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?