Beyond the Garret : Artists’ Studios Today, Potteries Museum & Art Gallery

A write up of Beyond the Garret : Artists’ Studios Today / Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent, 16 May 15.

Image credit: Glen Stoker

The Artist Development West Midlands and AirSpace Gallery recently explored models of Artists’ studios though a series of case studies and discussion at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent.

Anna Francis, AirSpace, Stoke-on-Trent

AirSpace was founded by Staffordshire University graduates David Bethell and Andrew Branscombe in 2005. They wanted to live and work viably as artists in the city. First housed in the former pottery factory building, Falcon Works, AirSpace’s mission in 2006 was as an artist-led space engaging with the local community, providing educational activities and opportunities for graduate artists. The building was in poor condition and required work to transform the factory floor into a gallery with studios beneath. It had little natural light but generous space for making sculptural and other ‘dirty’ work. The building had no electricity, hot water or heating and was subject to thefts. At the time, it held music events and underground activities and one of the first studio exhibitions was ‘Short Cuts’ in 2006.

Impressed by their work, the local council offered AirSpace their current building on Broad Street. This mostly empty site was in a more central location with potential to attract a new audience. Many studio holders from Falcon Works moved into the new building though there was initially lack of space.

There have been around 10 studio holders at any one time since. Studio artists have worked regularly on exhibitions and projects including ‘Common Ground’, 2010, in Hanley Park. Wanting to connect with other studio groups, 2011’s studio show saw the group travel to Margate and in 2012, holders attended a retreat at Grizedale, building relationships and making new works together. Partnerships such as with British Ceramics Biennial have provided holders with opportunities also.

In 2012, AirSpace founded their Graduated Residency Scheme offering 6 months’ free studio space, mentoring with staff, an interim exhibition in the gallery window and a solo gallery exhibition. This opportunity is available to Staffordshire University graduates and those from elsewhere to allow AirSpace to both retain and attract artists to the city.

Currently AirSpace have 9 studio rooms, with 24 hour access, free Wi-Fi and affordable costs. Prospective studio holders are interviewed and it is highly important that they are active and contribute to the space. Studio holders have monthly meetings and can access a bookable room to test ideas. AirSpace’s mission continues to promote professional development and artistic opportunity, bringing critical art to the city.

Duncan Smith, The Association for Cultural Advancement through Visual Art (ACAVA), London

ACAVA arose from the needs of artists. Duncan started working in a studio in a former school on Faroe Road, London in 1975. Since then the organisation has grown enormously. They have realised almost 40 studio buildings by being alert to opportunity and forming partnerships with local authorities and others.

Faroe Road, like many of ACAVA’s buildings, began in poor condition with dry rot and a roof in disrepair. Initially housing 9 artist studios, local political changes meant holders had to fight to remain. Eventually the building was bought by the Greater London Council and sold to the artists. They could affordably pay the mortgage and borrowed against the asset to acquire more buildings in London in the 1990s.

A former Vicarage in Hetley Road has become12 artist studios and converted industrial space in Barlby Road formed 24 studios. Other properties include a shop on Charring Cross Road, a laundry at Phipps Bridge, potting sheds in Cannizaro Park and Hadleigh Old Fire Station, Essex. The Fire Station is an important community hub for diverse audiences and it had 10,000 visitors in 2014. A purpose built studio complex on Blechynden Road houses 24 studios and was facilitated by ACE and local charity funding.

Collaborative partners benefit in numerous ways from ACAVA’s work. ACAVA makes a cultural and an educational offer. As a charity it seeks to actively engage and benefit communities. The Sculptors in Schools project has placed a sculptor in residence at every primary school in Hammersmith to educate children and teachers, providing tools and opportunities to navigate mess and risk. ACAVA have worked with mental health services financed by the NHS and with young people not in education or employment.

ACAVA believe art is regenerative and revitalises culture. Their work is becoming increasingly difficult in London due to rising prices, competition for buildings and legal changes that prioritise housing. Duncan predicts a move away from London into cities like Stoke-on-Trent with an abundance of empty buildings.


