Matthew Conduit on the (re)turn of Sheffield
Matthew Conduit tells Kate Brundrett how the Sheffield art scene has come full circle and compares artists survival strategies in the current downturn to the 80s economic landscape.
Tell me about your photography, what are you working on now?
I’m essentially a landscape photographer, I’ve never really used photography for anything else. The work I’m producing now is very large-scale high resolution images of the borders of the city. For a lot of people outside Sheffield they could be anywhere but the people who live here don’t believe I’m finding this stuff so close to the city.
I’ve recently completed a large exhibition and publication, so I’ve been very focused on that and getting the book out. Now I’ve got my head down producing new work and trying to get it out there.
You’ve had a range of roles within the arts and creative industries in Sheffield – tell me a bit about these.
I came up to Sheffield to study Fine Art, finished in 1981 and never left. Sheffield is quite well known for retaining a lot of its students, it’s a good place to live. So I stuck around and got involved with the very early days of what was the Untitled Gallery, and I ended up running that and moving it into town and that’s now what Site Gallery is.
I then got involved with the council and various other people to develop other buildings in what became the Cultural Industries Quarter, I ended up being Director of the Workstation. That took me through to about 2000 when I worked for a number of years as a freelance consultant working on building projects right across the country.
In about 2004 I returned to making my own work, which is what I thought I should have been doing all along.
So you’ve gone full circle…
Yes, I found I spent a lot of time helping people to do what I wanted to do – it took a long time to kick back in. Also I needed a break from running the gallery and getting involved in building projects and the creative process of putting those projects together kept me fuelled for quite a few years. But the need to make images never really went away.
Was there a specific moment that you realised you needed to make work again?
Yes actually there was – it was my partner saying to me ‘why aren’t you doing it?’. I always knew I’d go back to making work and she literally said one day ‘what’s stopping you?’ By that time I was self-employed as a consultant. Also digital photography had a lot to do with it, being so much more immediate and easier to get back into.
Did that coincide with the print studio you opened?
No, that’s fairly recent. To produce my own work for last year’s show I had a sponsorship deal set up to borrow a very large digital format printer, and at the last minute the deal fell though. So I ended up making a decision very quickly to buy one. I’ve been doing prints for other artists and photographers as well as my own stuff and it’s grown from there.
That’s quite a journey..
Well yes, it’s that sort of history that made me have a bit of déjà vu about recent news about Sheffield.
Yes, it’s been in the national press recently as an example of a place where artists can thrive in the recession – cheap studios and lots of energy – what’s your take on that?
One of the reasons I got involved in developing projects in the early 80s was because Sheffield didn’t have much in terms of resources and facilities. So a lot of people like me who were spilling out of college stayed here and started to set things up themselves. A lot of the organisations that now exist like Yorkshire Art Space (YAS) and Site Gallery, and more recently S1 Studios, are all set up from people spilling out of the Fine Art course.
Since the 80s, especially in terms of music, film and graphic design, there’s always been a lot of creative energy and creative activity in Sheffield and over the years it’s grown and grown. So it’s no surprise now with the slump in the economy, buildings are cheap and artists are starting to congregate and have a go themselves.
The big projects like Workstation (which is more for creative businesses) and YAS both received a lot of investment, but I know that YAS have had a waiting list for studios for years. Historically there has always been a lot of smaller studios coming and going around the city in run down properties. Bloc Studios and S1 managed to establish themselves quite well and are still around.
Do you see a repeat of what happened in the 80s? Has it been re-energised recently due to the financial climate?
I think in the last few years there has been a bit of a resurgence, property has been easier to get hold of because landlords don’t know what to do with it – they can’t develop it and probably can’t sell it or get high paid tenants, so keeping the building active and at least covering the rates and costs is a fairly good deal for them.
I know a great new studios project who are looking to expand and improve, but how on earth are they going to secure their future? They’re on a fairly short rolling lease and it’s quite possible that when the economy does pick up, which it will at some point, the land owners and building owners will have to make decisions about what to do with their assets. That makes it very tight.
When we developed projects like this in the early 80s onwards funding programmes for regeneration projects would come through, like the urban programme or regional development fund – fairly large capital funding. These days it doesn’t seem like that’s going to be the case. Regeneration doesn’t even seem to be on the agenda. If you can’t get in on the Arts Council or Lottery there’s pretty much nowhere to go.
So it’s very difficult for those projects to look into the future and try and get some sort assistance to establish themselves properly. I just don’t see such a rosy future.
Do you think artists as sideways thinkers might find other solutions around this?
I think they are doing already, I was speaking to someone yesterday who’s starting to consider commercial borrowing, community shared ownership and these sorts of ideas. That’s going to have to be the way to go, it’s certainly going to be a long time before any public money is pumped into these sorts of projects. It’s going to be tough. It’s tough anyway but when you’ve got to run a project like that and make it pay commercially it’s very difficult.
In the absence of future public funds it’s going to be interesting to see what strategies artists come up with..
Yes it is. The other thing as well is that through the Blair and Brown era the arts generally benefitted from the recognition of the creative industries as an important sector of the country’s economy. When we started (what we called) the cultural industries in the early 80s nobody had even heard of that sector. So in twenty years an enormous amount has changed. But I think it’s clear that the creative industries are hardly on the agenda now for the current government. It seems to have been completely jettisoned. All that work seems to have come to a grinding halt.
