Paul Glinkowski looks at the UK studio landscape, highlighting successful new studio models. He also offers advice to artists wanting to set-up their own group.
The UK studios sector as we know it today has its origins in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when organisations such as SPACE and Acme were founded. It has always been a self-help sector in the sense that with relatively limited support available from arts funding bodies it has had to survive on its own resourcefulness.
a-n has developed the studios toolkit, along with a series of in-depth profiles of current studios projects, to help to continue and to inform that self help tradition. These resources are designed to give artists a sense of what might be possible and how to go about achieving it. The toolkit offers expert step-by-step guidance to artists who are either thinking of setting up studios, or who want to move on from their current premises and need to develop a more strategic approach to future planning. The profiles are designed to help artists who may be either running or working in studios to understand who else is out their, what their priorities and interests are, and how they do business.
Recently, boosted by support from the arts lottery and regeneration funding, successful new studio models and examples of good practice have emerged all over the UK. The profiles illustrate some of these. As well as describing what these studios projects have achieved and how they got to where they are, the profiles incorporate useful practical insights, such as what a clear mission statement or an effective consultants brief might look like, or how to express yourself in terms that will appeal to a regeneration funder or to the Charity Commission.
Every studio group is different'
While all studio groups can learn from the example of others, it is important that each develops a clear understanding of its unique character, aspirations and circumstances. The combination of wishes, goals and personal styles of the people involved produces a unique mix a different profile for each group. In developing a group vision, and a plan of action to achieve it, each group will ask: Why and how have we come together? What are we going to do, and how are we going to do it?
It will need to address such questions as:
- In what ways do we want to work with and as artists?
- What types of practice do we want to profile and support?
- Do we, or dont we select artists for studios? If so, what are the criteria?
- Is there a time limit for studio occupation?
- If there is an exhibition space, who is it for?
- What is our relationship to the public?
- Should we engage with education and training?
- What type of management structure do we need?
- These are interrelated questions, the answers to which will differ depending on the priorities of the group and the local environment in which they operate.
But all studio groups will face similar situations and choices!
David Panton a founder member and current director of Acme, one of the UKs most longstanding and successful studio organisations refers to Darwinian evolutionary theory to track the development of studios in the UK: from the first inchoate creative spark to the sophisticated structures of today.
In the competitive property world that studios inhabit, the Darwinian concept of the survival of the fittest applies. The studios which prosper are likely to be the keenest, most imaginative and most knowledgeable. Evolution does not necessarily mean increasing in complexity; it describes a process of adaptation to threats and opportunities.
The stimulus to change and evolution can either come from within the group or from outside forces.
Internal symptoms include a sense of boredom or frustration; a collective sense that the original vision has been outgrown and that something new or additional is needed.
External pressures stem from the wider environment: the market; price rises; a change in demand from artists; competition; political priorities; shifts in cultural policy.
The evolution of studio groups takes place within a wider evolutionary process: of communities, local authorities and cities and towns with different political and commercial cultures. Each will experience different supply and demand and have different pressures and priorities.
Groups need to understand where they might locate themselves within the complex political, financial, legal, cultural and economic development networks they exist within. It is necessary, also, to appraise the degree of fit between the management structure and evolutionary status of the group.
Is it just a phase youre going through'?
As an advisor to independent studios projects and with the hindsight of Acmes own evolution, Panton has identified processes, stages and characteristics which will be recognisable to many studio organisations.
Phase 1 from spark of desire to early stages of sheer survival
A self-help group desperate for a roof over your heads, you want to take the first steps as practicing artists after college. Probably keen, poor and inexperienced, support-wise, you may feel that youre on your own. Needs must! Any strategy considered. For Acme in London in the 1970s this involved taking on temporary council property. Rules may be bent and, probably, broken.
Phase 2 exploration
From an early stage when a group of artists interact with a building it could, in theory, stay like this forever, but at some point internal and external forces intrude. Once roofs are securely overheads, other things start to become interesting: open studios, publications, a gallery. Internal forces change the face of the group, and a profile begins to be established.
Phase 3 exploitation
Greater demand from artists may lead to bigger studios and requests for bigger grants regeneration funding, probably in tandem with arts council and/or local authority support. Large-scale refurbishment projects might be taken on, which involves a learning process in both building development and in organisational management.
Phase 4 galvanization
Phases 1 to 3 describe what is essentially a dependency culture, where salvation is largely reliant on outside help: needy artists seek cheap space, anything considered, grants always welcome.
Independence can come if artists groups are able to acquire, rather than lease, buildings. A few, such as Acme, have been able to use lottery and regeneration funding to buy buildings. Once owned, buildings can provide an equity springboard against which to borrow money to invest in a longer-term development process.
Phase 5 redefinition
Property ownership, development experience and more sophisticated organisational management and governance can allow new development ideas and mechanisms to be explored. This creates the possibility of an escape from dependency culture. Instead of struggling against market forces, strategies can be devised to exploit it persuading potential investors, for example, that artists can enhance their regeneration plans, or influencing the planning process so that artists are designed in, rather than developed out of local area plans.
The studio profiles
Finding the right horse for the right course
The a-n studio profiles show how studio-based groups and organisations in different parts of the country and at different stages of development have evolved in response to their own individual circumstances and priorities. There is no one magic formula for success, but knowing about and learning from the experiences of others can often help to set you off in the right direction.