Jon Wakeman, East Street Arts, Leeds          

East Street Arts was founded as a space for making ceramics by Jon Wakeman and Karen Watson who came to Leeds in 1993. Cheap, empty property was relatively easy to obtain and they moved into an empty former mill. Jon emphasised the project required time in its early days above anything else. 6 studios were built, expanding to 50 studios and a large project space in time. These were damp, cold and home to pigeons.  Shared studio facilities were important for conversations, meetings and the project space provided a public interface. Attracting audiences and connecting with other groups has been vital.

The support of the local council contributed significantly to their success. Many early projects were undertaken without core funding and the management of multiple bank accounts. Following numerous meetings, an architectural collaboration and support from ACE, they were able to buy the former St Patricks Social Club. Patrick Studios opened in 2004 with many new interviewed artists. Certain members from the previous studios did not move over, causing some friction. 2004-8 was a great learning period.

In 2010 a new space in the culturally-mixed Chapeltown, Leeds was opened. East Street Arts received £70k from a local economic growth initiative and built a project space, 7 studios and office, engaging the local community by taking projects to them. These were not always successful and local trust was a big issue. Jon believes it takes 5 years to develop this kind of trust.

East Street Arts now works with empty properties across the country, with leases on 80 commercial properties as ‘pop-up’ spaces. This scheme contracts and expands. Its critical mass allows it to exist even if problems are encountered. A new Artist’s House scheme has been set-up, allowing live/work space and a bursary for artists to come in Leeds. Duncan admits the impact of this embedded scheme may be slow.

From a team of 3, East Street Arts now have 20 staff, all of whom are artists apart from the bookkeeper.  Partnerships with cities worldwide mean local knowledge can be brought back to Leeds. They are also setting up a pilot art hostel with work and social space. Jon warned about the dangers of future arts funding cuts. They are currently NPO funded but to survive they will have to adapt.

Cheryl Jones, Grand Union, Birmingham

Grand Union is a project space and studios located in semi-industrial Digbeth, next to the city centre. It was founded by a group of artists and curators in 2009 as a production and curatorial testing space, recognising strength in both strands of activity. The aim was to develop the critical network on site by inviting people in. Several founding members were based in Great Tindal Street studios which were cold, damp and not publically accessible. There had been artist-led spaces in the city previously, but nothing sustainable and ACE were keen to support a smaller scale project to consolidate artistic activity.

The work on Grand Union was initially voluntary, with two years of meetings. Nearby Eastside Projects provided support and advice, helping to develop a cluster of activity in Digbeth, and funding from Birmingham City Council and ACE was given to develop the area as a cultural quarter. 8 purpose built studios were created in the Minerva Works building, the number kept small to foster a sense of community. Minerva Works is now populated by 50% cultural tenants, making it a busy hub.

The site required two months of cleaning and repair. A previous fire in the building ensured they could negotiate an affordable rent of £135 per month per unit. A project manager oversaw the design, using wooden frames with board and polycarbonate covering which is insulating and UV reflecting. The small units can be heated individually. The space was taken on an initial 2 year lease, and the studios can be deconstructed and built elsewhere if necessary. The landlords have been very impressed with the work.

Cheryl is assisted in the gallery by a paid 2 year Associate Curator scheme providing training and opportunity, and volunteers. The space benefits from several curatorial perspectives and programmes book clubs, performances and experimental music alongside exhibitions. The inaugural exhibition invited studio holders to select artworks they have been influenced by. Grand Union recently set up a residency scheme, providing artistic opportunity and community engagement, such as Phil Hession’s work which was taken out to a nearby college, boxing club and pub.

Grand Union take touring exhibitions, have begun commercial activities with editions and publications available on site and online, further developed by inclusion in art fairs such as Manchester Contemporary.

In the future, HS2 plans threaten Digbeth. Decisions must be made about whether to fight to stay or to relocate.

Anna Chrystal Stephens, Vulpes Vulpes, London

Vulpes Vulpes began in 2009 with graduates in London renting cheap studios and squatting in houses. They decided to pool resources to rent a former tram depot warehouse whose rafters were converted into bedrooms, with a large studio beneath. The building was damp and had vermin but Anna notes this was an exciting time. Unexpected business rates were covered by renting out space to more artists, divided into sections including a gallery with street access, and spaces for messy and cleaner working.