The other side of the equation is revenue funding. Two key organisations that fund art are the Arts Council England and Local Authorities – we all know the Arts Council are going to have a hard few years, but the local authorities are looking at cuts for years to come – Sheffield are looking at cuts until 2017, it’s pretty scary. To pump small amounts of money into these projects and oil the wheels is going to be increasingly difficult.
What do you think needs to be done to help artists in Sheffield and Yorkshire create sustainable practices? Do organisations have a particular role in this?
It’s difficult to say. I think as you said earlier the new generation of artists are going to have to find different ways of achieving things. Pots of money will appear here and there, but I can’t see any public or quasi-public organisations get going in any meaningful way.
Universities play a role for artists after they graduate, some more than others. Students are still staying in the city and want to make things happen, but the Fine Art deptartment is not the stronghold it used to be.
So there are a lot of artists, creative energy and studio spaces – is there a peer support network, is that something that might change or develop in the future?
Yes, in fact that is probably the most important role that most of these studio groups have. They help in making sure artists aren’t isolated, and able to be with other like-minded artists struggling with the same issues. There are lots of really strong individual networks that co-relate. All of those networks in one way or another have a studio base at the core. So yes the studios provide a really important role above and beyond providing cheap space.
So the studio groups – and the support they provide – are key to sustainable practice..
It’s those sorts of groups and the people that end up administering them who know what artists need, and know what’s needed to move things along. Beating the isolation is one side of the equation but then helping artists to understand how they can actually best produce their work, get it out there, make some sort of living out of it, realise some opportunities from it – that is the tough bit.
YAS is a great example, it’s been around for many years now and developed some very specific and well worn artist development projects, but it’s capacity is quite limited because it costs. It’s a jewel, there’s no doubt about that, but if they had more resource they could be doing a hell of a lot more. But most of these places are cutting back and trying to survive. If they are still there in five years they’ll have done well.
That’s what struck me about the recent news coverage, it’s so off kilter, and hasn’t really looked at what’s happening now and what happened in the 80s.
Could artists like you who know the situation and what’s needed have a greater role in influencing and shaping the arts policy/funding and the visual arts infrastructure?
The obvious answer is yes, but how to do that is another matter. There is a huge amount of energy and a lot of ideas but how those ideas will be channelled to effect policy, when policy isn’t being developed is a tough one to fathom.
Is the gap between the artists and the policy-makers / funders / strategists going to get bigger do you think?
I fear it’s going to get bigger. One of the issues I was continually banging my head against a brick wall with when I was consulting was trying to get them to value the artists in their neighbourhood and how important that sector was to the life and culture of a city. Invariably I never won the argument, because they don’t see it. What they see is businesses and jobs. And the downside for the artists was that the creative industry strategy ended up about being about high growth businesses and digital boom, which squeezed the majority of artists out of the equation.
There is very little understanding about the value of artists in the life blood of the city.
There has been a big push in the last couple of years to put a value on the visual arts – it seems to be an ongoing struggle, do you think we’ll get any better at it?
I don’t know. I’m a lot of years into the equation now and I don’t know if I’m any better at it. One of the things that is a real struggle for most artists, me included, is that producing work is one thing, that’s a struggle in itself, but getting it out there and knowing who to go to and how to play the game is very tough.
I think what’s been missing in this country is the notion of agencies – I would kill for someone to take that responsibility away from me, for someone to promote my work, to try and get exhibitions, or leads and print sales – that sort of agency role doesn’t seem to exist. I think that’s where most artists flounder. They produce great stuff but actually getting it out there and producing some financial viability out of it is a real stumbling block.
Is this a regional issue or nationwide?
I would say that in most places outside of London this is an issue. Artists in London moan because there are so many artists it’s hard to get noticed. In other places it’s not that you can’t get noticed, it’s having that skill and that knowledge and the wherewithal to get out there, to know where to channel your energy. You can spend a lot of time chasing lines for exhibitions or publications or whatever and get nowhere. There’s very little advice to help artists do that.
When I was gallery director a big part of my job at that time was looking at artist’s work. We wouldn’t turn people away and were constantly looking at pictures. Nowadays gallery directors and curators just don’t work like that, you can’t cold call them and it’s hard to get into that circuit unless you are introduced or have an ‘in’ through some other means.
Do you agree that the Northern Art Prize, All Points North and Baltic hosting the Turner Prize – and the flurry of national media coverage - have all raised the profile of art and artists outside London - what else would you like to see happen to build on these?
There’s no doubt those things have helped. Anything that increases the profile and brings high quality into northern venues is fantastic. However, how that actually affects the majority of artists on the ground who are trying to survive and get on with it is quite another debate.
Do you have any aspirations or resolutions for 2012?
Survival. If I’m still here producing work, can still pay the mortgage and haven’t had to go and get a dead end job by the end of the year I’ll be happy.
Matthew Conduit: www.matthewconduit.com
Site Gallery: www.sitegallery.org
Showroom / Workstation: www.showroomworkstation.org.uk
S1 Artspace: www.s1artspace.org
Sheffield Institute of Arts: www.shu.ac.uk/sia
Sheffield Contemporary Art Forum: www.artsheffield.org
Guardian article ‘Northern England's art scene thrives as developers withdraw’ : www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/dec/30/northern-england-art-sce...
All Points North: allpointsnorth.info
Kate Gilman Brundrett
Kate is an artist, business adviser and consultant to the creative industries sector.
First published: a-n.co.uk January 2012
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