Space Race: Part 1
Tate Modern recently hosted a national conference profiling the role of studio and workspace provision for artists in the UK. ‘Creating Places’ was jointly funded by Arts Council England (ACE), the Cultural Industries Development Agency (CIDA), and the European Union (EU), and was the first of three linked events that took place in July 2003 addressing the sustainability of such provision.
(The second, ‘Opening Doors’, was aimed at people involved in organising Open Studio events and was held at Yorkshire ArtSpace in Sheffield, where the third, ‘Making Space’, was for artists’ studio groups and managers). A unique and important series of events, of which the first is the subject of detailed consideration in this month’s piece.
Estelle Morris, recently appointed Minister of State for the Arts in the UK, was very much in ‘learning mode’. She could not stay for the whole event, which was a pity because she would have learned a great deal from experts in the field. However, she did deliver her own emerging thoughts, rather than reading a mandarin-crafted set speech, and gave many positive messages. Let us hope she stays in post long enough to be able to see them through.
She thought the conference was timely, having already detected ‘something in the air’ at Whitehall that stressed the value and importance of creativity and innovation. Government wanted to do something about these things, and needed help in arriving at appropriate policies. In the minister’s view the most difficult time for creators was probably during the first year or so beyond formal education, chiefly because there was no space to work: ‘How silly it is for society to put all that money into education, then stop supporting graduates to establish themselves’. She was confident that there was ample evidence to prove that support for the creative industries worked. For example, the refurbishment of the Custard Factory on the eastern side of Birmingham – located in the minister’s own constituency – had sparked successful regeneration of the surrounding urban environment.
Although it was important to collect and use evidence of the successful contributions to society made by creators, Morris warned of the dangers of ‘overmeasuring’ – as had happened in recent years with education in the UK’s state schools (ironically, she was until recently the Secretary of State for Education). In gathering such evidence, a common language was needed to describe to others the benefits of creativity. For example, a very powerful message to planners should be ‘If you don’t make space for the creative industries, your regeneration won’t succeed’. Creativity had earned its right to a place in the economic fabric of society: ‘If we could get this right, maybe an irrevocable change could be made to ensure that cities and towns always made space for the creative industries’. It was for these reasons, she argued, that the creative industries were a key target for the development of Government policy.
Arts Council England
Peter Hewitt, chief executive of ACE, could not recall a time when the arts, creativity and culture had such high profiles in the UK. ACE had made a recent policy decision that individual artists were the most important focus for its future support. This would include looking at the infrastructure that allowed artists and creativity to survive and thrive.
Studios not only provide workspace, but also a marketplace, education, training and visitor attractions. A recent survey of artists’ open studio events across England, for example, had revealed that around 3,000 artists had participated, attracting 250,000 visitors, and achieving £1.5m in sales. Artists’ studios also animate local communities, and are a very important part of the regeneration mix. Artists are regeneration pioneers, especially in areas of deprivation, where they create the conditions for revival and act as lightning conductors for investment. Historically, the downside of these successes is that artists have always been displaced through resulting increases in property values.
The studio sector was ‘coming of age’, and ACE wanted to work with Government and the art community to build upon gains made in recent years to make more happen. ACE and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport needed to create an alliance, and work together with all other Government Departments to carry this agenda forward.
Michael Craig-Martin offered an experienced ‘user’s’ perspective: ‘If you want to invest in property now, find out where the artists are and move in there’. He drew attention to lessons learned from artists’ helping themselves to affordable workspace in the UK over the past 30 years or so.
Having arrived in the UK from the USA in the late 60s, he was immediately struck by the marked contrast between the very high quality of art education in the UK, and the paucity of studio space for practitioners here. Artists’ co-operatives like SPACE and ACME were established at that time to meet those needs: large warehouses at St Katherine’s Dock and Butler’s Wharf were vacant, so artists took them over. Those buildings, which had been the least valuable 20 years earlier, had by the 80s become the most valuable, and occupying artists had been squeezed out financially.
He did not believe that artists unlike designers represented ‘creative industries’. Designers worked to a brief for clients and as businesses, would not survive in the commercial marketplace unless they succeeded financially; whereas artists needed space and time to develop their creativity, without commercial pressures.
Craig-Martin posed an important open question: what does a ‘studio’ mean today? Painters’ needs were not the same as those of sculptors, photographers, or of artists working with computers and in other contemporary media. He was convinced that one of the main reasons why Paris had ceased to be a thriving art centre during the 20th Century was because artists could no longer afford to live and work there. The same thing had happened in the SoHo district of Manhattan, New York, in the 70s. If artists were pushed further and further away, the ‘cultural heat’ would die. ‘It’s lucky that we still have King’s Cross in London, or the derelict parts of Bradford, Sheffield and Middlesbrough’ was his parting provocation.
Jonathan Harvey is co-founder and co-director of Acme, a London-based charity formed by artists in 1972 to support the development of fine art practice by providing artists with low-cost studio and living space. He set out some key issues and challenges for artists’ studio providers in the UK today.
It was dangerous to include artists within the term ‘creative industries’, because artists’ needs were very different from other creators. Research was needed to identify how artists worked, and what their diverse requirements were. Access to affordable space lay at the heart of the matter for artists because commercial success was not necessarily their main concern. He gave an example of how the value of low cost studio space could be quantified. Because Acme’s rental policy had always been to charge artists as little as possible, the difference between the commercial rent it could charge now, compared with what it had charged in the past, was around £lm during the last year. ACE’s capita] grant to Acme in 1997 – from lottery funding – had been critical to its successful development of an asset base. But it was important not to overstate that success, and those of others to date, because most studio providers in the UK were still struggling to meet artists’ needs. What funding was available needed to be carefully and intelligently applied.
The importance of studio purchasing had been largely overlooked and undervalued in the past: in the absence of capital to fund freehold property purchase, studio providers had been forced to rely on leasing property for many years. He urged participants to use the conference as a springboard for moving forward together, building upon the lessons learned from a long and distinguished history of studio provision in the UK, and speaking in future with a strong and unified voice.
© Henry Lydiate 2003