In their first year, Vulpes Vulpes held 10 exhibitions and other events. They initiated a residency scheme for Swiss artists with live/work space, opening up opportunities for international interaction. The scheme was later re-evaluated, however, as no fee could be offered to the artists. The landlord of the tram depot eventually asked the group to leave after a campaign to save the building from demolition. Anna reports there are still artists working in the tram depot today.

Vulpes Vulpes moved next to Leyton, taking many materials from the tram depot to be recycled into the newly built structures. A large framework was constructed with exterior panels and the DIY fabrication provided loosely defined live/work space, though less room than the previous building offered. Offsite projects saw studio artists engage with schools. This aimed to strengthen the artistic community and engage with the local one.

In 2013 the gallery was separated from the living and studio space, and relocated to a warehouse in Bermondsey with clean desk spaces. They currently host the Standpoint Residency scheme. Vulpes Vulpes are interested in the overlaps between work, domestic and public space, and have formed housing co-operative Ursus which seeks to provide affordable artist housing, potentially incorporating studios into this scheme in the future.

Small ACE grants allow Vulpes Vulpes to pay artists and try experimental projects. Education activities have happened naturally but become important. Workshops in the space invite new collaborations and allow the group to learn from children and young people. The current gallery space has no studios but an adjacent building may make this viable. Anna recognises the group have not always been well organised or financially savvy. She acknowledges the importance of openness and flexibility to their success.

Louis Palliser-Ames, Royal Standard, Liverpool

The Royal Standard was founded in 2006 in a pub in Toxteth by four graduates of John Moores University to bridge the gap between very large and small organisations in the city. From 4-6 studios, the group moved to Vauxhall Business Park and set up 20 studios. A 2 year directorship programme is key to its operation.  Directorships come with a small stipend, candidates are interviewed and the role provides an excellent pathway into more curatorial and institutional roles. Energies are kept fresh in this way.

There is a dedicated gallery, project space and workshop in the new building. The gallery is keen to show non-studio members’ works, promoting an outward looking perspective. Taking on an additional building on site has doubled studio capacity and a social space helps to foster community within the studios. A studio holder set up Cactus gallery in 2013 with an independent exhibition programme and 3 members have founded Model. Along with Biennial activities, these projects have helped to create an on-site critical mass and provided jump-starts to graduates and studio holders.

The Directors are studio holders or are very well linked to the organisation. The rolling scheme means contacts can be retained for the health of the group. They are also keen to support other members of the city’s artistic community. Louis provided examples of in kind support and asset distribution.  They have started a residency scheme for John Moores graduates and are looking to appoint an Executive Director.

One issue faced is their location in the north of the city, a walk away from the centre. The group have encountered landlord difficulties and uncertain investment within the area. The Royal Standard are keen to solidify their current position.

Q&A and discussion

Discussions started with regeneration, the impact artists can have and how this might be measured. Duncan noted there is little time to analyse impact and few tools to measure this apart from talking to communities. Jon does not believe artists are regenerators, only that artists are in areas in need of investment first, followed by developers later (often the cheapest, most run-down places close to a city centre). Anna Francis believes this is connected to recognising resources, increasing visibility and showcasing the value of artists who speed up regeneration. These situations are precarious for artists. Conversation turned toward tools and partnerships required for these processes such as with universities.

Is there is too much emphasis on community over art production? Cheryl felt that Grand Union’s  structure allows time for networking and time for making, and Anna Francis felt this was the role of AirSpace Gallery rather than the studios. Duncan responded that practice requires both aspects.

The panel were asked whether their studio models can be effective in small towns. They agreed the needs of the particular group must be met regardless of location. If there are artists, a need for production space, and some initiative and money then studios can function anywhere. Similarly, provision for artists preferring to work alone must be made also.

An audience member asked about plans for the new studios at the former Spode factory in Stoke-on-Trent. Duncan confirmed that ACAVA have completed the feasibility study for this, and that there will be 41 studios of varying sizes, scheduled to open in November once all exterior building work is complete.

What about provision for artists over 60 years old? Duncan replied that ACAVA do operate projects for this age group but would not open studios for this group specifically. The panel agreed a diverse mixture of studio members is preferred, though there is more EU funding aimed at supporting young people.

Discussions moved towards live/work space, and the difficulties of paying for both studio and home separately. Louis recognised that some artists do prefer the separation of such spaces.

Text commissioned and published by Turning Point West Midlands, 26 May 2015

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