Being surrounded by the work of artists all called Tom is a strangely unnerving experience. I’m in MODEL, a new art space in Liverpool city centre, billed as a ‘flexible, experimental and research-based platform for artist-led activity’. Launched in July in the former Open Eye Gallery on Wood Street, it is the idea of three artist-curators: Dave Evans, Fran Disley and Kevin Hunt.

In their current exhibition, TOMTOM, ‘nine of the most interesting Toms’ from across England, Scotland and Wales have brought sculpture, print, photography, film, drawing, audio installation and painting into this old white cube space. “It’s maybe a fickle starting point for a project,” says Hunt, the show’s curator, “but I guess I like the fortuitousness of that being a springboard for something more meaningful.”

The show is a playful display of contemporary art informed by Hunt’s love of sculpture. Tom Whittle’s sketchbook drawings are photocopied, enlarged and mischievously used as a background discussion for Tom Worsfold’s odd screen-printed paintings and Tom Gidley’s lumpy, speckled clay sculptures (at one point hung over the face of one of Whittle’s portraits); Tom Ireland’s Untitled Nike Trainers stand before it all, grandly; witness to – according to its extended title – a meteorite from the 16th century. It’s all rather exciting.

MODEL has a very short, intense lifespan; this iteration of the project runs until early November, and includes three main shows, running roughly for one month each, with six parallel ‘COMBINES’ – or project space exhibitions – that last for just one week. Evans, Disley and Hunt’s curatorial interventions are all related to their own practice, allowing them to work with other artists from around the UK who share similar research interests.

Lively beginnings

The beginnings of this space can be traced back to a set of lively conversations earlier in the year amongst Liverpool’s artistic community, that discussed the lack of new, fiery, energetic spaces in the city. Wanting to exhibit during the 2014 Liverpool Biennial, the three started looking at different venues and became conscious that something more ambitious was possible.

“There was a bigger realisation that we wanted to make something happen,” remembers Hunt, “but also that there wasn’t anything else happening, too. There was a frustration; there’s a lot going on here in an institutional capacity – FACT, the Bluecoat, the Walker, etc – but I guess artist-led activity has dwindled over the years.”

Pitching an idea for a temporary ‘testing bed’ to Arts Council England, the group received full funding just one week before the Biennial opened. The project will also include a continuing programme of broadcasting and external critical discussion, plus career and professional development for artists (open to the public), including peer-led sessions on production and setting up galleries, but also sustaining art practice and monetising work.

As Disley puts it: “We started to become conscious of what the legacy could be; instead of it just being a bit of a vanity project of our work, we were thinking purposefully about what this could do.”

As a result, four assistants – Hope University graduates Becky Peach and Greg Herbert, and Liverpool John Moores University’s James Worley and Theo Vass – are working at MODEL as administrators, curatorial assistants and invigilators. They will also receive part-funding to initiate activity of their own under the mentorship of MODEL. When I speak to the assistants, it is clear that this opportunity is a vital step on the arts career ladder. They enthuse about the real skills it provides, with the room to develop their own ideas.

For the three founders, it’s essential that young artists use the example of MODEL as a catalyst. “We couldn’t say this is easy,” says Hunt, “but at the same time it’s not that difficult, it’s not impossible.

“I did a little bit of teaching earlier this year, and there’s a real disconnect with students and what happens around them and what they can do personally. Someone like Joe Orr [Cactus Gallery], has just graduated, is 23-years-old, and shows that if you have the drive and ambition you can make anything happen. And he doesn’t even get any funding. You just need an individual or several individuals and it can make all the difference.”

Artist-led support system

As Evans sees it, MODEL wouldn’t have happened without the support of others: finding a combination of a flexible landlord in Urban Splash (who provided the building rent-free); advice and encouragement from Open Eye’s artistic director Lorenzo Fusi and new head of art at Liverpool John Moores University Rory Macbeth; and practical help from The Royal Standard gallery and studios (TRS) , who used its charitable status to take on MODEL’s lease, slashing business rates and making the overall running costs affordable (Evans, Disley and Hunt are all former Royal Standard directors).

“We can’t underestimate places like The Royal Standard,” says Evans. “Maybe that’s its natural evolution, that it supports artists to break out of an isolated community.

“It’s a trickle down thing I guess; the assistants here don’t have to worry about service charge and things like that, the nuts and bolts of running the space. TRS have taken care of the lease for us, and we’re simplifying it again. You start to see an artist-led support system emerge, where it is easier for people to make things happen.”

While MODEL’s founders are keen to emphasise how grateful they are, they also see wider institutional support as a potential double-edged sword.

Discussing the different ways that Liverpool’s arts organisations have helped the group – loaning equipment, sharing international visitors – leads us to discuss the role of the publicly-funded institution. What are their perceived responsibilities to artists and what does the natural evolution of spaces such as TRS look like – starting off very small, gradually growing into an arts charity with more studios, more funding and therefore more programming and structural remits.

“We have an institutional culture in this city,” Evans says. “There’s no counterculture or avant-garde in the visual arts anymore; because the institutions are so dominant in the city, the smaller organisations begin to morph into the larger institutions.

“What younger artists should be doing is kicking against Tate and the Bluecoat; it’s great that they support us, but they should also be supporting us in saying: ‘Don’t do what we do – do what you want to do, take some risks’. You want something that’s genuinely driven by the creative interests of the younger artists in the city.”

Hence the emergence of MODEL, which feels anarchic and irreverent while managing to be genuinely ambitious. COMBINES #3 is a great example; Evans’ wild kinetic sculptures dance along to Mike Carney’s rave mixtape with carefree abandon, with each sculpture made in response to artist Erica Ayres’ silent film. For COMBINES #4 (23-28 September), Jason Thompson and Arthur Roberts will display and respond to works by William Blake.

“The first two shows were quite sculptural,” says Hunt, “but on a conceptual level and a visual level, MODEL will change quite significantly. We’re trying to get people to get used to constant change. We’re still learning! It’s really clichéd, but true.

“This is all happening really quickly and is a bit risky, so it’s not always completely polished or fully formulated. But that’s the last thing that Liverpool needs.”

MODEL, 28-32 Wood Street, Liverpool, Wed-Sun 12-6pm or by appointment. TOMTOM continues until Sunday 28 September 2014.

This article was co-commissioned by a-n and Liverpool’s The Double Negative website