A-N Go and See – Artist Led Development: Place and Resources
AirSpace Gallery is about to enter its 10th year as an artist led
organisation in Stoke-on-Trent, and as a result we are thinking about
resilience, and how organisations can connect to the places where they
are to ensure a sustainable approach.
With this in mind, each of the 3 AirSpace Directors have been on trips
around the country to meet up with organisations and individuals whose
projects have been around a while, or who we think are making
interesting connections to the places that they are situated in. We have
been wonderfully supported by an A-N go and see bursary, allowing us
time and financial support to make these visits.
Glen has been to Preston, Andy to Sheffield and I have been to Margate.
Recently I have been thinking about the long term impacts of public art
and arts programming; Probably for a while, but brought into sharp
focus, when I was invited to speak at the ‘In Certain Places’ and Ixia
(Public Art Think Tank) conference ‘The Art of Dwelling: Exploring long term approaches to public art and place.’
This was a really interesting opportunity to hear about projects from
across the UK who are all still going after quite a time, what these
projects all had in common was that the people leading on them were
absolutely embedded with the place that their organisation was based.
The projects were specific, and bespoke to those places, and had a
flavour to them which would not be possible anywhere else. The projects
are site-responsive, completely engaged with the particularity of the
places that they inhabit – and in most cases, really making a difference
to participants, and the places they operate. It was a privilege to be
invited to speak alongside Deveron Arts, In-Situ, In Certain Places and
others, but what stayed with me, was a question about what the
organisations are responding to in their prospective places, and whether
there was any commonality in approach.
It got me thinking about Stoke, and the particularity of this place: and
raised some questions for me about the relationship between a place’s
resources, and the projects that happen there.
In recent years the projects that we have engaged in at AirSpace have
often questioned the role of the artist in society, have engaged with
overlooked resources (space, skills, materials) and have, in recent
years, had recurring themes around food and green space in cities.
Interestingly, we are not alone in this here, and so, this go and see
bursary felt like a great chance to undertake some research into the
resources in another place, and the effect that may or may not have on
the artists living and working there.
I decided to visit Margate – I am really fascinated by the amazing speed
of the development of the arts scene in Margate in the last 5 years. My
interest is partly personal (my family are from the area, and I worked,
with my sister and brother in the Dreamland Fun Park as a teenager) but
also, I am interested in Margate as a place that lost its industry, and
where the regeneration and development solution has been mainly culture
led. This is very relevant to us in Stoke – the industry is very
different, but the solutions may be shared.
Turner Contemporary opened in Margate in 2011, and I was there at the Opening, to document and review the opening for A-N.
Nearly 5 Years on, I wanted to look at the changes in the artist led
scene in Margate in those 5 years, and to find out from those working
there, what it is like to be in Margate now. I set up meetings with
Leigh Clarke, at Crate – as I was interested in talking about the
changes in Margate, from the point of view of a space that had been in
Margate before Turner, I then spoke to Nick Morley at Resort Studios, a
very young space, which has achieved so much in such a short space of
time and finally to Dan Thompson, an Independent Artist, who moved with
his family to Margate a few years ago.
My first appointment was with artist, printmaker Leigh Clarke – in his studio at Crate.
Crate was started in 1996, by some graduates from Canterbury University –
a disused print works, they wanted it to be a space for artists to
work, and also a project space, for others to visit.
It always had a theoretical slant to it, originally housing the
‘Critical Research Bureau’ – and the connections to research continue
Soon after Crate opened, Limbo opened up next door, creating a bit of a
hub and a great relationship between the spaces – which culminated
around 2 years in an almost merger, as the two organisations looked to
secure the old Burton building nearby.
When the project fell through, they asked Leigh to be a Director there,
to help the organisation’s develop in the next few years.
Leigh moved to the area, from London two years ago. It was really
interesting to hear from Leigh about his experience – he described his
experiences as an artist, with a studio in London, and the gritty
reality of Hackney at that time, a trip to the local pub, ‘The Gun’ was
literally the place you visited to get a gun, but a recent visit reveals
the stark realities of gentrification – the pub now serve craft beer,
The Prada and Burberry factories are now round the corner. Margate today
feels like Hackney did 10 or 15 years ago. The fact that artists are
completely part of the gentrification was not lost on Leigh – he talked
about the strange push pull of the process. Its a process that is
replicated in every city – we (artists) move in, the place is gritty,
reality on the doorstep – our presence starts to change things, cafes
open, the street art improves, the costs to rent space start to go up,
other types of business start to take an interest and move in, space
becomes a premium, artists can no longer afford the rent, artists start
to move out (and anyway the place has changed, so artists aren’t that
interested any more.)
