The three-person design team at Alexis Mark works out of a ground-level studio on a busy commercial street in Copenhagen. The space is sparse and serene, with books and publications stacked adjacent to a tidy kitchenette in the back. Long white tables and Apple monitors populate the front. And through a large storefront window, an electronic billboard can be seen scrolling through tacky insurance ads. For one night in October, the billboard will get an advertorial upgrade: an Alexis Mark-designed menu representing a small selection of Danish art publishers.
The broadcasted menu will be part of an event celebrating the country’s robust self-publishing scene, put on by the studio’s exhibition and project space, Annual Reportt. For the past two years, the studio’s Marie Grønkær, Kristoffer Li, and Martin Bek have supplemented their client work with exhibitions, lecture series, events, and workshops in the front of their space. This programming aspect of the trio’s design practice has allowed them to give a range of international and local designers a platform, to think about the field of design more expansively, and invite a wider public into their studio space and practice. Appropriately, it’s supported in part by public funding—a somewhat Denmark-specific situation for a fledgling design studio, but also a model of just how effective that level of federal support in the arts can be.
In 2016, Grønkær, Li, and Bek had returned to Copenhagen from their respective graduate programs—Grønkær and Li at The Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, and Bek at Yale—and decided to start a studio together. “One of the things that we knew that we wanted to do, besides working together as graphic designers in a studio, was to also run an exhibition space that was interesting to us, so our work was not just behind screens,” says Li. The three were interested in themes of translation, language, and mediation as they relate to a design practice, and wanted to develop a space that could publicly extend the types of critical discourse that they experienced in graduate school. Their idea with Annual Reportt was to make it separate enough from the studio’s client work that it could host programming without an agenda or any connection to commerce, starting with the work of friends and designers whose practice they admired.
In Denmark, institutions, galleries, and individual designers can apply for funding from the government-funded Danish Arts Foundation, founded by law in 1964. The funding comes in the form of specific grants that can be applied for: in general, much of the art world in Denmark is funded by federal grants, though it’s often not enough to sustain a business or art practice on its own. The year Alexis Mark opened, the government had just created a grant specifically for starting a new exhibition space, which required a proposal that detailed the programming that the funds would be used for over the first 18 months. Alexis Mark applied with the concept behind Annual Reportt, and received a little over half of what they asked for. “It’s been completely vital for the level of activity that we’ve had for the past year, that we got that funding to begin with,” says Li.
With the grant money, the studio was able to purchase the space (the funding covers their rent) as well as pay for bringing in exhibitors and any related expenses for events, shows, and lectures. The money that pays the designers’ salaries and studio overheads is all made through commission work. To follow through with the programming plan set out in the grant application, Annual Reportt has put on more than 15 events over the past two years, an impressive feat for a team of three. More impressive still is the quality of the work on display and the thoughtfulness with which Annual Reportt plans its programs. These range from a group show exploring the politics, ethics and language of sport and society; to a video installation by Berlin-based duo PWR; a performance by iPhone publication eeebooks, and a video piece by Canadian poet BpNichol on the storefront window. Li and Bek say that they consider running an exhibition space as an extension of their design process—as designers, they set parameters for the show, installation, workshop, and so on, not unlike they would in designing a book. “We set the framework for an exhibition or lecture series, which also affects the content,” says Li.
Li, Bek, and Grønkær have put long, unpaid hours into creating such a robust and intelligent program, and have filled the space with designers and artists who are doing equally exciting and cross-disciplinary work. But it’s hard to imagine being able to build a practice and project space so comprehensively in just two years without that type of federal funding. The grant money allowed for the time and space to experiment and collaborate, not to mention a central and sizeable physical space in which to do so. But the money from that initial grant has recently dried up, leaving the designers to apply for more funding from the Danish Art Foundation this year. Since the first grant was for longterm funding specifically for starting an exhibition space, they can’t reapply. “It feels natural that we got off to a running start where we created this program and then had to execute it—we gained the experience to see what worked,” says Bek. Now they will apply for grants more sporadically for individual exhibitions, which will give them more flexibility to move from project to project, rather than conceptualizing 18 months of programming at once.
The change in funding model will undoubtedly alter the pace of the projects coming out of Annual Reportt, allowing for them to develop more fully and more slowly and for exhibitions to stay up for months at a time. The team is also starting to think about ways that the exhibitions can be more fluidly connected to Alexis Mark, and how the two parts of the practice and co-exist in that cozy Nørrebro storefront. “The way we now think about it is: we have a studio space and sometimes we want to open up that studio space to become public space,” says Li. “When we think about it that way, it’s easier to imagine how to scale up and down, depending on how much time and money we have available.”