Thursday, December 29, 2016


What is it?
Stoke-on-Trent is bidding for City of Culture 2021, and as we enter 2017, we know that all content generated on social media, and via other outlets will be scrutinised by the judging panels, as they decide, first who to shortlist for the award, and eventually, who should be the winners. This tells us that from January 2017, we need to make sure that the breadth and depth of culture (which we know is going on sometimes loudly and proudly, and sometimes more quietly but none-the-less importantly) in Stoke-on-Trent is being captured, and shouted about.

The city of culture competition has been shown to really improve the reputations of those that win, but also, shows real ambition from those bidding, and it is this which is so heartening about the Stoke-on-Trent bid, a sense of worth and value ascribed to the culture here, is seen by the fact that the city feels in a position to throw its hat into the ring. This, along with many other initiatives and projects across the city, is changing the way the world views Stoke; so all for the good.
Stoke-on-Trent is a cultural city every day of the year, not just while we are bidding for the City of Culture accolade, every day across the city, people are making things: pots, artworks, music, changes, and many other things - and across the city we have different ideas about culture; what it is and how it connects to our lives. This project, #365daysofculture, aims to capture some of that, but also aims to support people from across the city to shout about what culture means for them, and how they are consuming, making and defining culture in their own lives, providing a platform for people to show what culture is, and a way for everyone to be involved in the bid.

We know how important it is to show culture from all quarters and levels across the city, and with this simple social media project, everyone from across the city can be involved in defining and capturing culture for ourselves, something that we know, from speaking to people across the city about the bid, that people want to be involved in. This project is all about enabling everyone to be involved, and rather than waiting for permission this is all about everyone who wants to, being able to have their say on what is important, and what should be represented in a city of culture bid from Stoke-on-Trent. With this simple idea, anyone can have an imput into the bid.

The idea for the project came from a conversation with Paul Williams, from the Stoke-on-Trent City of culture team, about the way that winning cities will need to put together 365 days of cultural programming, which will operate at a variety of levels, from the large scale cultural spectacle, to the smaller scale, community led event. Arguably, there is already culture happening across the city 365 days of the year, but we are quiet about it, or lack the capacity to really demonstrate the quality of it, or simply lack the resources to make the most of it. We know that to win City Of Culture would help us to really sing about what is here already, but also to build on that, build capacity and build resources; this project aims to start with what’s here and what’s happening already, and what can be celebrated right from day one of our bidding year (2017.)

Who can take part? And how do we build momentum?
Anyone can join in, simply by using the #365daysofculture with the @sot2021 moniker, but we know from running similar campaigns, that we need to build momentum to get people involved and interested in taking part. To begin to get people involved I am contacting some key individuals, who I recognise as being important cultural catalysts, (with brilliant and far-reaching networks) and ask them to be the ‘early adopters’ of the project. These are people suggested by the campaign group, and other people I think have something important to say about culture in our city, but importantly, this is just a start - and the next step is for those people to hopefully want to involve others in the conversation about culture in our city, sop that we really build a sense of a multi-layered city of culture.
From week one we will invite our cultural catalysts to adopt the week and tweet/facebook/instagram their 7 days of culture using the #365daysofculture, in addition we will ask them to identify people from their networks to also take part; creating an accumulative social media campaign, which begins to get a real sense of the cultural activity happening across the city, in all of the six towns. Though they will be asked to share at least one post per day during their 7 days, they will also be invited to continue to use the hash tag throughout the year, whenever they feel something cultural is worth capturing to add to the conversation around Stoke's bid.
The aim is that after a few weeks of leading cultural catalysts generating the documentation of culture across the city, others will take up the mantel and the project will begin to self-generate content. By the time the judges look at the social media campaign coming out of Stoke's bid in April, there will be a real sense of the city getting behind the bid, demonstrating the variety of cultural activity taking place, from buildings, green spaces, factories, football terraces, schools and streets across the city.

How will it work?
At the end of December I will invite a handful of key people to photograph themselves and their surroundings each day of the first week of January, stating what they are doing, and where for example;
Image: Example of how a #365daysofculture tweet may appear.
I imagine people will photograph events, activities, places, objects - anything from across the city which could be identified as cultural. They could be photographing a visit to the football, a night out at the theatre, breakfast oatcakes or even their day at work - and everything in between. They can post video, audio and images, as long as they always use the #365daysofculture and @sot2021 their content will be picked up and shared as part of the campaign.

