doing for fun, I was doing for work.

ANNE: So it’s a massive feedback loop for you?

DG: Yeah. Like, especially if you look at these things too closely, you can just focus on the negatives, and that’s rough.

ANNE: Especially when it’s grown out of the fact that you’re doing it because you love doing it, or you’ve come to it because it’s part of a constellation of different interests. I can imagine as well that you need points at which you have space away from that in order to focus on your research.

DG: I think so, yeah. And then I was also thinking, what was the value of this thing? It’s quite useful in terms of just thinking about things more flexibly.

ANNE: Leading on from that, I was going to ask you about your research. You describe it as an ‘auto-ethnographic study’, or at least that was the way it was described on your university research profile. Sometimes these things slip, don’t they, but is that still the way you frame the research? 

DG: Yeah, it’s a practice-based study, centring on curatorial practice, but that has quite a lot of ethnography wrapped up in it. Elements of ethnography are integrated into the curation. And I guess part of that at various points has been about the exhibition product, alluding to the social and political, personal and interpersonal backdrop behind those things: why System might be different to the Hatton, for example: in both cases you’re putting stuff on display in a room, but the conditions, motivations, and context behind both are quite different. With institutional thinking, there is this division between the people that are doing the thing and that are doing something for the audience or audiences, whereas with System and other grassroots structures like the audience and the people doing are one and the same. At any point the person who’s in the audience might, the next month, be doing the thing. That boundary is far less fixed, and at times doesn’t really exist at all.

I’ve suggested something like that in my PhD to work towards an articulation of the forms of value generation that occur within structures like System. And so my reason for an ethnographic approach – on focusing on me as the subject – is not the direct opposite, but quite different to the conversations of value that occur through policy in institutions, where this definition of value is delivered in a way that’s top-down. There’s a huge disjuncture between how Arts Council England talks about the value of art compared to how artists talk about the value of what they do.

ANNE: It’s about an imagined or aspirational value, whereas yours, presumably, is more of a value that arises because of a need?

DG: Yeah.

ANNE: I imagine it’s simultaneously taught you about the place of System and your work in the context of the wider world, but has the process of this auto-ethnographic study also taught you something about yourself as distinct from your practice? Because it must be difficult, it being a rather introspective activity.

DG: And a PhD is anyway! Yeah, it’s been intense. A lot of the written component reflects on how my perspective has shifted over the last four or five years.

It’s been interesting to see that journey. It definitely has been useful doing a PhD, to take that time, and that’s why I did it. I was running System without thinking about it too much. Then there was a moment of, like, ‘oh shit, something’s happening here… what is this?’ Part of that was quite naively just thinking that running System for artists is really good, and that because it’s good, the money will follow because that’s how funders operate.

I wasn’t that aware of it, but I came up against those institutional structures that just aren’t compatible with my way of working, which I do think is largely unfundable. Because I can’t tell you at the start what exactly is going to come out of it; I can’t tell you who it’s going to help; I can’t tell you how or when they’re going to benefit. But I do know that it is valuable. I think there’s a real difference between how funding works in terms of this cherry-picking of good people, good ideas and good projects as compared to how we actually work, in which any success is collective.

I think it seems to stem from this idea of the individual genius, and it ignores the fact that, actually, these so-called geniuses are born out of this sort of praxis of various social, cultural, personal, opportunistic factors.

ANNE: And we’ll have an economy that allows them to be this lone genius in the first place. I tend to reflect on the fact that, as opposed to theatre or music that in their nature, in their process, have to be collaborative most of the time, the visual arts, certainly studio-based practice doesn’t have to be — but I wonder if that’s not so true, actually; rather that we’ve been pushed towards this increasingly atomised way of working because it’s a neatly packageable idea of what being a visual artist constitutes. It sounds like you’re saying that this is inherently more collaborative, or it could be an inherently more collaborative process.

DG: I think it is. And I think what funders should be doing, or what they should be measured on or looking to pursue is creating the conditions for more people to be part of that, rather than trying to engineer what you want it to do. It will do the things that you want it to do or might do some better or might look a bit different. Because, you know, there’s no real science to what they’re doing anyway, or behind a lot of the data that they use to measure success, and I think they ignore that. The goalposts are moved so often that that data is virtually meaningless because it’s like comparing apples to oranges.

ANNE: To gloss Donald Rumsfeld, what you’re talking about is known unknowns: you don’t know exactly what the outputs will be but you know there will be outputs; you know that people will be affected in some positive way. Most funders tend to want to deal with known knowns, so yes, everything has to be in a box. But it’d need a seismic shift to change that, and it makes you wonder how you’d get to that point, influencing the way that policymakers and funders think because of course public funders are told what to do by government, effectively.

DG: I don’t necessarily feel like the fight has to be had with the policymaker, necessarily. They operate within set parameters that they’re given. I’d be pushing for more effective advocacy, to state what the value of artistic activity is – a firm but flexible idea of what that could be and the conditions that allow that to happen – to move and widen the parameters that policymakers operate in. A lot of the advocacy that does happen I actually find quite troubling, particularly the sort of things that try to align the artist with ‘worker’ working ‘for’ an institution. Contained in that is a complete subjugation of the artist within an explicitly neoliberal system. And I think there’s a better fight to make for better working conditions and better pay, whilst also maintaining a degree of independence and actually. I would actually argue for more independence and self-determination and better pay and working conditions.

ANNE: Because it’s a dead end, isn’t it, to get into talking about the artist as a producer? As always someone who’s necessarily going to produce something. It doesn’t follow that ideas always produce, or that they’re about production: sometimes they’re anti-production. So I can see that to force yourself into that dead end is not a great position to be in.