Leigh talked about the effect that Turner Contemporary has had on
Margate, and the amazing rate of change -saying ‘It’s still cheap in
Margate, but you can definitely feel that it isn’t going to be like that
The same week that I was in Margate, I heard from another artist that
we, at AirSpace have collaborated with, that he would be moving to
Margate imminently, to open a new studio project – it is a story that we
are hearing more and more, as the prices to rent studio in London
become completely beyond most artists, the train service to London from
Margate, which was greatly improved a few years ago, and now sees you
able to be in Kings Cross an hour and a half after setting off, and for
just £13 makes the option of living by the sea so much more viable.
This is something that we are really interested in, we don’t have the
sea in Stoke, but we are one of the U.K.’s greenest cities, the train to
Euston takes at best an hour and 23 minutes (unfortunately the price is
something that needs work) but with the low cost of living, and London
based studio provider Acava opening 43 artists studios a 5 minute walk from Stoke Station, the prospect of being a Stoke based artists looks more interesting than ever.
Crate, as organisation that has been running for 20 years, is very
interesting, having been in Margate, before Turner Contemporary, and
since. We talked about the way that organisations develop into their
buildings in an organic way – and not necessarily in a strategic way
which recognises the resources and potential of the building – and that
because of this an organisation will need moments of restructuring and
rethinking, and that Crate is in a bit of a period of change now, with 2
new directors and an interest in getting back to some of the original
emphasis as a research hub.
One of the main questions I had was a direct question around whether
Leigh, Nick and Dan could identify what the particular resources might
be in Margate, and what impact that might have on the way that artists
and art organisations work in Margate.
Leigh felt that Margate, first and foremost has big spaces that are
accessible to artists, but also that the place has really interesting
pubs and shops – that feel non-commercial and unlike other places, an
unspoilt bohemia. He also felt that Turner Contemporary are providing a
great support to artists in the Town, and that the networks in Margate
work well – people know each other and collaborate across organisations
really well. Leigh also described the upsurge in popularity of right
wing politics in the area as something which had galvanised the creative
community, and brought people together to counter that.
I was interested in whether the resources of the place, may impact on
the themes and ways of working of artists in Margate, Leigh talked about
the landscape having an impact and featuring in people’s work, but that
in many cases it is a slow creeping thing, that happens in people’s
work, and is almost unnoticed at first. It is of course like this for
most artists, whether an artists work is directly related to place or
not, places do seep in, and impact on
the direction, rhythms, materials
and feel of work.
In terms of making work, Leigh talked about how cheap it is to get
materials and to get things made, compared to London. He also talked
about the Charity Shops as a fantastic resource for him and his work.
Leigh turns the abundant wastage of a consumerist society into materials
for new works of art, and currently that material is the Celebrity
‘The Charity Shops are my Art Shops, the more I wander around Charity
shops, the more I am spotting things that appear a lot at one time. In
2009 I exhibited my collection of 500 Batman Forever VHS videos, that I’d collected for 5 years.
At the moment, these autobiographies are everywhere, because nobody
really wants them. I would never have been able to get the stuff I make
my art from if I was in London. I just got Anne Diamond for a quid.’
My second visit took me up the hill to Cliftonville, to Resort Studios, and a revisit to Nick Morley at Hello Print. I was in Margate in March for one to one Print training with Nick, write up here
Resort and hello Print are already established as an import part of
Margate’s arts ecology, providing affordable studio space, open access
to the print facilities, and recently a jewelry and soon to open dark
room are added to the Resort Menu, which includes drawing club,
professional development and a series of interesting events throughout
Resort now hosts at least 40 artists, but many more associates, with the
print space and events, the energy in the building is positive,
productive and friendly – and the space there is obviously already very
desirable – there is a selection process at Resort – and they really can
attract ‘serious’ people, as there can be 3 applicants for each studio
or desk that becomes available.
There are a number of things which make Resort such an interesting place
to work – the physical design and how the building has been broken up,
is purposefully thought out to encourage interaction. The 4 directors
have very different skill sets, which makes for a well balanced
organisation – the pool of skills, contacts and interests across the
board keeps things interesting.
We discussed how quickly things are moving in terms of development in
Margate – in the six months since my last visit, new galleries have
opened on the route from Turner to Resort, and just around the corner on
Northdown Road a new clay based open access shop has opened, and is
already offering clay workshops.
Nick talked about the pace of change as being the thing which really
feeds creativity, but that there is also something (in the background)
which is worrying about the speed that things are moving. There is a
worry that they are starting to reach a tipping point, that point where
Margate becomes cemented as the next big thing – and the gentrification
becomes the thing that makes Margate lose its Margateness. It is a
responsibility that artists and arts organisations may have, as we know
we are part of the process – the thing which is shifting and speeding up
the change – and which ultimately means we end up having to move on.
talked about the need for organisations to think forward – to after the
gentrification has happened, to do our best to think sustainably – and
try to secure the properties we are in ahead of the curve.