Setting up after art school
Recent graduates looking to set up their own space have achieved some notable recent successes in towns, cities and rural areas around the UK. In Margate, the experience of CRATE a group of artists who got together at the Kent Institute of Art and Design in 2002 shows that it is possible, even for a group with a very limited track record, to unlock large amounts of public funding by presenting plans for studios which tie in with the bigger strategic vision for an area. In Cardiff in 2000, two graduates from the University of Wales Institute founded tactileBOSCH, a combined studio and project space which is beginning to gain international recognition and acclaim. In rural Lancashire, former students from the Bolton Institute teamed up with a group of more established artists based in the Rossendale valley to form a new studio group, Valley Artists. Realising your post-art school vision may take time, but perseverence can bring its rewards. Sue Flowers returned to her rural roots to set up Green Close Studios, in Melling, Lancashire, over a period of six years and with the aid of countryside regeneration funding.
It helps to have partners
When trying to get a new project off the ground it usually pays to find suitable partners to work with. These might be other artists groups or arts organisations but, increasingly, alliances are being formed with organisations which operate in other sectors. Chosen wisely, they may have money, know-how, or influence to contribute.
In many of the UKs major cities, funding from the arts lottery and/or regeneration agencies has helped to create permanent, good quality, affordable studios. The Nottingham Studios Consortium is a group of artist-led organisations that have got together to try to make this happen in their city too. In Manchester, the artist-led Castlefield Gallery has teamed up with the North Wests most fashionable property developer, Urban Splash, to try to get a proposal for Rodney Court, an artists tower block, off the ground. Universities are playing an increasing role in smoothing the transition for their students from education into employment. This can present opportunities for artists wanting to set up studios. In Surrey, for example, FusionARTS has done a deal which will enable local artists to share a studios building with students from the University of Kingstons Art and Space MA course. Local authorities are often instrumental in the development of artists facilities. In Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, Art Gene occupies and manages high-quality, purpose-built arts project and residency spaces within a building owned by the county council. Sharing the building with the councils education and traffic services has helped to generate new project opportunities.
Moving on, moving up
Once up and running, groups often have the urge to move things up a notch. This might mean finding a better building, improving the one theyre already in, or finding a way to keep hold of it for the long term. The urge may come from a proactive sense of opportunity, or from a reactive recognition of threat. In Leeds, East Street Arts, felt uncomfortable with both the state of their premises and the length of their lease. This gave them the incentive to develop plans for a more secure future, which they have realised with the help of lottery and regeneration funding. Not all groups, though, can gain access to such funding particularly if they operate at the smaller end of the scale. The solution for the artists in Occupation Studios, in London, was to raise individual loans and then pool their resources in order to buy their building from a private landlord.
Some organisations thrive on a who dares wins approach. Out of the Blue, in Edinburgh, has come a long way in a short time by seizing opportunities when they presented themselves. Having started out as a small, artist-run gallery, Out of the Blue now owns or manages several successful spaces in the city. Rural groups too, have built on early success. Stroud Valleys Artspace was set up in 1996 to provide a creative hub for artists in the centre of a Gloucestershire market town. Having proved its value locally, it has been able to raise money to buy the building and is currently refurbishing it.
Building on strengths, adding value
Increasingly, studio organisations are looking to provide more than just affordable workspace. They may put on exhibitions or open studios events, organise residencies, provide training, or become involved in education projects with schools or community groups. In East London, Bow Arts Trusts successful artists-in-education programme has demonstrated how understanding and capitalising upon a market for artists services can benefit an organisation and create employment opportunities for its artist members.
International exchange can foster new ideas and contacts and lead to new opportunities for artists. Building on the contacts and expertise of its founder Robert Loder, Gasworks has built itself a niche as one of the UKs most internationally networked visual arts organisations, which adds value the experience of its studio-based artists.
In rural areas, which often lack group studios, collective open studios events can offer a valuable platform, for exchange amongst artists and interaction with the public. Dorset Art Weeks shows how such events can allow artists working from home to join forces: to profile a wide range of the work being made in a locality, to combat isolation and to create new links and opportunities.
Keeping practice vital
Studios, of course, are just a means to an end, the end being the production of interesting new work. Some artists groups are more concerned than others to ensure that the buildings they occupy remain fresh and vibrant contexts for making and showing art. S1 Artspace in Sheffield has made it a key part of its mission to develop and encourage innovative projects, both within its building and in the wider city. The artist-led partnership Furtherafield, arranged for artists to undertake temporary residencies in vacant flats in Liverpool tower blocks that, for several years prior to their demolition, provided a context and a platform for some exciting new work.
Paul Glinkowski is a freelance arts writer.
Paul Glinkowski is a freelance journalist, writer and arts consultant. From 1997 to 2003 he was a visual arts officer at Arts Council England (ACE), where he led on the development of a national programme of support for visual artists studios. He played a key role in the development of a series of three studios conferences in July 2003: Creating Places at Tate Modern, and Making Space and Opening Doors at Yorkshire Artspace, Sheffield (see http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/information/publication_detail.php?sid=12&id=393&page=2 for conference report Supporting artists workspace). He also wrote the 2003 ACE publication Open Studios (see http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/documents/publications/282.pdf)
First published: a-n.co.uk March 2005
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