I will aim to contact a handful of people to look at week one (January 2017), who will I hope, then invite others and then I will involve others as the year progresses.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Lost Gardens of Stoke-on-Trent

In 2008 I began researching the National Garden Festival. This year marked the 30th Anniversary of this amazing cultural regeneration project, the biggest of its kind in our city. It was wonderful to curate this project as a celebration of that, and as a way of thinking ahead to what could happen here, if we were awarded the City of Culture for 2021.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Portland Inn Project

Community Maker and The Oasis Social Club merged during August and Early September 2016, to become The Portland Inn Project. We kept an almost daily blog here. The fantastic artist Rebecca Davies and I were lead artists on the 4 week project which involved delivering daily activity, which ranged from Bingo, to dance and movement, to tae kwondo, through to a range of creative arts workshops.
The idea was to test what the community enjoyed, what people attended, and what times of day and week would work the best.
We worked with project partners My Community Matters, the Portland Street Community Group, Appetite, The British Ceramics Biennial and AirSpace Gallery to make sure that almost every day had activity, and on a number of days, a number of things would take place throughout the day. The project was funded by the City Council and Appetite Community Events Fund, The Portland Street Community Group and Arts Council England.
There were a few dance and movement classes with choreographer Sarah Blanc.
And Tuesday nights throughout the programme were an opportunity for young people in the area to take part in free martial arts workshops - with little ninjas for under 6's and then tae kwondo for the slightly older ones. These were really popular, and showed a real need for this kind of activity, and a base for it to happen in the area. These sessions, as well as some social media surgeries, and library sessions were organised by our partners in the project My Community Matters - who have been working in the area for a long time, and really feel the need for a project like this to have a permanent base in the area.
Appetite also supported the project with lots of advice, and practical support, in the form of furniture for the pub, but also in the organisation of what turned out to be our most successful day. The Appetite Taster Tour came to Portland Street, with the wonderful installation of interactive bee hives, by theatre company Artizani, plus a fabulous series of performance dances 'Topiary Trauma' by Kitsch-n-Sync.
Which together, provided probably the oddest spectacle that the area has ever seen, and felt like an important moment for the community, to imagine together, a future without limits.

The sessions which Rebecca and I organised were designed quite pragmatically to be productive, in relation to improving the space. While wonderful to have access to the Portland Inn, there was no getting away from the fact that it is really a derelict pub, with all the problems that come with that, so throughout the 4 weeks, our mission was also to involve people in transforming the space, and imagining together what it could be.

So, for example: Rebecca's surface decoration workshop created patterns and wall decoration for the pub.
The signwriting workshop, showed everyone the basics of putting together a series of wonderful signs, and a number of brilliant and useful signs were made for the space.
Even one for the Portland Inn Loo.

Sunday morning gardening club also provided an opportunity to spruce up the outside of the pub, with a hanging basket workshop.
The sessions varied in terms of who attended, there were some people that came just once for something specific, some that came to nearly everything, some that popped in often but didn't join in, and others that took a while to get involved, but by the end, were a part of the team.
Throughout the 4 weeks the British Ceramics Biennial team were on hand to run a creative evaluation with clay - after each session, (developed by Ceramic Artists Jo Ayre and Alice Thatcher) the community would be invited to put their thoughts about the session, and the project onto a clay tile, using imagery to represent their thoughts, and providing notes to give the context. There was a colour code which the participant selected based on how they were feeling.
The idea of this is that these tiles will, we hope, become a new tiled frontage for the pub building, based on the wonderful highly glossed majolica pub frontages of the past. Below are the coloured glaze tests.
The Community Maker workshops which I ran over the weeks followed on from last years meet, eat and make with clay ethos, but where last year we experimented with a lot of imagery creation methods, this year's focus was around the idea of using imagery from last year, but thinking now about making prototypes for the Portland Ware plates, which are the basis for the project. 

The first set of sessions were designed around the 'bring a plate' tradition of the community in the area, who have learned to be self-sufficient, and resourceful, making something from nothing. Community events have often been a 'bring a plate' event, where each community brings something on a plate to share, and the result is a community meal.

