Blackpool based artist, a-n member and freelance curator Garth Gratrix is the founder and co-director of Abingdon Studios, an independent visual arts studio provider and project space established in 2014. Playful and witty, his work is concerned with queerness as a lived experience, in particular for those who live in spaces often considered peripheral like Blackpool.

In 2022 Gratrix was awarded the Clore Visual Arts Fellowship, a prestigious professional development programme designed to develop leadership skills for those working across the arts and cultural sector.

Here he reflects on the last 12 months, including the impact of the Clore Fellowship, being selected for the PIVOT Programme, and the importance for artists of taking risks.

You work as an artist, curator and collaborator. How do you balance your time?
I suppose you have to accept that there’s an imbalance quite regularly. You have to go with the ebb and flow, whilst keeping sight of solo, collaborative and representative ways of working. I try to make sure my thinking as a curator is fed by and aligned with being an artist – supporting emerging talent, examining the periphery and looking at queer and coastal dialogues. Then there’s also being the founder of an artist-led studio – running a workspace for other artists within all of that. It’s been a thought-provoking few years.

What kind of a year has 2022 been for you?
Overall, the year has felt incredibly humbling. Very successful in so far as I’ve covered my costs as an artist. This is hardly the desired goal as a result of such graft, but nevertheless a privilege.

I’m tired. I think it’s right to acknowledge that artists have the right to be tired at the end of a year and to explore rest. The arts sector has felt like it has been on roller skates pushed down a hill. There is a relentless requirement to evidence the value of the arts.

As an artist, it has been a year of trying to understand pace versus priorities. I’ve been trying to understand my expectations of myself rather than the expectations of the sector. I’ve been thinking about where I live and how I engage nationally and internationally based in a town like Blackpool. Lots of candid and critical conversations still feel like they need to be had.

Garth Gratrix installing The Robert Walters UK New Artist of the Year £10k Award, 2021. Saatchi Gallery. Photo by Reece Straw

What sort of projects have you been engaged in this year?
It’s been a varied year. I was one of five artists selected in the North West for the PIVOT Programme. It’s been rewarding to be in conversation with four other artists at an emerging or mid-career level (though, in reality, I am still clueless on these terminologies.)

I was also selected for the Clore Visual Artist Fellowship. After three years of trying, it feels like my resilience has been reimbursed a little. Any artist’s career is riddled with rejections followed by some successes.

Can I ask you a bit more about the Clore Fellowship? What has it meant to be part of this prestigious programme?

It’s been winsome as a Blackpool artist to be told here’s some time and investment into you to look at where you want to go next as an artist/‘leader’. The question now is to think about what being a leader means for me as an artist. It’s still early days. As a cohort, we are just out the starting gates. An exciting aspect is doing a secondment elsewhere in the country, maybe at a bigger organisation – perhaps one that understands developing and touring work in collaboration with coastal contexts.

I’m always thinking: where is that stretch for me – what’s the next thing that’s going to challenge me as an artist? Because, I certainly never seek to play it safe. Growing as an artist takes risk.

Garth Gratrix as Rainbow the Clown II, as part of Shy Girl, Grundy Art Gallery, 2020. Photo by Matt J Wilkinson

What do you wish had happened this year that didn’t happen?
I wish Abingdon Studios had received National Portfolio Organisation status. The need to see independent organisations invested within Priority Places and Levelling Up agendas is very much on my list of questions for 2023. I’d like to end the year with a little less worry about artists’ livelihoods. But, I suppose that worry for me usually manifests in reviewing and actioning what’s next and how to implement that change with integrity, authenticity and humour.

It would be nice to take a few of my hats off (permanent hat hair) and be invested in more as an artist, rather than an artist who can produce. I self-produce pretty much everything through applications, often developing projects that no one thought they wanted. That can be a lot of work that you don’t necessarily see paid back financially. It would be exciting to just be in residence somewhere and to have some time to explore and unlock ideas into future solo and collaborative outcomes. I wish Jilly Bean Gratrix (my cat) had survived another Christmas, bless her.

Is there anything you’d like to have done but haven’t?
On a personal level, I would like to have been more available personally and financially for my family. I think that’s always to be acknowledged when you’re a working class freelance artist in the current climate. It is rife with sacrifice and guilt at times.

What are you looking forward to in 2023?
After a period of self-development through the Clore Fellowship, I’m looking forward to what I then implement and with whom. I don’t really know what that looks like yet. It’s exciting to be in a thinking period.

I’m looking forward to a holiday. The occupational hazard of a freelancer is that you don’t take much rest as time off doesn’t pay (in one sense). Over the years friends have brought me back fridge magnets to feel tethered to the idea of holidaying. Super cute friends. I’ve got an array of camp, filthy gorgeous magnets on the fridge now. I’m looking forward to taking a holiday to buy a fridge magnet for myself. A small souvenir, but big marker of achievements. Anyone out there who wants to donate fridge magnets, I do accept them (slip them into my DMs). One day, I’ll do something with all those fridge magnets as an artwork.

If funders, commissioners and buyers are reading, I’m looking forward to seeing Abingdon Studios securing more money. It deserves it! I’m ensuring that I have more studio time to develop new solo work in 2024. Working towards that, I’m looking for research and development funding to then tour work in 2024/25. So, let’s give 2022 a final spin of the wheel and see what prizes we land on.