grunt first opened it’s doors in September of 1984. A group of eight artists had been meeting throughout that summer in a storefront space on East 6th Avenue in Vancouver to discuss the possibilities and practicalities of opening a gallery. Our direction, from the beginning, was based on the desire to support artists who often worked in isolation and to provide them with the resources to exhibit work that might otherwise go unrecognized.
The inaugural group exhibition was an eclectic gathering of drawing, painting, assemblage, collage and small sculpture, with much of the work marked by the raw and edgy quality that quickly became the gallery’s signature. Word-of-mouth soon brought artists flocking to the new space. The submissions process was casual, often based on chance meetings at openings; CVs were of little importance. grunt was definitely outside the norm of what people thought of as a gallery. The back kitchen, always open for coffee and conversation, soon formed the heart of the gallery and established its persona as an informal, accessible gathering place. Members learned by doing; the gallery’s approach was intuitive, organic and spontaneous.
Initially, our programming focused on LGBTQ and Indigenous art, but by the end of the ‘80s the mandate broadened to include artists whose work would not be shown anywhere else, emerging artists, and senior artists who were looking for a space to show experimental bodies of work that departed from their usual practice. Although exhibitions remain at the core of our programming, we became increasingly connected to individuals and communities unallied to exhibition: writers and poets, gay and lesbian communities, theatre and jazz communities and, increasingly, performance art. We forged relationships with Indigenous artists that eventually shaped a significant part of our programming. grunt’s reputation as an inclusive and open space grew through this ever-expanding network of contacts.
In the first six years, countless hours of unpaid, volunteer labour, donations of equipment and materials, fundraising events and rent paid by whoever was living in the loft above the gallery kept the doors open, but it was a hand-to-mouth existence. As we reached the limits of volunteerism and donation, we began to look to other sources of income. grunt started receiving project funding through Canada Council beginning in 1987, and in 1990 the gallery received it’s first operations funding. Also in 1990 we formed a board of directors with Glenn Alteen as official Director and incorporated as a non-profit (The Visible Art Society).
In 1994, faced by ever-rising rents, grunt cemented a deal in which we allowed a realtor to use our logo in their ads and advertise our gallery’s interest in the live/work development they were planning at 350 E. 2nd Avenue. In exchange, we received a significant discount in the purchase price of a secure, owned space. A year later, following a capital campaign, we moved into our new space. As a result, project and operations funding increased; we could pay staff, obtain equipment such as computers, and hire interns and technical support. We were able to establish and later expand our online presence. Our projects became more ambitious and eventually grew to include an annual performance series; conferences and symposia; book, magazine and CD ROM publications; educational programs; a series of websites highlighting the work of significant Aboriginal artists; and international collaborations with galleries and artists from Europe to Australia.
Since 2000 we have expanded our staff, established the grunt gallery Legacy Fund and embarked on a longer planning process by developing a Fundraising Plan, a Strategic Plan, a Marketing Plan, an IT Plan and a Communications Map outlining our communications and marketing strategies.
In 2010 the kitchen was replaced, after years of planning, by the Media Lab as part of the gallery’s initiative to keep pace with technologies that not only afford artists new ways to make art, but also take exhibitions and performances to a world-wide audience. This was followed in 2012 by Activating the Archive – a series of websites containing selections from the archival material the gallery has accumulated since its very beginning. The websites include an interactive element that will allow others to reconstruct our unique history for purposes of research and education.
Much has been done; much remains to be done. The future may hold unimagined developments in ways to create and disseminate art; grunt plans to be a continued resource and innovator for artists wishing to explore those horizons.
Written by Hillary Wood, a founding member of grunt gallery.