Artists & studios
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In this pluralist age, the term studio has a broad range of definitions. It can be a physical space that is intrinsic to an artist's practice, an arena for exchange, an isolated cell for toil and contemplation or a corner of a domestic situation.
Not every artist wants or needs a studio, but some artists simply can't do without one.
To the outsider's eye, London may look like the place to be to enjoy a busy studio-based existence. But if you're an artist languishing at the wrong end of a lengthy waiting list, it's perhaps more prudent to examine seriously some other options.
Neil Walton's 'shedio' is a self-build solution that makes sense for him. With his teaching commitments and time at a premium, Walton needs to have a workspace that combines the advantages of a separate studio with the comforts of working from home.
Turning a ready-made shed and converting it into a warm workspace cost him only £850 overall. He didn't need planning permission and the electricity supply comes from his house.
And you don't always have to start from scratch like Walton did. Abigail Lane's east London workspace was full of the remnants of its former life as a cloth store when she took it over. It's now a fully-converted 6000 sq ft live-work space. Travelling to a separate studio just didn't suit her: "I hated it. I always felt in the wrong place".
A 2003 Jerwood Sculpture Prize shortlistee, Ally Wallace lives and works in rural Northumberland. His studio is a large agricultural space beside his rented cottage. Although "a bit manky" when he took it on he gets it rent-free courtesy of his farmer landlord.
If paying nothing for access to resources at all is your dream scenario, you could consider following Gordon Dalton's advice. His solution is to 'blag' favours and exchanges from friends and colleagues.
He says he: "likes the input other artists can have into my work. It's not collaborative though, but more like being a magpie, stealing ideas and building them into your own 'nest'".
For painter Roland Hicks, the offer of a self-contained Acme space in London came at a serendipitous moment as his current studio was threatened by redevelopment.
But he warns that being part of a studio group is no guarantee of a lively, critical atmosphere: "Most studios I've worked in have nothing but tumbleweed rolling down the corridors except at evenings and weekends."
His ideal studio would provide a platform for informal artistic exchange and be a place where he: "felt an affinity with and respect for the other artists".
But there are definite advantages to being in a self-contained space in a recognised studio building. For a start it comes over as a more professional arrangement if you're planning to use it to show work informally to interested curators or commissioners.
Inviting them to see your work as presented in the spare room-cum studio in the midst of domestic interaction is likely to put off all but the most dedicated exhibition researcher.
Richard Forster's present studio is in a council-run workshop block. Although off the beaten-track artistically speaking, advantages include being able to tap into the resources and expertise of nearby welders, carpenters and upholsterers.
Building up professional relationships with businesses like these has paid off for him: "I needed to do some work in formica laminate, and striking up a working relationship with the company's technical team lead to the firm sponsoring some works for an exhibition".
Catherine Wakling's solution to having to borrow and plead for the loan of equipment to produce her digital work was to take a loan and buy her own. As a result, she now has a mobile facility that goes 'on location' with her and also doubles up as her admin support tool.
And when she needs something really special, she uses her contacts: "I'm affiliated to several venues and production companies. They let me borrow equipment in exchange for credits on my publicity. I also share with other artists". Other equipment needed is budgeted into projects.
If set up a studio with like-minded artists is your aspiration, it's wise to confer with others who've trodden this path before you. Projects such as Persistence Works in Sheffield have taken 23 years overall to come to fruition.
With their home in a former cutlery works due for demolition in 2002, it was fortunate that they'd starting looking for alternatives a decade earlier, aided by a grant from Yorkshire Arts (now Arts Council England Yorkshire).
Such ventures are not for the faint hearted, as Director Kate Dore confirms: "After a series of failures, including a cocktail of asbestos, demolition orders and arson, we embarked on round two of a business planning process".
Group studios invariably begin with a small number of artists sitting round a (pub) table saying something like: "What we need is, wouldn't it be a good idea if.. why don't we just do it?
The initial impetus is always the desire to make work. But the outcome can involve spending much time doing everything but. Once others get involved -arts officers, development experts, architects, would-be trustees in your operation it can be hard to see the wood from the trees.
"It's vital", says Jo Leahy of Stroud Valleys Artspace: "to keep the original vision". Governance is a hefty responsibility for artists and it's much better if artists can focus on being artists, and trustees on the governance matters".
SVA is very clear about its purpose and structure: "The vision has never changed, but it has been tested".
And once the building's secured and operating, artists may be forgiven for thinking that they can get on with their lives and art. But buildings need managing and someone has to do that. And that's comes down to volunteers (the artists) or fundraising to pay for staff.
If you've found this brief introduction interesting and relevant, and you are thinking of setting up a studio, click here to go to the Studios Toolkit. This unique resource compiled by arts researcher David Butler and architect-planner Mike Franks aims to give you some clues to how to succeed.
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First published: a-n.co.uk April 2003
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