This is such a difficult thing for an arts organisation to do though,
our experience at AirSpace has been that we did try to secure a longer
lease, but that without spare money hanging around, it is really
difficult to future proof the precarious artist led organisation.
What is amazing about Crate, is that they own their building, and this
really has to be the holy grail, you can’t be shifted on, when the
proces rocket, if you are the owner of the building.
Nick and I discussed the resources that Margate has to offer – Nick
chose Margate in the first place, for its seaside location as he and his
partner were looking to get out of London, but also for the large
buildings, and importantly for Nick, no other print provision anywhere
near the area. Nick talked about the feeling that in Margate, you really
can make a bigger impact,
‘If you put on a good event here, everyone knows about it, but in London there is so much competition.’
I think it is more than that too, In Stoke, it has felt for the past 10
years like the lack of infrastructure and other activity has perversely
made it somehow easier to do things, not so much red tape, and in a way,
because you are often doing things for the first time, it does make a
Resort is a young organisation, and therefore at this stage is rightly
focused on getting established and getting organised, and not overtly
concerned with engaging the public around them, in my experience anyway,
this will come later – but the day to day connections with local
residents and neighbour businesses will see the slow and steady, and
more natural impact that the presence of Resort will have. We talked
about the responsibility of the organisation to its neighbourhood, and
what that might mean – which for now is about improving the spaces
around the building, being welcoming and open, so that the locals don’t
feel alienated by the changes taking place – and which may, eventually
change the area entirely.
Dan Thompson – site responsive artwork in Arlington House – etched Parquet Floor.
The final visit in Margate cemented the conversations around
gentrification, and the artists role and responsibility. It was great to
catch up with artist and writer Dan Thompson.
Dan has been working and campaigning for many years, around the use of
abandoned high street shops – and on his website his about describes him
in the creation of social capital, in abandoned or underused spaces,
and in DIY approaches to art, culture and social action. ‘
As an independent artist, who very consciously moved to Margate with his
family a few years back, I was interested to hear from Nick about the
phenomena of culture led gentrification in Margate, and the impact that
people like him are having on the town.
Though Dan moved to Margate two years ago, he has been working in
Margate variously since 2003, so had a real knowledge of the town and
the potential there before moving his family, there was the draw of the
sea, but also Turner Contemporary being in the town was important.
We talked about the interesting question around resources, and the
impact that this can have on the way that artists live and work. In
Margate, like Stoke, Dan identified that space is relatively easy to get
hold of, and that it is impressive, characterful space, that makes the
project so much more interesting and ripe with creativity.
Recent projects have seen Dan working with a group of other artists to
put on a site responsive exhibition in Arlington House, one of the most
controversial, and impactful buildings on Margate seafront. Getting hold
of amazing spaces like this would be difficult anywhere else. This
building is an interesting one, I remember from my youth, Arlington
House being regarded as something of a ghetto, by those that didn’t live
there, and in Pawel Pawlikowski’s ‘Last Resort’ film, it was there that
the main character ended up, Arlington House, the ends of the earth.
My Gran’s friends had a flat there, and said it was the best place they
had ever lived, as Dan pointed out, due to the amazing architecture of
the building, every flat has a sea view.
In Stoke too, projects like Art City have seen some amazing spaces made
available for artists; our colleagues at Re:Stoke put on an epic
production in the closed down Tunstall Swimming Baths, AirSpace led on
the Kules Residency in the old Olympus Engineering Works, and the
project itself launched from the Chatterley Whitfield Colliery. In
Stoke, we are in the moment before the moment that Margate is in,
amazing spaces are accessible, at little or no cost – but people are
starting to notice – 43 artists studios on the Spode Factory this month
will bring a much welcomed influx of creative people, but this, like in
Margate may be just the start.
Talking to Dan, Nick and Leigh, they all shared this story of a move to
Margate being about getting away from the commercialism of London, or
towards the amazing character that Margate has, where space can be
accessed, things can be done but that there presence itself could be the
thing which makes it all flip the other way.
In Dan’s case, in the two years that he has been living there he has
seen property prices rocket – purchasing a flat in Arlington House was
something that could have been achievable two years ago, but its
proximity to the train station, sea views, and the influx of other tower
block appreciating creative people have pushed the price above and
beyond what most artists could hope to afford.
In Margate they are not at the tipping point yet, but everyone seems to feel it coming.
We don’t have a Turner Contemporary in Stoke, or the sea for that
matter, and at the moment it feels like a bit of that gentrification
might not go amiss – but there are rumblings here that its on its way.
The city is bidding for city of culture 2021, good places to eat have
suddenly begun to appear, and the positive press we are getting is
really making a difference to how we are viewed from elsewhere.
What it feels we are missing is one big catalyst to really bring it all
together – and it does feel that that needs to be artist led.