This time, neighbours were encouraged to bring a plate from home, and on arrival would be given a slice of cake to eat off their plate, we would then cast the plate to make a mould.
The next set of workshops used the moulds we had made previously to create a new set of plates, and then a printing workshop, used mono printing techniques (the old tissue paper method developed by Josiah Spode, for underglaze printing) to print last years imagery onto our newly made plates.
The idea for Community Maker this year has been about creating the prototype ware, which my absolute dream for, would be to find an industry partner, who would support the making of the ware, so that not only could each community member have the special ware in their cupboard, so that future 'Bring A Plate' events would see the special Portland Wares coming out of the cupboard to form a community gathering, and becoming an emblem for a resourceful community, but that potentially, if we can look at manufacturing the ware, and selling it, any profit could be ploughed back into the community, helping the community and the Portland Inn Project to become sustainable.
Therefore the aim for this year has been to create a prototype to be exhibited at BCB17, that is exciting, and beautiful enough to potentially interest industry partners, but which importantly has the ability to tell the community's story. 
This is where the idea of talking ceramics comes in. Alongside the Portland Inn Project, I have been undertaking the Random String Fellowship, offered by Ludic Rooms in Coventry.
This has involved some digital arts training and mentoring, to look at how a digital strand might support and develop my practice into new directions. I have been lucky to be allocated Ben Sadler from Juneau Projects as my mentor, which has been really rewarding.
The thought was that if we could make it, so that when visitors to the BCB touched the Portland Ware, they would hear the voices of the community, they would get a real sense of the way that a creative art project is supporting a community to develop. 
It has been fascinating experimenting with the Arduino technology - Jo Ayre and I had a good time playing with the tech and ceramic materials.
We tried getting clay to talk:
The way the bare condictive arduino board works, is that if you connect conductive materials to it (via the gold pins) each pin can have a different sound loaded onto it, so if the clay were able to conduct, in theory, touching the wet clay, the circuit would be complete and the sound would play. 
What I have learned since our experiment, is that the water content in the clay is too low to trigger the sound at the default settings, but it is not too difficult to reprogramme the arduino to be more sensitive.

So we tried clay slip, which again didn't work - but would work if we reprogrammed. But one thing that worked really well, was using a ceramic piece with gold banding.
The gold banding conducts beautifully - if it is a complete circuit. So the plan now is to add gold banding (circuity) to the Portland Ware Prototype, which will be displayed at the BCB. The set will be laid out like a community meal, but the tech will be hidden, so that the arduino etc is underneath, and we will develop a way that the ware does not need wire attached, via the gold banding, but when the wares are in place on the table, the voices of the community will be triggered when the wares are touched.
I am very excited about this next stage.
Throughout the 4 weeks, alongside the creative and other sessions, we were asking a series of questions, all of which would inform the development of the project, and provide the evidence we would need for writing a business plan. We even offered a business development session, which helped to shape our thinking around the contents of a business plan.
The way that the community responded to the creative sessions, but importantly, how keen people were to be involved in making the place better has informed the direction the project is now taking.
The findings from the 4 weeks demonstrated the need for a space in the area, providing opportunities for the community to meet and make together with over 600 attendees at events, but alongside that, there is a real need for the project to be financially sustainable. The findings from the 4 weeks, and subsequent research have led to the conclusion that the Portland Inn Development Project could see the Pub Building divided into 3 different uses.
Upstairs could include a residential flat, which potentially could be where the building manager lives. In addition there could be a smaller, one room residency space for visiting artists to stay in.
Downstairs the space would be split roughly in half, with a carpeted community room, which is available for community events, training and activity. This space can be booked, and hired out, but should always remain a community space.
The other half of the downstairs would be home to a community led enterprise, a workshop that has the ability to work on the creation of wares for sale (initially the Community Maker Ware, but with a view to diversify the range.) The facilities within the space would allow the space to be flexible in its offer, but we envision that alongside the making of the ceramic wares, the space can work on research and development of projects, provide bookable space for ceramicists and kiln access, be a base for artists residencies,  and provide a space to explore the role of the artist within design processes.

In addition, the space would be able to provide training, apprenticeships and volunteering opportunities for the community, as well as offering short courses for adult and family learning.
This is where we have got to currently, as we put the business plan together - which needs to be delivered to the council mid-November.

