|Red dress, public performance with Manuela Benini|
For many artists, choosing an 'art house' or studio environment to make work within, understandably, has less to do with physical facilities and more to do with levels of quality and professionalism, which at best is essential to keeping work invigorated but at worst creates a stayed and unchallenged environment.
ACAVA (The Association for Cultural Advancement through Visual Art Limited), grew out of initiatives started in the early 1970’s to provide facilities for the support of the visual arts in the Hammersmith and Shepherd’s Bush areas of West London.
In 1973 artists, politicians, local authority officers and the visual art officer of the Greater London Arts Association met in the first public consultation in Britain on artists’ needs, it was called “The Hammersmith Art Experiment”.
If there are any young (or old) bohemians out there by the way, who do still have that dream, I recommend you make use of ACAVA . Sign up for membership, make good use of their expertise and latest news.
The artist gathering which I was attending was hosted by the South East arm of NFASP (National Federation of Artist Studio Providers) which is another support organisation well worth linking up with. They have published many useful documents and undertaken a great deal of research over the years, into the nature of artist studio space.
The discussion was about Finding and Managing Property and there was representation from artist groups from across the country, all with different pictures to paint of spaces, funding cuts, opportunities and differing artists needs and solutions. There is the regional differences for example; large empty factories and ware houses which are available in the North are scarer in the South but demand for space is higher as you get nearer to college overspill areas like London.
Interesting there are approximately 15,000 artists in studio spaces in the UK at present, only 7,000 of whom are in affordable space. Affordable space equates to paying one third of the commercial rent for a space.
The meeting was at Phoenix Space in Brighton, a long running artist studio facility itself, which, it became evident, is not without its own funding problems at present. As the picture became clearer stories came out of: cuts to some of the longer standing studio facilities, councils taking back properties, sliding levels of discretionary business rate rebates and collectives unable to pay to maintain expensive properties...it became clearer that perhaps my initial instinct was right, that the age of the 'permanent' studio space is at least under threat but perhaps not for the reasons I had first thought.
Paintings by Dan Brodie on WHITEWALL, until recently an exhibition space in the heart of Milton Keynes shopping centre which I was curating
Since my trip to Phoenix, I've heard of several wrangles going on at this very moment, between local authorities and artist studios across the country, all disputes over discretionary rate rebates. It seems that unless these artist groups have full charitable status they now have no leg left to stand on and councils are attempting to charge full business rates. I wouldn't be surprised if we see The Artist Information Company following this story up quite soon.
Even if these studio groups become charitable trusts and do everything they can to prove their benefit to the community, there is still no getting away from the fact that permanent buildings are expensive to maintain with out the dwindling Arts Council subsidies or without organisations being forced into charging higher studio rents.
It is time to get clever then, artists must be much more business like. (where have I heard that before?) There is no shortage of empty buildings after all and many of these spaces are owned by landlords who, since a change in the law, are now paying full business rates for their empty properties. They can actually save money by housing arts charities who can claim rebates from local councils. There are many already taking full advantage of this regulation on empty property, the East Street Arts organisation for example who currently run three studio complexes in Leeds, CADS (Creative Arts Development Space), based in Sheffield and my own space in Milton Keynes, Centric MK, which now houses several artists and artist organisations including Festive Road, MK Festival Fringe and The Drawing Machine.
Appropriately we heard next from Dan Thomson who I've been following for a while. He set up The Empty Shops Network, and has spent time building mutually beneficial relationships between retailers, councils and artists to make use of the increasing number of empty shop units across the country. Dan has also written a very interesting book, 'Pop Up for Dummies', I keep meaning to get a copy. This is a fast growing area, as you can see from the recent Arts Council commissioned research into 'Pop-up people' and Dan is doing some incredibly exciting work. Most of these potential 'pop-up' spaces, if you are interested in making use of them, are more and more likely to be in retail areas, empty public buildings, dis-used churches...a symptom of our dying high streets.
So if these spaces are increasingly temporary this means thinking in a more flexible way and I'm sure this is not going to suit us all but as Dan Thomsons work demonstrates, the age of the 'pop-up' is here.
"A man's vision is his own responsibility..." so go out and make it happen!