This March we made two research trips in quick succession, to Scotland and the Netherlands, that provided a timely point of reflection. Primary is a relatively young artist-led organisation with a large building housing artists studios and a public programme that focuses on supporting research, production and experimentation; like many small organisations we’re reliant on short-term grant funding. As we enter into the next chapter – looking to increase the staff team and build on our initial two years of programming – it has been really useful to visit a variety of other organisations and learn how they work. We went with an open agenda, but as we travelled and talked, we realised that we were looking for ways to resist the idea that all organisations operate in the same way – or that there’s only one trajectory you can take. The research trips were an opportunity to see different models and working methodologies, visit organisations of different scales and ages, and think through long-term approaches to working with artists and the wider public. Everywhere we visited we encountered great generosity and openness from those we met – who shared with us the details of how their organisations function, their strengths, and the challenges they face.
Places we visited:
The question of funding can be a huge pre-occupation for arts organisations of all scales, and has certainly affected Primary over the past year. Several of the organisations we visited were set up in the 1980s/ 90s in a particular political and economic context – often in response to a need (such as recent graduates wanting space to make and show work) and an opportunity to squat a building or negotiate cheap rent. Many of these organisations with decades-long histories had evolved and changed over the years, becoming institutionalised in various ways, apart from a few striking examples that stayed faithful to their original model (more on this in Part Two). Almost everywhere we visited had been hit by the recent economic crisis and resulting cuts to arts funding – with Scotland and the Netherlands experiencing harsh cuts a few years after we felt them in England. We talked a lot about organisational responses to precarious funding and how the different ways people have found to survive and adapt.
Francis McKee, the director of CCA, described a pragmatic and political response to running a big space with a small budget that might sound counter-intuitive – rather than filling the building with paying tenants they chose to ‘give away’ space. Lots of the programme is generated by external groups, which in turn brings new audiences into the building. This ‘open-source‘ approach creates a more diverse organisation, and helps to meet the aims of CCA. The main gallery programme is curated by the core CCA team who commission new work and run a strong engagement programme – which gives the organisation a clear identity when viewed from the outside. I was interested in the choices made about how to run a space behind the scenes and what is presented to visitors. For other organisations – such as Transmission (Glasgow), Embassy (Edinburgh) and W139 in Amsterdam – the organisational model is communicated as an essential part of their identity.
David Dale Gallery & Studios is a small organisation with just one member of staff working with an advisory board. We talked with Programme Director Max Slaven about the challenge of short-term funding structures that don’t value and support ongoing organisations. We recognised the experience of funders accepting or expecting that small organisations will keep going even if they get no funding. Like Primary, David Dale and several other places we visited generates some income from studios – keeping the building open as a resource and providing space for artists.
Throughout our trips I was struck by the language used by arts organisations to describe ways of working – some are rooted in radical political practices, such as ‘open-source’ and ‘self-organisation’. Other language is borrowed from the business world, and whilst artists might not keenly adopt this, it reveals a set of values and expectations dictated by funding structures and government policy. In the Netherlands most organisations rely on a combination of central government grants from the Mondrian foundation, support from the local city government, and a variety of ways to generate additional income. In recent years there’s been support for creative spaces through an initiative known as ‘Broedplaats’ which literally translates as ‘Breeding Nests’ or ‘incubator’ spaces – which sounds very much like a neoliberal business model. In some places, the Broaedplaats become desk space where no artists can actually work but in other places this has made funds and building available to groups who run studios and public arts programmes. This tension between corporate language/ ideas and a desire to create alternative or independent cultural spaces is not new, but has perhaps been accelerated in recent years. The set of values against which artists and artist-led spaces are asked to measure themselves can often feel mismatched. In several of our conversations we talked about a resistance to measuring success in the same way businesses do, and having to argue for the value of arts and culture in purely economic terms.
For organisations that rely heavily on voluntary labour, there’s an on-going set of questions around the ethics of unpaid labour. Defining your terms of engagement and what people might gain from working for free feels ever-more important in a political climate that reduces support for basic social needs and expects voluntary labour to fill this void.
For organisations run by voluntary committees (Transmission and Embassy) this was clearly an on-going point of conversation, but everyone we met had a clear understanding of what they were giving and receiving from the experience. Transmission discuss this tension on their website: ‘It is constitutionally engrained that all Transmission activities and resources remain free, and that each and every person that works with it receive fair pay, now and forever. It is one of the inherent contradictions of Transmission that whilst dogmatically enforcing fair pay for artists and creative practitioners, it is managed and programmed by a voluntary committee of six people, each of whom joins successively and may serve for a maximum of two years.’
Even relatively well-staffed arts organisations rely on a lot of voluntary work, and it feels important to us to seek out examples of good practice for working with volunteers. Collective have a robust volunteer programme that they’ve developed over the years, providing support, supervision, training and a stipend for a six-month period.
Every organisation we visited was centred in a building. A building is an incredible resource and makes many things possible. It can also require a huge amount of maintenance work. Particularly for smaller organisations, recurring themes in our conversations were rent, loos, bins, doorbells, mysteriously disappearing chairs, sinking floors, leaking chimneys, and access. In most cases the on-going maintenance of a building is invisibilised, and seen as a distraction from the ‘real work’ of an organisation. I enjoyed Casco’s attention to this area of work as part of their current project ‘Site for Unlearning’ with artist Annette Krauss. Regular exercises undertaken by the staff team include Cleaning Together, Digital Cleaning, and Re-writing Maintenance Manifesto (ref Mierle Laderman Ukeles,1969).
The long-term security of a building (ie owning it or securing a long-term lease) makes a huge difference to the things an organisation can do – and perhaps fundamentally to what it can imagine as possible. It was exciting to see recent investment in some fantastic buildings in both Scotland and the Netherlands, with unique spaces being developed. We visited Glasgow Sculpture Studios and Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, both of which offer fantastic resources to their regular members and studio artists, as well as visiting artists and the public. Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop is sited in a purpose-built complex that includes an apartment for visiting artists. This is a resource we’re keen to develop at Primary in the future, and it was useful to see how a live-in residency space functioned. All organisations that had a set-up like this talked about it as a fantastic resource, and one that benefited a wider network than just their institution. It was also interesting to visit a few spaces that are undergoing major refurbishment through heritage grants – Primary is based in a Grade II listed building. In Glasgow we visited The Pipe Factory – a studio complex who also run a public programme – and ducked under scaffolding to peek into an enormous old factory building that’s being refurbished with support from the Architectural Heritage Fund. We also visited Collective in Edinburgh who are mid-way through a major project to redevelop the City Observatory complex on Calton Hill.
In the Netherlands many of the arts spaces we visited started their lives as squats. As squatting laws changed in the 2000s it became harder to occupy spaces for free; but city authorities recognised the value of independent cultural spaces and in several cases sold or rented property to artist-run organisations very cheaply, sometimes even gifting them buildings.
Please see Part 2 of this blog for more on ways of working, institutionalisation & reflection.