The final event during the Portland Inn Development Project was a community celebration day, it poured with rain, which scuppered plans to spread out onto the green space. Over the day I ran a clay cake making workshop with Jo Ayre, to create ceramic cakes which can hopefully be displayed with the Portland Ware.
Penny Vincent ran a singing workshop, there was a work-it workers workout with Choreographer Sarah Blanc, the library van man came back and read us a lovely childrens story and lots more happened throughout the day - not to forget local resident Chloe, who had always wanted to do some facepainting, sho made sure we all looked great. Finally, there was a community photo shoot, where people had their photo taken acting out what they wanted to see for the pub's future. 
The photos will be going up on the hoarnings of the pub, as a holding space, until we get back in there, but for now - here is a video of the Celebration Event.

The project has continued to raise questions about the role of art and artists in society, and for me personally, allowing me to explore what it means to work where you live, and not have the separation, and ability to be a 'stranger artist'. This all requires much more thought, but I am really interested in what happens if artists are in it for the long haul, and if projects take a longer term approach, than many funding streams allow.
This I will return to later.

There are too many people to thank individually for being part of the amazing team that put this together - all I can say is - thank you all so much. and in Rebecca's words: Forward Together.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Community Maker 2016

Community Maker is a 3 year project, a partnership between British Ceramics Biennial (now known as The Clay Foundation - since the activity delivered is all year around, and not just during the Biennial) and AirSpace Gallery. 
In 2015 - the project was all about aiming to create space for a community to get together, eat, meet and make - and explore together, how to develop the area. I am the lead artist of the project, and much of my thinking around the project stems from the very interesting dilemma of being an artist and a resident. I have worked in public and community contexts many times over the years, but this is the first time I have done so within my own neighbourhood. The interest for me stems from the context we, as a family, find ourselves in, as members of the £1 home scheme - we were tasked, as part of the deal, with being 'active members of the community - and agreeing to be part of community life, using our skills and resources to support the community to develop.' We, and 32 other households across 4 streets agreed to this when we took on our £1 houses in this area. I was really interested in exploring what role an artist might be able to take in this context, and the Community Maker project takes this as a starting point.
The project methods came from thinking about the Homemaker tableware, designed by Enid Seeney (the first female to be trained within the design team at the Spode Factory - a strange coincidence, which I was not aware of when first setting out on the project - given that BCB are based at Spode.) The homemaker design came at a time just after the war, when people began to think again about a little luxury being brought back into the home, the plate is a template for 'modern living' and proposes the ingredients of a successful home - my thinking around this was that though I became a homemaker when we took on our £1 house - the context is not just about me in my house, but all of the houses on the street, and this got me wondering - what are the ingredients of a successful community - and what would a plate for that look like? 
In addition, early meetings with other community members had a real 'make do and mend' feel to them - in this area, a residents have told us during the project, people have tended to get on and organise things for themselves, without much in the way of outside resources. One such 'tradition' in the area that has sprung up out of this has been get togethers where people 'bring a plate' - with everyone contributing a plate of something, altogether a community meal has been created. 
I love the idea of all these different plates, coming from all the houses - and the thought was that what if we were able to celebrate that attitude with a special community plate, which comes out of people's cupboards at community events - but which was not regarded as a make do and mend activity, and a point of necessity, but a choice for the community to share - celebrated with this special community ceramic.
The biggest hurdle we face in Community Maker 2015 was the lack of a venue - and so we ended up running our sessions from a tent on the newly developed green space,
