space

5. The city problem

A conversation between Duncan Smith, Kirsten Dunne and Russell Martin during System Failure: The City Problem, an Artquest project looking at the relationship and impact between artists, arts policy and urban regeneration. Held at Block 336, Wednesday 11 November 2015.

Block 336, gallery image
Block 336, gallery image

Duncan Smith is an artist and the founder and former director of ACAVA Studios. Duncan founded ACAVA Studios in 1983 to provide artists with studios and resources, and to provide educational benefits to their communities through workshops, residencies and training facilities. ACAVA now has studios for 500 artists and works with a wide range of other bodies such as local and health authorities, trusts and foundations, arts and educational institutions, regeneration agencies and social landlords, engaging the skills and creativity of its members to promote public benefit. Duncan has been teaching in art colleges and universities for over 40 years and has exhibited installations and digital work internationally since the 1970s.

Kirsten Dunne is Senior Manager, Cultural Infrastructure and Public Realm in the Mayor of London’s Culture and the Creative Industries team. Previous roles include market development at Arts Council England and senior roles in South London Gallery and Frith Street Gallery.

Russell Martin is an artist and director of Artquest.

RM
This talk begins with the premise that the art world, as a human-created system in an unequal world, is imperfect: throughout, we aim to suggest ways to improve the art world specifically for artists. As artists, we have both the agency and responsibility to change the art world into something that works for us and for the audiences who enjoy our work – the art world is run by artists, I would suggest, both as the producers of the art that fills galleries and as the administrators, funders and directors who run and support arts organisations. Although it’s easy to see the art world as something that does things to artists, the system includes artists at all levels and we are all implicated in how it is run.

This talk, then, and all of Artquest’s programme, aims to help artists become more familiar with the issues they face in the arts and beyond, and to encourage collective action and co-operation between artists.

Today we’re talking about cities and urban regeneration, and how artists can have positive impact on, and gain benefit from, the range of activities that this includes. There is a lot ‘in the air’ at the moment about urban regeneration and artists: the talk at Frieze Art Fair called Can Artists Still Afford to Live in London?; the recently launched Mayor’s London Regeneration Fund [now the Good Growth Fund], and their guide for councils and artists about how to work with the planning system to achieve their aims through regeneration and the planning system, the A to Z of Planning and Culture; also the news from ACAVA Studios about their Cremer Street studios that will be handed back to the property developer that owns them later in the year. The Mayor’s office also recently released the Artists Workspace Study last year [in 2014], predicting 30% of affordable studios will disappear in the next five years. [This Study has since been updated in 2018 with a new data note which confirms that many of the buildings that were anticipated would be lost have been, and also finds that rents have increased again.]

Keeping artists in London isn’t just about affordable studios: it’s also about high housing costs and that artists are probably the lowest wage earners in the art world. One study suggested the median artist earnings in 2010 was half the average UK salary, at around £10,000 a year, with more recent research suggesting it is under £5,000 per year from their practice alone.

Urban regeneration is a result of a complex network of priorities, with local and central government, private developers, local communities, businesses and the arts having different motivations. There remains a pervasive assumption that artists are the avant garde of gentrification: that they go into ugly parts of the city, make them nicer, then people open up posh coffee shops and the artists (and all the other local low-income residents) get priced out. Artists are often employed during developments to make local communities more amenable to regeneration projects, further associating them in the public mind as agents of gentrification. Most research in this area suggests public policy, influenced by promised investment, political lobbying and local councils ideas about the economically redemptive powers of the ‘creative industries’, plays a more decisive role. Widespread short-term licensing of studio space, meaning very low security of tenure for studios, enables property developers to evict artists at short notice when building conditions improve. In the London context, international finance also plays a role, with 12% of new-build London homes suitable for first-time buyers being purchased by foreign investors between 2010 and 2014.

With this brief background, I’ll ask Duncan Smith to start the discussion.

