‘Artists in London have no time.’
‘Property prices hit artists twice – home and studio, which makes being an artist in London increasingly untenable.’
‘London art students fantasise about being ‘the one’ to be plucked from their degree show to instant success, regional art students expect to build a career over decades.’
‘It’s much easier to get public funding if you’re based outside London.’
‘There is no art market outside London.’
These are just some of the provocations that Standpoint Gallery curator Fiona MacDonald had gathered from her pre-conversations with artists and panellists taking part in the Mapping Art Practice symposium. Divided into a morning of studio visits at Standpoint Gallery and Studios, and an afternoon of panel discussions at Shoreditch Town Hall, the focus of the event was on the differences, inequalities and approaches of being a practitioner in London versus the rest of the UK.
The event stemmed from Standpoint’s own residency programme, Standpoint Futures, which enables artists based outside of London to spend a focused period of time in the capital, engaging with networks and markets they may not otherwise encounter.
Over the last four years Macdonald has noticed the tone of conversations around outlooks and opportunities changing, with more and more artists feeling that they need to leave London in order to maintain a practice and affordable lifestyle. “Has the time come when London just doesn’t work anymore for artists?” she asked the assembled audience of over 100 artists, arts organisers and funders.
Choose to decentralise
With this provocation in mind, the first panel discussion, ‘London versus the UK artworld: How do we differ, compete and interact?’ yielded interesting insights that broke down some existing stereotypes on regional art.
Laura Reeves, an alumna of the Standpoint Futures programme, described the opportunity she had as a recent graduate assisting Wales-based artist, Sean Edwards. This provided her with international working experience and a view into the commercial gallery world. Describing a lack of middle-tier arts spaces in Wales that could cater to those artists between their first shows and major institutional ones, she suggested that “being a regional artist might push you sooner to do things further afield.”
David Hoyland, director of Seventeen, left Manchester for London in the early 1990s. He sees a radical difference in how art is consumed today compared to 20 years ago and believes it’s no longer necessary for artists to live in London to be commercially successful. “We’re at an interesting time, something could happen if we choose to decentralise,” he said. “80% of what we sell goes abroad, so you don’t actually need a commercial scene where you are.”
Missing the alternative
I participated in the second panel discussion, sharing details of a-n and AIR’s Paying Artists Campaign within the context of the thematic session ‘ART-DIY: What do artist-led / artist-focused organisations and initiatives achieve?’ Chaired by Dr Megan Wakefield, and with panellists Anthony Gross, Kwong Lee and Mary Vettise, the discussion aimed to articulate the different support structures available to UK artists.
Framed by Wakefield’s research into peer learning amongst artists outside of formal educational systems, in particular the different kinds of learning enabled by artist-led initiatives and gallery associate artist schemes, the discussion explored contrasting examples of artist-led activity evolving into established alternatively-modelled institutions. The needs of regional artists versus those based in London were highlighted though the different ways that Manchester’s Castlefield Gallery and London’s Enclave Projects have evolved.
“We were missing an alternate art scene,” said Gross, a digital artist and Enclave’s director. Graduating in 2001, he co-founded the artist-led curatorial project TemporaryContemporary and studio space The Old Police Station as alternatives to the then-booming art market.
The need to have permanency and sustainability amid London’s burgeoning rental market has led Gross, who originally trained as an architect, to develop a new-build row of curatorial project spaces and studios in Deptford. This new infrastructure model allows for employment and entrepreneurship. “We’re mimicking an institution, but we’re artist-run,” he says.
Conversely, Kwong Lee, director of Castlefield Gallery, sees a need for regionally-based artists to look outside of the artist-led to access a more diverse and commercially knowledgeable arts infrastructure. He encourages artists to find that connection with the wider art world, so they can better understand how and where they wish to position themselves. “Unless you understand that ecology you can’t understand how to negotiate within it,” he said.
Do artists benefit from institutions?
How institutions might learn from a more DIY and community-orientated ethos was an underlying theme within the final panel discussion. “Do artists benefit from institutions as much as institutions benefit from artists?” asked David Cross, the panel’s moderator. Cross considered the problematic amount of unpaid labour that university lecturers often put into their courses – an off-shoot of a widespread culture of gift economy within the arts as well as staffing shortages brought about by budget cuts to higher education.
We heard from curator and writer Theresa Gleadowe, who described how moving from highly recognised institutional structures to a lower-fi project, The Cornwall Workshop, was enabling a different kind of dialogue and relationship; and from artist Anthony Schrag on his introduction of ‘fight clubs’ into socially-engaged art practice as a methodology for breaking down boundaries and encouraging people to relate to each other. His current PhD research considers how conflict can have productive outcomes within public art and socially engaged practices and his view is that “we all need to de-institutionalise ourselves.”
While thematically less coherent, the panel successfully raised questions about the need to revise our institutional infrastructure in order to make changes within the wider arts ecology. As with many an arts symposia, the day ended with a Q&A debate that moved into the whys and hows of arts funding. The ‘arguable truism’ that artists outside of London find it easier to receive arts funding was picked up on.
Refreshingly, the discussion remained positive, debunking a number of myths around the hoops that artists might need to jump through to secure funding. Artquest‘s Russell Martin provided tips for how to go about applying and dismissed the oft-held assumption that only applications that include community workshops or social engagement will be funded.
The symposium concluded with a resounding emphasis that London-based artists should follow the lead of their regional counterparts and submit Grants for the arts applications for high quality art projects, something that will no doubt grate with those artists who have submitted unsuccessfully in the past.
We were left with the distinct impression that – in many ways – there has never been a better time to be an artist based outside of London.
Mapping Art Practice in the UK took place at Standpoint Gallery and Shoreditch Town Hall, London, 23 June 2014. standpointlondon.co.uk