What we know from 2015 is that without a community base, it is really difficult to build momentum in the area, and for the community to begin to become successful and feel connected. 
Also in the summer last year, The Oasis Social Club came to our area, with lead artist Rebecca Davies, though the idea around this project was always to be housed within a temporary structure, the project aimed to work with the community to uncover the communities hopes and aspirations, and to support the community to identify what would be needed to help the area to grow.
Throughout our conversations, and events the recurring issue of the need for a community space was raised, both within the Community Maker and The Oasis Social Club projects. Since the Community Maker sessions in Summer 2015, the community group have attempted to organise events, but the lack of a space has continually made these events difficult to manage.
Since the positive experiences of 2015's 'Community Maker' programme, we were contacted by the City Council, who asked us to look into the viability of turning the currently boarded up pub over to the community, keeping all of these things in mind, it would seem to make sense if Community Maker 2016 were building on the successes of the 2015 programme - and cross checking if the results are right, and that in fact the thing that this community most needs to make it successful is a space, and importantly, ascertaining whether there is enough energy, commitment and will within the community to run the space if it is handed over by the council.
Therefore our primary aim for Community Maker 2016 is to find out: Does the community want to take over and run The Portland Inn?
If so, what and who would that involve?
Is there enough commitment from the community to make this work?
If the community were to take over and run The Portland Inn, what activities and events would happen there and who may be the potential tenants who might be interested in being involved in taking space in the building, in order to ensure financial stability?
Dena Bagi and Jo Ayre from Clay Foundation and I have just spent time planning for this year, and leading in to 2017, and it feels like a very exciting strand is about to be explored
Over 4 weeks the Community Group will organise events and activities each day - and within that Community Maker will aim to deliver 5 days of that programme within the pub, before working on a physical artwork, in the form of 'Talking Tableware' - using digital technologies to bring the ceramics to life with the voices of the community.
In 2015 events were generally for two or three hours - but in 2016 - in order to see the pub activated, it will be more of a residency approach - I will be opening the pub from 11 - 4pm on each of the session days, working within the space, and then running a public workshop in mould making, mould use and ceramic glazes - with the community - working together to create a set of table ware for the artwork.
We will then present the experimental artwork over two events, one aimed at artists and other creative practitioners who may be interested in discussing the role of food within art projects, and the second a community Christmas Meal, where the artwork will be shown.
The exciting and unknown part is in exploring conductive glazes, mixing in arduino technology - and in particular seeing if we can make talking tableware - something which we hope to work on towards 2017.
In order to continue to explore the role that food and making can have in supporting the community in coming together, we will be keeping in mind the Portland Inn development project's four week timetable, but also looking to incorporate our own design process.
Our ultimate goal for 2017 is to create a community ceramic plate, which everyone has in their house, and which comes out for community get togethers, when people will 'bring a plate' to contribute, and also to set the precedence for community meals/food sharing in the area.
The aim for 2016 will be to work together to create a hand-made dinner service, as a prototype artwork for 2017. We can return to the highlights of 2015 - imagery and texts already gathered, and use these as starting points for 2016. We will aim to also be able to give a full experience for the community, so that if anyone were to follow all of the community workshops, they would have experienced a full range of clay making processes, including: making moulds from objects, using the moulds to create tablewares, printing onto wares and glazing wares - and then finally hearing their own voices within the wares.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Adopt a Mobile Bird Hide

