Studios – Where Art Happens

Elysium Studios 2012

Last week I was in Margate for the National Federation of Artists’ Studio Providers‘s  (NFASP) AGM and a series of events designed to bring artists and studio providers together to share experience, intelligence and generally bond. The day was hosted by the exceptionally friendly Turner Contemporary, who kept the refreshments flowing as we yomped our way through a networking event for studios, artists and funders in the South East (England), pulled together by Dover Arts Development (DAD), and on to a series of workshops for NFASP members that covered such useful topics as Public Benefit – what it really means, especially in terms of the Charities Commission  and sustainable business models for studios, followed by an opportunity for members to go into regional huddles to talk to each other and do a spot of networking.

I wasn’t there as an artist or a studio provider, but to attempt to write it all up for NFASP, with whom I’ve been working for the past year. All of my notes (a big fat notebook full) will go somewhere else, but I left with my brain fizzing after meeting a whole host of people intent on doing things to make life better for artists and the communities in which they work.

So here I’m just going to ruminate about artists studios, at a time when artists are possibly even more beleaguered than ever as they face hikes in business rates; a falling off in funding – especially from cash-strapped local authorities; the depletion in the organisations set  up to support them – following the various Arts Councils’ funding reviews; the decimation of arts education institutions – one of the key employers of artists; the drop in funding for small projects and corporate sponsorship. OK I could go on.

Fortunately artists tend to be very resilient and, as often as not, will see opportunities where others see despair – the rise in the number of empty shops  and office spaces being used by artists to make/show work illustrates this, although these might not be sustainable in the longer term.

It’s hard to define a typical artists’ studio model. In Margate I met with people making work or project spaces in: former farm buildings; unloved industrial workshops; heritage sites; empty shops; at the end of the pier and even on a decommissioned light ship, moored in the Medway. Other artists’ groups have re-animated schools, old mills, fire stations, factories, office blocks and even troubled social housing projects heading for the inevitable boarding up and police attention. Of course many more work from home and the South East Open Studios Network was represented at the networking meeting.

They’re rural and urban, big set ups with hundreds of studios and small collectives of five, six or seven members. Between them they have a staggering array of partnerships and networks, community, curatorial, educational and professional development programmes and they reach out internationally through residencies, exhibitions and exchanges, while covering the full spectrum of artistic practice and experience. From recent graduates, just starting the climb up the emergence curve, to established artists looking for the camaraderie of a shared space and, more practically, access to shared resources. What they have in common is the affordability factor. This is only natural as NFASP’s membership criteria includes the following statement:

“Our role is to represent and support all those engaged in developing and managing affordable studios for visual artists and studio groups and organisations form our core membership.”

At first sight £10 – £15 per square foot per annum seems exceptional. Why should these individuals get preferential rates? Well, as Marcel Baettig of the Bow Arts Trust points out, the average use of a studio is one day per week as artists juggle jobs and other responsibilities. We do all know that the majority of artists don’t live by making diamond encrusted objects to flog through the big auction houses don’t we? The sad fact is that most artists can’t earn a living from the production of their art alone. So they teach, or undertake project work funded by others and to their agendas and ambitions, or non-arts related jobs to pay the bills.

Should we care? Hell yes! Over the past couple of decades we’ve seen the fruition of capital strategies that have created new places and spaces to see and enjoy the arts thanks to the National Lottery, Europe and some regeneration funding. These have also attracted a big chunk of the available money from the charitable and corporate sector – new buildings are sexy and easy to put a nice, publicly visible plaque in. However this investment seems out of kilter with that going to the primary source of content for those buildings – the artists.

And artists need time and space to make work. It can be a lonely business so they need networks and support structures around them. Sometimes this is as simple as peer feedback and critical advice, but it’s also important to keep abreast of developments in contemporary practice and clusters of artists offer an easy hit for international curators doing the rounds to scout for new talent.

But more importantly artists’ studios can make an enormous contribution to their communities. This can range for support for emerging artists, to running exhibition/project spaces, workshops and other events and, perhaps most importantly for potential funders and planners, can re-invigorate those run-down buildings and parts of town that are suffering from changes to the economy. In his workshop about business models for studios, Marcel Baettig showed how Bow Arts Trust invests rental income in new studio buildings and in community programmes that really engage local people and help to create an understanding of what artists do and what they can do. Many studios are also now actively engaged in working with art schools to help bring on the next generation of artists: Spike Island, Grand Union, Elysium, tactileBOSCH, A Space, ACME and ACAVA being prime examples.

To be sustainable studios need a critical mass and a reasonable amount of square footage (opinions vary between 1500 – 2500 square feet) to be economically viable. Sadly spaces on this scale are not always available – particularly away from the big urban conurbations. But the waiting lists attest to the continued need for affordable work spaces.

And some developers, not always famed for their altruistic outlooks, have already worked out that artists make good tenants and help to add to the offer of new buildings, incorporating live/work spaces for artists in developments. The same can be said for more enlightened local authorities, who have registered that clusters of artists’ spaces can help to regenerate run down areas where enterprise grants for businesses have failed.

Keeping all of this on the agendas of those who can make a difference is what NFASP is about, but it’s a constant challenge to advocate and respond to new legislation (where are the artists in the nascent National Planning Policy framework?) and to support artists who suddenly find themselves with leaky buildings, dodgy leases or astronomical hikes in business rates (most are at the mercy of the discretionary reductions of cash-strapped local authorities).

As NFASP moves into a new phase without regular funding from Arts Council England, they are busily setting up networks for studio groups across the UK. So far there’s been one in the North of England, last week’s South East Network and, on 30 March  there will be one in Swansea for South Wales. If you’d like to be there (you don’t have to be an NFASP member to come along and meet other like-minded souls) you can email me to get on the list. The details of the day are here. Or if you’d like to set up your own regional network email NFASP and let them know.

With many thanks to Crate and Limbo for inviting us to join them after a really lively day in Margate.

Aine Belton - Drawing Time & Clare Beattie - Heard, Crate 2012

And finally, a quick plug for Elysium who will be launching their new studio spaces on 16 March. Follow the link to find out more.

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