DS
I want to start by examining the word “regeneration” and asking what we really mean by it. It’s very glib to say that artists go to old parts of town, crush them up and then they get gentrified. I don’t think that’s quite the whole story, so I’m going to unravel it a bit: let’s start by looking at the overall concept of regeneration.

At one time I was a zoologist, and I first came across the notion of regeneration in biology. Biological regeneration means the ability of genomes, cells, organisms and ecosystems to repair themselves, to reconstruct themselves according to the way they always were, or ought to be, without the interference of external or internal influence. In that context it’s a conservative term; it’s about maintaining the status quo, maintaining things as they’re supposed to be. Once the term gets applied to cities, something else happens: then, regeneration becomes about our ability and efforts not to maintain the city, but to change it for the better. Cities are going to change anyway, and urban regeneration is meant to be about making that change positive.

The drive to urban regeneration started out under the rubric of ‘urban renewal’. This meant relocating businesses and people, using government finance to purchase properties wholesale that needed to be changed in some way, and generally to restructure a locality in the interests of human or urban progress. Being run by fallible human beings, sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. Urban renewal was meant to be an economic reform mechanism, but it could also be seen, in some cases, as a mechanism for control. It enhanced environments and communities, but it could also destroy the neighbourhoods it was designed to improve.

Regeneration is meant to be about making the best out of a place – something I’ll come back to later. In fact, it tends to mean the free market operating within relaxed planning constraints. It means, in effect, reduced control that the city and state authorities exercise, freeing up the market to do what it will. Humans try to do things that are very complicated, which is why they sometimes fail. The market is not so complicated, and what it’s trying to do is fairly short-term, and it’s usually disastrous for the broader, longer-term good.

Having looked at what we mean by regeneration, we come to the second part of what we’re addressing: what part do artists really play in the regeneration of cities, and how might they benefit from the process?

The first thing we have to recognise is that artists aren’t particularly highly regarded. It’s a shame, but also a fact, that for most of the population, including most politicians, we’re fairly irrelevant. I tested this myself at some point in the 1970s. I went around where I live with a list I had compiled of about ten things that people might find important: money, food, sex, health and so on, including art. When I asked people in the street what was important to them, bottom of the list, almost invariably, was art. During these questionnaires I also asked people what they do in the evenings. “Watch telly.” I said that art is involved in television. “Oh, really? I also listen to music, I go to concerts, I watch films” and so on – all other things that art is involved with. What you find is that people identify art with the making of pretty pictures on easels and they don’t see that they’re surrounded by it, that it is an essential part of culture, and an essential part of their lives. Part of the problem is that the importance of art is not as widely understood as it ought to be.

We also need also to recognise that art is regeneration. Art is about individual regeneration in the first instance, about restoring our wellbeing, regeneration in that first, conservative sense I spoke about; but it has a more radical sense, as in urban regeneration, in that it gives us the opportunity to think differently, promote new ideas and function differently as individuals. It has a restorative and regenerative function for the individual. On top of that intrinsic value, it also has enormous instrumental value.

All I mean by ‘instrumental value’ is that while being good in itself, art also contributes to a lot of other things outside of the individual artist, even outside of the art world. First of all, I’d argue that art is at the core of cultural development; it is a way in which culture is examined, maintained, and also changed. It’s at the core of our economy – one of the few successful industries (if we dare to call it that: I’ve never liked the ‘creative industries’ term) that we have. It is at the core of education. What is art? It’s about creativity: it’s about saying that I see the world differently. It’s about inventiveness and, if you want to talk in business terms, the entrepreneur who says we can do things a bit different. It’s about health: everybody knows that these days there’s a wellbeing agenda, as we all become obsessed with our longevity and how fit we are – and people understand that art is very much a part of that, including the NHS, where doctors are starting to prescribe art. It’s about place-making and cities. It’s about all kinds of things apart from and as well as those intrinsic artistic values.

The next thing I want to say is about the role of artists and, in particular, arts organisations in the urban regeneration processes. Many arts organisations and many artists have benefited for a long time from regeneration programmes. My own organisation, ACAVA Studios, has been working with regeneration programmes for twenty years. We built our current headquarters and twenty-four studios with funding that came from the Single Regeneration Budget.