UPDATE: The Mobile Bird Hide will be going to Hulme Community Garden Centre, who will us it as a nature hub for carrying out a nature audit within a reclaimed car park. We hope lots of people will enjoy the ownderful bird hide.
ADOPT A MOBILE BIRD HIDE: We need to find a new home for the Birder's Paradise Mobile Bird Hide. It is a wonderful, converted caravan, now a mobile nature hub. Based on a traditional RSPB Bird Hide, there is space for a nature library, binoculars and other resources, and a little room, which can house a portaloo if necessary, but is also a good spy spot for watching the birds.
 We would ideally like the Hide to go to a project/organisation interested in nature, or a educational establishment who could use it as a resource, and can use it to tell people about the importance of supporting nature.
The Hide will be free to a good home, but we would like to know a few things: 1. who are you and your organisation/project? 2. where will you keep it? 3. who will use it (your organisation, and who with - participants)  and 4. how will it be used?
Please get in touch to express your interest ASAP by email to Anna Francis: - More info of the hide in action:
Do share with anyone you think will be interested.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

A-N Go and See - Artist Led Development: Place and Resources

AirSpace Gallery is about to enter its 10th year as an artist led organisation in Stoke-on-Trent, and as a result we are thinking about resilience, and how organisations can connect to the places where they are to ensure a sustainable approach.
With this in mind, each of the 3 AirSpace Directors have been on trips around the country to meet up with organisations and individuals whose projects have been around a while, or who we think are making interesting connections to the places that they are situated in. We have been wonderfully supported by an A-N go and see bursary, allowing us time and financial support to make these visits.
Glen has been to Preston, Andy to Sheffield and I have been to Margate.
Recently I have been thinking about the long term impacts of public art and arts programming; Probably for a while, but brought into sharp focus, when I was invited to speak at the 'In Certain Places' and Ixia (Public Art Think Tank) conference 'The Art of Dwelling: Exploring long term approaches to public art and place.'
This was a really interesting opportunity to hear about projects from across the UK who are all  still going after quite a time, what these projects all had in common was that the people leading on them were absolutely embedded with the place that their organisation was based. The projects were specific, and bespoke to those places, and had a flavour to them which would not be possible anywhere else. The projects are site-responsive, completely engaged with the particularity of the places that they inhabit - and in most cases, really making a difference to participants, and the places they operate. It was a privilege to be invited to speak alongside Deveron Arts, In-Situ, In Certain Places and others, but what stayed with me, was a question about what the organisations are responding to in their prospective places, and whether there was any commonality in approach.
It got me thinking about Stoke, and the particularity of this place: and raised some questions for me about the relationship between a place's resources, and the projects that happen there.
In recent years the projects that we have engaged in at AirSpace have often questioned the role of the artist in society, have engaged with overlooked resources (space, skills, materials) and have, in recent years, had recurring themes around food and green space in cities.
Interestingly, we are not alone in this here, and so, this go and see bursary felt like a great chance to undertake some research into the resources in another place, and the effect that may or may not have on the artists living and working there.
I decided to visit Margate - I am really fascinated by the amazing speed of the development of the arts scene in Margate in the last 5 years. My interest is partly personal (my family are from the area, and I worked, with my sister and brother in the Dreamland Fun Park as a teenager) but also, I am interested in Margate as a place that lost its industry, and where the regeneration and development solution has been mainly culture led. This is very relevant to us in Stoke - the industry is very different, but the solutions may be shared.
Turner Contemporary opened in Margate in 2011, and I was there at the Opening, to document and review the opening for A-N.
Nearly 5 Years on, I wanted to look at the changes in the artist led scene in Margate in those 5 years, and to find out from those working there, what it is like to be in Margate now. I set up meetings with Leigh Clarke, at Crate - as I was interested in talking about the changes in Margate, from the point of view of a space that had been in Margate before Turner, I then spoke to Nick Morley at Resort Studios, a very young space, which has achieved so much in such a short space of time and finally to Dan Thompson, an Independent Artist, who moved with his family to Margate a few years ago.
My first appointment was with artist, printmaker Leigh Clarke - in his studio at Crate.
Crate was started in 1996, by some graduates from Canterbury University - a disused print works, they wanted it to be a space for artists to work, and also a project space, for others to visit.
It always had a theoretical slant to it, originally housing the 'Critical Research Bureau' - and the connections to research continue today.
Soon after Crate opened, Limbo opened up next door, creating a bit of a hub and a great relationship between the spaces - which culminated around 2 years in an almost merger, as the two organisations looked to secure the old Burton building nearby.
When the project fell through, they asked Leigh to be a Director there, to help the organisation's develop in the next few years.
Leigh Clarke, in his studio at Crate
Leigh moved to the area, from London two years ago. It was really interesting to hear from Leigh about his experience - he described his experiences as an artist, with a studio in London, and the gritty reality of Hackney at that time, a trip to the local pub, 'The Gun' was literally the place you visited to get a gun, but a recent visit reveals the stark realities of gentrification - the pub now serve craft beer, The Prada and Burberry factories are now round the corner. Margate today feels like Hackney did 10 or 15 years ago. The fact that artists are completely part of the gentrification was not lost on Leigh - he talked about the strange push pull of the process. Its a process that is replicated in every city - we (artists) move in, the place is gritty, reality on the doorstep - our presence starts to change things, cafes open, the street art improves, the costs to rent space start to go up, other types of business start to take an interest and move in, space becomes a premium, artists can no longer afford the rent, artists start to move out (and anyway the place has changed, so artists aren't that interested any more.)
