Artist-run centres first emerged in Quebec and Canada during the 1960s and ‘70s as a way to provide contemporary artists working at the forefront of dematerialized practices, such as performance, conceptual art, and video, the equipment and spaces they needed to produce and disseminate their work. Although the visual arts ecosystem of that period was generally hostile to radical artistic experimentation, artist-run centres allowed artists to flourish well beyond the imperatives of the art market. In doing so, artist-run centres helped create a new “scene” that helped usher contemporary art into the greater cultural and artistic landscape.

This movement began with the establishment of a few organizations: Intermedia, formed in Vancouver in 1968; A Space, formed in Toronto in 1971; Eye Level, founded in Halifax in 1972; Atelier libre 848 (which later became Atelier Graff) and Optica, both founded in Montreal in 1966 and 1972, respectively; and finally Western Front, in Vancouver in 1973. From then on, the network quickly spread across the entire country.

Little by little, artist-run centres adopted the structure of non-profit organizations, with boards managed by professional artists elected by an assembly of member artists. They set up galleries in industrial areas where they could provide artists with space, specialized equipment, services and resources. Today, they also provide opportunities for reflection, training, and professional development activities through artist residencies or production periods. Research areas involve the visual, media, and interdisciplinary arts.

The RCAAQ was founded in 1986 as a way to give the artistic community a voice among provincial and local government authorities, and to offer its members the services they needed to consolidate. Its seventeen founding centres were: Artexte, Articule, Dazibao, Oboro, Optica, Powerhouse, and Tangente in Montreal; La Chambre blanche, Le Lieu, Obscure, l’Œil de Poisson, and Centre VU in Quebec City; AXENÉO7 in Gatineau; Espace virtuel and Séquence in Chicoutimi; Language Plus in Alma; and finally, Galerie d’art de Matane. In 2020, the Regroupement des centres d’artistes autogérés du Québec has 63 members throughout the province.