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.

Backwards and Onward

Happy 2012 blog fans and welcome, as the last pine needles embed themselves in the carpet, to a rather random review of the visual arts year in Wales.

And it was a good one, with lots of highlights:

There have been some mighty fine shows on offer this year and I’ve been lucky to see a lot of them. In no particular order of favouriteness here are some of the ones that tooted my horn:

Project Object at Oriel Myrddin in Carmarthen had everything going for it. I love it when artists are let loose on collections, or people are invited to talk about or curate objects that mean something special to them. This show came in four equally good parts and gave me the chance to come as close as I’m likely to get to the Aurora Borealis and slip a poodle into a public gallery. The Glynn Vivian unleashed David Cushway and some delighted individuals on their precious collection of ceramics. The resulting film,  Last Supper at The Glynn Vivian, shows how passionate folk become when asked to talk about the objects they love.

One would never have guessed that the Glynn Vivian team had been holding their collective breaths, waiting to get the green light for the new development project – the programme was as lively as ever. I’ve already written up my highlight here. The off site programme continues – follow it here.

Neil Mcnally was let loose on Newport Museum & Art gallery to curate a show – The Institute of Mental Health is Burning. Mcnally selected objects from NMAG’s fine collection, mixing it up with a host of artists. Those who went will have Goldie Lookin’ Chain’s Newport State of Mind (You’re Not From Newport) etched into their memory banks forever more. NMAG also brought us Dis-location by Andrew Cooper, an artist who never fails to engage my attention. Pete Telfer, God of Culture Colony, filmed Cooper talking about his work.

In mid Wales, Oriel Davies gave us two artists associated with the 2007 Wales at the Venice Biennale offering: Bedwyr Williams and Paul Granjon. Williams’ show, Nimrod, launched with one of his trademark darkly funny performances and the humour threaded through the exhibition, which coincided with the National Eisteddfod up the road in Wrexham – Williams took the Gold medal and went on to win the People’s Choice and Ifor Davies Award in an unprecedented hat trick.

Bedwyr Williams, Nimrod Oriel Davies

Granjon took over the gallery to create a workshop for unlikely gizmos with very willing volunteers for Oriel Factory. With a suite of his quirky drawings and a loop of films featuring some of his performances, inventions and songs to spur them on, the workshop elves came up with some highly inventive creations – none of which are likely to feature in the Innovations catalogue any day soon.

Across the Cambrian mountains, Aberystwyth Arts Centre has become an important venue for artists’ moving image with The Box seasons, but I’ve also enjoyed Visitor (still  on, if you’re quick) and Wild Thing.

Back in Cardiff Richard Higlett had his first solo show in Wales at g39’s temporary new home in The dairy, Pontcanna with Welcome to Your World. Higlett never fails to surprise and this show was no exception: a talking cat, the GPS (gallery of portable sound) car and a band (Bear- Man) playing from a hole in the gallery floor. Experimentica came back for its 11th outing at Chapter (where else could you find a man covered in mucus bouncing on a trampoline?) Chapter Gallery continued to surprise and delight with Pile and  The With Collective my personal faves.

Over in Penarth, Ffotogallery’s programme was as strong as ever, showcasing new and established talent and with complementary and engaging talks and the ever-popular Artists’ Book Fayre I’m so glad that this is my local. They’ll be bringing an international photography festival to Cardiff in 2013.

Artist-run spaces offered some really exciting shows and events this year: tactileBOSCH in Cardiff, continued to present rare opportunities to see performance, along with installations and painting shows that spilled out all over Cardiff for MOIST; Elysium ran another Bus Stop Cinema and disrupted the streets of Swansea; g39 hit Leipzig’s Spinnerei for the big Art Weekend; The Rhôd created a new series of site-responsive works in an old Mill in the hills of Carmarthenshire and created their own pavilion at the Venice Biennale (Rhodio). Swansea’s Supersaurus played host to shows by Gordon Dalton and Tom Goddard, while Supersuarus member Owen Griffiths dug up a football pitch to grow vegetables for Vetch Veg (sometimes you just couldn’t make this stuff up!)

Online artists’ film platform, Outcasting is heading for world domination. Not content with presenting international content, Outcasting’s evil genius, Michael Cousin, has joined forces with, er, me and St David’s Hall’s exhibitions officer, Ruth Cayford to form Fourth Wall. Pedwaredd Wall CIC, which will be filling Cardiff with artists’ moving image this autumn, thanks to festival funding from the Arts Council of Wales. Watch this space for more info and a call for artists to submit.

Goodbye and Hello

2011 was tinged with some sadness as Swansea lost two inspirational women: Swansea Metroplitan University lecturer Susan Griffiths and Mission Gallery Director Jane Phillips. Both died too young and leave a big hole in the visual arts community.

We also said goodbye to arts education as we know it with some major restructuring of fine art courses and a few closures. I’ve already written about this here so I won’t bang on but I’ll be watching as things unfold over the next few years.

James Boardman, Light Corridor, CSAD degree show 2011

And last, but not least, of the farewells goes to all of my former colleagues at the Arts Council of Wales, who find themselves staring at an uncertain future following the recent major restructuring (more on this as it unfolds).

Meanwhile some new faces appeared on the scene and began to make their mark:

Amanda Roderick took over as director at The Mission Gallery under very sad circumstance, but her work to date would, I’m sure, make Jane Phillips proud. Ben Borthwick got into his stride as Chief Executive of Artes Mundi, which is scheduled for this Autumn in Cardiff. Up in Llandudno we said goodbye and good luck to Martin Barlow, who left Mostyn after steering its development into one of the finest exhibitions spaces in Wales. He is  replaced as director by Alfredo Cramerotti, who took over as the first major retrospective of Blaenau Ffestiniog-based sculptor, David Nash – Red,Black,Other – launched to much excitement.

And finally, we said hello to #0 of tant magazine. They’re currently inviting submissions for #1 so please follow the link.

    David Fitzjohn, TactileBOSCH Citizen 2011     Jonathan Anderson, Dark Star - Mission Gallery

It’s been such a busy year and I’m sure I’ll have forgotten to mention a lot of the wonderful things that I have seen. Please feel free to add your own favourites in the comments section.

In the meantime I hope you have a very productive and creative 2012.