Leigh talked about the effect that Turner Contemporary has had on Margate, and the amazing rate of change -saying 'It's still cheap in Margate, but you can definitely feel that it isn't going to be like that for long.'
The same week that I was in Margate, I heard from another artist that we, at AirSpace have collaborated with, that he would be moving to Margate imminently, to open a new studio project - it is a story that we are hearing more and  more, as the prices to rent studio in London become completely beyond most artists, the train service to London from Margate, which was greatly improved a few years ago, and now sees you able to be in Kings Cross an hour and a half after setting off, and for just £13 makes the option of living by the sea so much more viable.
This is something that we are really interested in, we don't have the sea in Stoke, but we are one of the U.K.'s greenest cities, the train to Euston takes at best an hour and 23 minutes (unfortunately the price is something that needs work) but with the low cost of living, and London based studio provider Acava opening 43 artists studios a 5 minute walk from Stoke Station, the prospect of being a Stoke based artists looks more interesting than ever.
Crate, as organisation that has been running for 20 years, is very interesting, having been in Margate, before Turner Contemporary, and since. We talked about the way that organisations develop into their buildings in an organic way - and not necessarily in a strategic way which recognises the resources and potential of the building - and that because of this an organisation will need moments of restructuring and rethinking, and that Crate is in a bit of a period of change now, with 2 new directors and an interest in getting back to some of the original emphasis as a research hub.
One of the main questions I had was a direct question around whether Leigh, Nick and Dan could identify what the particular resources might be in Margate, and what impact that might have on the way that artists and art organisations work in Margate.
Leigh felt that Margate, first and foremost has big spaces that are accessible to artists, but also that the place has really interesting pubs and shops - that feel non-commercial and unlike other places, an unspoilt bohemia. He also felt that Turner Contemporary are providing a great support to artists in the Town, and that the networks in Margate work well - people know each other and collaborate across organisations really well. Leigh also described the upsurge in popularity of right wing politics in the area as something which had galvanised the creative community, and brought people together to counter that.
Works in progress, Leigh Clarke.
I was interested in whether the resources of the place, may impact on the themes and ways of working of artists in Margate, Leigh talked about the landscape having an impact and featuring in people's work, but that in many cases it is a slow creeping thing, that happens in people's work, and is almost unnoticed at first. It is of course like this for most artists, whether an artists work is directly related to place or not, places do seep in, and impact on the direction, rhythms, materials and feel of work.
In terms of making work, Leigh talked about how cheap it is to get materials and to get things made, compared to London. He also talked about the Charity Shops as a fantastic resource for him and his work. Leigh turns the abundant wastage of a consumerist society into materials for new works of art, and currently that material is the Celebrity Autobiography.
Works in progress, Leigh Clarke.
'The Charity Shops are my Art Shops, the more I wander around Charity shops, the more I am spotting things that appear a lot at one time. In 2009 I exhibited my collection of 500 Batman Forever VHS videos, that I'd collected for 5 years.
Works photographed in Leigh Clarke's studio, December 2015.
At the moment, these autobiographies are everywhere, because nobody really wants them. I would never have been able to get the stuff I make my art from if I was in London. I just got Anne Diamond for a quid.'
The Petman Building: Resort Studios.
My second visit took me up the hill to Cliftonville, to Resort Studios, and a revisit to Nick Morley at Hello Print. I was in Margate in March for one to one Print training with Nick, write up here
Resort and hello Print are already established as an import part of Margate's arts ecology, providing affordable studio space, open access to the print facilities, and recently a jewelry and soon to open dark room are added to the Resort Menu, which includes drawing club, professional development and a series of interesting events throughout the year.
The new dark rooms, Resort Studios, Margate.
Resort now hosts at least 40 artists, but many more associates, with the print space and events, the energy in the building is positive, productive and friendly - and the space there is obviously already very desirable - there is a selection process at Resort - and they really can attract 'serious' people, as there can be 3 applicants for each studio or desk that becomes available.
There are a number of things which make Resort such an interesting place to work - the physical design and how the building has been broken up, is purposefully thought out to encourage interaction. The 4 directors have very different skill sets, which makes for a well balanced organisation - the pool of skills, contacts and interests across the board keeps things interesting.
We discussed how quickly things are moving in terms of development in Margate - in the six months since my last visit, new galleries have opened on the route from Turner to Resort, and just around the corner on Northdown Road a new clay based open access shop has opened, and is already offering clay workshops.
Nick talked about the pace of change as being the thing which really feeds creativity, but that there is also something (in the background) which is worrying about the speed that things are moving. There is a worry that they are starting to reach a tipping point, that point where Margate becomes cemented as the next big thing - and the gentrification becomes the thing that makes Margate lose its Margateness. It is a responsibility that artists and arts organisations may have, as we know we are part of the process - the thing which is shifting and speeding up the change - and which ultimately means we end up having to move on. We talked about the need for organisations to think forward - to after the gentrification has happened, to do our best to think sustainably - and try to secure the properties we are in ahead of the curve.
