National Studios Forum
The ‘Creating Places’ conference held at Tate Modern in July 2003 explored the role of studio workspace provision for artists in the UK (reported in this column AM269). It presented a comprehensive range of sector-specific skills and experience of the 250 participating artists and studio providers together with a wealth of ideas and advice.
It provided an excellent basis for future action, and it was clear that the key to sustainable studio provision in the UK lay in artists and studio providers working together in co-ordinated ways in future.
In the intervening two years, a major research project was conducted by Acme Studios, the UK’s leading artists’ studio provider, with Arts Council England project funding, which led in May 2005 to the publication of A Survey of Artists’ Studio Groups & Organisations in England (downloadable from www.acme.org.uk), and to the simultaneous publication of a comprehensive register of studio groups and organisations in England.
Acme’s research methodology was professionally robust, qualitatively and quantitatively, and focused on face to face interviews with representatives ofn6 studio groups and organisations and 166 studio buildings in England. The survey’s key findings are significant, and include the following facts and figures:
- 4,000 artists occupy 166 buildings.
- 4,500 artists are on waiting lists.
- 94% of studio buildings are in cities.
- 58% of total studio space is in 72 buildings in London.
- 66% of London studio space is in the east and south east of the capital.
- 50% of building conversion costs have been self-financed.
- 80% of total studio buildings are rented.
- 800 studio spaces are at risk of being lost over the next ten years.
- The National Lottery has provided 50% funding to secure ten permanent studio buildings over the past ten years.
- 308 sqft is the average studio space.
- An average studio building has 21 individual studio spaces.
- £5.82 per sqft per year is the national average inclusive rent (£1.16 in the north-east; £7.54 in London).
- Very few studios are ever unoccupied, with 11% changing hands annually.
- 25% of studio buildings are in poor condition.
- 38% of studio buildings have central heating.
- 2.5% (4 of the 166) studio buildings are fully accessible for disabled people.
Artists’ need for ‘private, secure and affordable studio space remains constant’, and is demonstrated throughout the survey; it is also evident that the vast majority of artists do not have the financial resources to compete with commercial businesses in paying the commercial going rates for renting commercial spaces and buildings. The overwhelming majority of studio providers are artists themselves, usually working on a voluntary self-help basis to create informal studio groups, find suitable buildings, finance and execute conversions, and manage their studio projects. All the studio providers surveyed act on a not-for-profit basis.
One of the key legal tools that studio providers use to keep rents as low as possible is to register with the Charity Commission for England and Wales. Occupation of premises by a registered charity means that business rates (which can be prohibitively high even for ordinary commercial traders) are automatically reduced by 80%, so that only 20% of that annual tax on the occupation of business premises is payable. In addition, the local business rating authority (the local authority) has the legal discretion to exempt a registered charity from having to pay the remaining 20% business rates, and many local authorities willingly grant such an exemption on the basis that such charitable bodies contribute significantly to local urban or rural regeneration schemes – this is particularly true in the case of the creative industries, which include visual artists.
The survey revealed that 57% of the studio providers are not registered charities, and 33% have no formal legal status; both problems could easily be remedied. It is relatively cheap and straightforward to establish a formal legal status: an ‘unincorporated association’ (effectively, the legal formalisation of a self-help group through the adoption of a written constitution), or a not-for-profit limited liability company (known as a ‘company limited by guarantee’, which can be registered with the Registrar of Companies within days in the UK); both can be registered with the Charity Commission. The websites of both the Registrar of Companies and the Charity Commission
offer user-friendly information and help.
The survey’s key recommendation is for the establishment of a national body of studio providers. This has been taken forward by the recent creation of a National Studios Forum, which is sponsored by ACE and comprises representatives of studio providers throughout England. It is chaired by the artist Naomi Dines, of Occupation Studios in South East London, who told this column that a national body of studio providers would, amongst other things, create a pool of expertise and knowledge of the sector – ‘a collective coalition of experts’ – that would be made available to all existing and future providers. It would avoid the need for each new group to ‘reinvent the wheel’ so that far more artists could benefit more quickly from lessons learned and progress made over the past four decades in the UK by studio providers. In 1967 SPACE (Space, Provision, Artistic, Cultural and Educational) and AIR (Art Information Registry) were set up by Bridget Riley and Peter Sedgley (and others), and a lease taken in 1968 on a disused warehouse in St Katharine’s Dock, London for Studios. In 1974 the registered charity ASG (Art Services Grants) was set up, under which SPACE and AIR operated. In 1972 Acme Housing Association was established by Jonathan Harvey and David Panton (and others) as an Industrial and Provident Society to provide artists with cheap studio and living accommodation.
In this connection, Dines underlined two of the survey’s key findings: 66% of studio buildings also provide spaces for public exhibitions and public education programmes, and economies of scale achievable through a national pool of knowledge and, where necessary or desirable, a powerful advocacy and purchasing role.
Probably the most important eventual role for such a national studios body would be the creation, implementation and regular review of a longer-term national strategic plan. This would involve continual monitoring and review of current provision and unmet needs, of future needs and required provision, and the development and implementation of achievable and realistic plans to ensure appropriate future provision. In response to the question of whether such a national studios body might in the long run become the only national studios provider, Dines strongly rejected that idea, stressing the importance and real value of local knowledge and rich diversity of approaches towards studio provision.
One important role for such a national studios body would be to harness and make available to existing and future studio providers a wealth of necessary legal expertise, dealing with such matters as planning consents, planning gains, tenants’ or licensees’ rights and duties, establishing legal forms of constitution, company and charity registration, tax exemptions and other benefits, terms and conditions of contracts and licences.
© Henry Lydiate 2006