Maybe you’ve touched on this already, but I was wondering what if you could sum up what’s kept you committed to this artist-led model, despite everything — and by everything I mean despite a lack of funding, a lack of interest a lot of time from people who who could or should be more interested in supporting your model. What’s kept you committed to that as a way of working? Is it about a framework for resistance, or is it about the inherent equity and sense of collaboration that it makes possible? Or is it just needs-must? I mean, if you were offered a curator role at a massive institution tomorrow, would you take it?

DG: Yeah, I don’t know. That’s really quite a tricky one.

ANNE: Maybe it’s too much of a binary, as well.

DG: The first part, why do I work this way? I don’t know. That’s part of it, where it’s just become who I am — that’s just happened. A large part of that is how I self-identify and view myself and the community that I feel a sense of belonging to. And there’s some really great parts to it in terms of the level of solidarity. There’s a great level of support that I get, and I guess, you know,  it’s not an explicitly political vehicle, but it’s building a version of the art world that I would like to see; something that’s led by self-determination and self-definition in terms of what value, purpose or meaning are. And that’s what the Arts Council claims one of its top priorities is, while operating in a way that undermines that, and I’m sure that that’s to do with political pressures, but there’s a lot of virtue-signalling towards this kind of thing, but then not really delivering on it.

What I’ve identified with the Arts Council, with institutions, is that there are two impulses: one for ‘excellence’, which is a way of talking about economic stuff. So it’s about developing this international soft power to attract tourism, or coming up with really innovative things that become commercially viable or whatever else. And there’s this other sort of emancipatory anybody-can-do-it impulse which is about the social aspect of people coming together — and those two things don’t work together.

The only way I can see how you can square that circle is if you prioritise the emancipatory bit: because in freeing people in some sense, the other shit happens. Whereas what they seem to have gone for is this other model where you kind of cherry-pick; this neoliberal idea in which we’re all competing as individuals and it’s just about just choosing these great projects. And if you can be inclusive as well, that’s a bonus.

That is definitely an oversimplification, but that’s how I see it. My project is about focusing on enabling people to be self-determined. Often the effect of this is limited to some extent, but it’s this that pushes and drives me.

ANNE: It sounds very much to me, that if you could boil it down to one thing, it’s about trust; about trusting people to know what they want to do, and trusting organisations or groups of people to achieve something good.

DG: Yeah, I guess you’d see that across various initiatives or projects that try and reach a particular group, based on some sort of protected characteristic. I think there’s certainly an incredible amount of value in that work, and obviously the spirit of it I completely agree with but there’s also an element of, what would be far more effective rather than trying to get people from a particular community to a large institution, maybe instead to just ask those people what they want and make changes based on those recommendations and needs. And maybe they don’t want to go to that institution, because in its present form and structure it doesn’t serve them. A lot of institutions don’t change because they are too stubborn, slow, or entrenched within institutional thinking.

And often it’s the people in outreach teams doing those jobs, delivering those projects for institutions, who are often the first people to get cut if savings need to be made. Often they’re precariously employed. I think there’s a real problem here, and I think it points to where institutions’ priorities really are.

ANNE: You were part of the More Than Meanwhile Spaces research group, weren’t you? I wanted to ask your opinion — not about that project, but about meanwhile spaces more generally, because, obviously, you have intimate knowledge of them, having made use of and navigated structures around them. There are many things that are positive about them: what they make possible, being provisional spaces without the usual ties; that they allow for experimentation. Of course there are many problems too, around their precarity, and about a certain expectation that artists should by default use these spaces and then expect to get moved on when developers’ prospects improve.

I wondered if you could say something about whether you think there is a place for meanwhile spaces. If you were in charge, are they a model you’d keep as part of a better-funded and structured ecology or would you do something different?

DG: I think there’s a place for them. I don’t think it should be like what’s happened with The NewBridge Project: they’re genuinely embedded in the community and seem to be doing some amazing things, but they have this eviction date hovering over them and will have to move. I think what they need, and what would be beneficial to the community there, is giving NewBridge some sense of permanence in that space.

It’s incredibly disruptive for them to have to move every few years, but for some people it might be useful: they might want to just occupy a space for a few months to work on a particular project. Where things get mixed up, it’s in the thinking that longer-term security of space equals less precarity, and I don’t think that’s always the case. I don’t see a lot of conversations around uses of space. In Newcastle, much of the space in the city centre is owned by a couple of people who are financially motivated and don’t live locally.

I guess there needs to be a conversation about space, but not as a substitute for talking about precarity. There’s a sense that as soon as you get a more permanent space, you’re fine. I had spaces for a long time and I wasn’t fine! I was doing other things, and a lot of work for free — and asking other people to work for free. There’s definitely a place for meanwhile spaces, because not everybody wants to do something for a long time. But also, I think that some organisations should just go when they’re surplus to requirements, or institutions should just fail: that should be a possibility in order to allow other things to grow, maybe.

ANNE: Failure should be a possibility, and is the process by which we grow and move on. As to which organisations and why, that’s another conversation! Thank you for an engaging and honest discussion, and good luck to you post-PhD: we’re looking forward to whatever comes next.

About the contributor

Dan Goodman is an artist-curator and researcher whose practice explores the social world of art and what it means to be part of it. This is centred around their lived experience of running a Newcastle-based artist-run gallery, System. They use System as a test site to explore different ways of being and working together through performance, karaoke, storytelling, and exhibition-making.

Goodman is interested in the overlap between ideas of emotional value, the social, and the spatial within artist communities. Their practice-based PhD explores how reactivity and informality can be prime drivers in fostering identity-making and community building.

Back to top