This is such a difficult thing for an arts organisation to do though, our experience at AirSpace has been that we did try to secure a longer lease, but that without spare money hanging around, it is really difficult to future proof the precarious artist led organisation.
What is amazing about Crate, is that they own their building, and this really has to be the holy grail, you can't be shifted on, when the prices rocket, if you are the owner of the building.
Nick and I discussed the resources that Margate has to offer - Nick chose Margate in the first place, for its seaside location as he and his partner were looking to get out of London, but also for the large buildings, and importantly for Nick, no other print provision anywhere near the area. Nick talked about the feeling that in Margate, you really can make a bigger impact,
'If you put on a good event here, everyone knows about it, but in London there is so much competition.'
I think it is more than that too, In Stoke, it has felt for the past 10 years like the lack of infrastructure and other activity has perversely made it somehow easier to do things, not so much red tape, and in a way, because you are often doing things for the first time, it does make a bigger splash.
Resort is a young organisation, and therefore at this stage is rightly focused on getting established and getting organised, and not overtly concerned with engaging the public around them, in my experience anyway, this will come later - but the day to day connections with local residents and neighbour businesses will see the slow and steady, and more natural impact that the presence of Resort will have. We talked about the responsibility of the organisation to its neighbourhood, and what that might mean - which for now is about improving the spaces around the building, being welcoming and open, so that the locals don't feel alienated by the changes taking place - and which may, eventually change the area entirely.
 Dan Thompson - site responsive artwork in Arlington House - etched Parquet Floor.
The final visit in Margate cemented the conversations around gentrification, and the artists role and responsibility. It was great to catch up with artist and writer Dan Thompson. Dan has been working and campaigning for many years, around the use of abandoned high street shops - and on his website his about describes him as being
'... interested in the creation of social capital, in abandoned or underused spaces, and in DIY approaches to art, culture and social action. '
As an independent artist, who very consciously moved to Margate with his family a few years back, I was interested to hear from Nick about the phenomena of culture led gentrification in Margate, and the impact that people like him are having on the town.
Though Dan moved to Margate two years ago, he has been working in Margate variously since 2003, so had a real knowledge of the town and the potential there before moving his family, there was the draw of the sea, but also Turner Contemporary being in the town was important.
We talked about the interesting question around resources, and the impact that this can have on the way that artists live and work. In Margate, like Stoke, Dan identified that space is relatively easy to get hold of, and that it is impressive, characterful space, that makes the project so much more interesting and ripe with creativity.
Recent projects have seen Dan working with a group of other artists to put on a site responsive exhibition in Arlington House, one of the most controversial, and impactful buildings on Margate seafront. Getting hold of amazing spaces like this would be difficult anywhere else. This building is an interesting one, I remember from my youth, Arlington House being regarded as something of a ghetto, by those that didn't live there, and in Pawel Pawlikowski's 'Last Resort' film, it was there that the main character ended up, Arlington House, the ends of the earth.
My Gran's friends had a flat there, and said it was the best place they had ever lived, as Dan pointed out, due to the amazing architecture of the building, every flat has a sea view.
In Stoke too, projects like Art City have seen some amazing spaces made available for artists; our colleagues at Re:Stoke put on an epic production in the closed down Tunstall Swimming Baths, AirSpace led on the Kules Residency in the old Olympus Engineering Works, and the project itself launched from the Chatterley Whitfield Colliery. In Stoke, we are in the moment before the moment that Margate is in, amazing spaces are accessible, at little or no cost - but people are starting to notice - 43 artists studios on the Spode Factory this month will bring a much welcomed influx of creative people, but this, like in Margate may be just the start.
Talking to Dan, Nick and Leigh, they all shared this story of a move to Margate being about getting away from the commercialism of London, or towards the amazing character that Margate has, where space can be accessed, things can be done but that there presence itself could be the thing which makes it all flip the other way.
In Dan's case, in the two years that he has been living there he has seen property prices rocket - purchasing a flat in Arlington House was something that could have been achievable two years ago, but its proximity to the train station, sea views, and the influx of other tower block appreciating creative people have pushed the price above and beyond what most artists could hope to afford.
In Margate they are not at the tipping point yet, but everyone seems to feel it coming.
We don't have a Turner Contemporary in Stoke, or the sea for that matter, and at the moment it feels like a bit of that gentrification might not go amiss - but there are rumblings here that its on its way.
The city is bidding for city of culture 2021, good places to eat have suddenly begun to appear, and the positive press we are getting is really making a difference to how we are viewed from elsewhere.
What it feels we could do with is one big catalyst to really bring it all together, a Whole City Art Project - Maybe bidding for City of Culture could be it?- and it does feel that that needs to be artist led, and done with a moral compass. How can we avoid the pitfalls of how it has been done badly elsewhere, and make sure it is not top down development, but something new?