In 2000 we became a partner in a regeneration scheme – we were recognised as a core part, a key player, in a regeneration programme called Action Acton.  We continued to work with regeneration bodies and are currently working, not with a government-sanctioned set-up or finance programme, but with a local programme in Stoke-on-Trent, where they’re looking at how to regenerate the city now that all the potteries, the former major industry, have all gone. That’s a regeneration programme which sees art at its core. One of the sad things is that the recognition of the importance of art in the regeneration process seems in inverse proportion to the distance from central London: the further you go from the centre of London, the more people believe that art could be helpful in producing creative industries and urban benefit.

It’s clear that there has been a lot of collaboration between regeneration projects and artists: it’s oversimplifying to say that regeneration is bad for artists.

We also need to recognise that property developers at times collaborate with artists. There are lots of examples of developers who see the benefit of working with studio providers – generally with those providers who cast a good light on their developments. They also get involved at the point where state agencies and private capital come together to decide what’s going to happen to cities, and an area called ‘planning gain’. Planning gain is where a local authority who still, despite the relaxation of planning laws, has some control over what people build where, might allow a development to proceed on the condition that some space for public benefit is provided within the building – artist studios, say, or a gallery or community area. Under those sorts of programmes quite a lot of arts projects have been successful, and there are quite a lot of studios around, including some that we produced, in collaboration with developers. Although in truth, and in my experience, this can mean working with developers who feel extremely constrained by local authority stipulations contained in Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, the section that enforces planning gain.

Despite many of us have tried very hard to work with planners, with local authorities, even with developers, London in a bad way. The fact is that this city is, in my view, seriously threatened by the way in which it is developing. Property prices have gone up; planning laws make it easier for developers. To quote one of Kirsten’s colleagues, Munira Mirza [at the time of this talk, Deputy Mayor for Education and Culture], the Mayor’s office expects one third of studios in London will disappear over the next four years.

KD
And that was a year ago…

DS
Exactly. She went on to say that the Mayor of London’s office would be using its planning powers to insist that commercial developers work to protect cultural venues.

So, what about the artists? Speaking as someone who runs a studio organisation, and who works with many other studio providers, we have tried very hard not just to provide studios, but to change the environment within which studios happen: that is, to advocate on behalf of increased studio development. The National Federation of Artist Studio Providers (NFASP) was set up in 2008 to bring together those of us who had been doing this for a long time, in order to ensure our knowledge and experience was passed on and that people didn’t keep making the same mistakes again: most of us running these organisations are artists who never expected to be doing the things we were doing. Another aim was to advocate on behalf of studios, to tell the people who make decisions around planning and policy that they need to think about studio provision. Unfortunately, funding for NFASP ceased in 2012, although it continues to exist on a voluntary basis: while we continue to do what we can, the advocacy function is severely limited by the fact that we now consist only of a group of directors, all of whom have studio organisations to run and are incredibly busy. We take part in forums which are set up by local authorities, or the Mayor of London; we talk to arts officers and planners in the course of our work, to lots of politicians, and try to promote studio development wherever we can.

What can artists do themselves, individually? Maybe we have to do what artists have often done: go somewhere else. There is a big appeal in going to Berlin, it’s a great city, studio prices are about a third of London; or you could go to Birmingham, where studio prices are half of that in London. Of course, it’s not only studio prices, it’s also the price of accommodation and living costs. But assuming that we don’t want to have to leave London, what are we going to do?

First of all, I suggest that all artists have a responsibility to understand the sector better, to understand what they are intrinsically part of, as Russell said in his introduction: artists are an essential part of a big, complicated system and we need to understand it better. We need them to work together to change it; we need to individually promote the value of the arts and therefore of artists. The Chief Executive of the Arts Council, Darren Henley, said that people who work in the arts have a moral responsibility to become school governors. I am in support of the idea: or at least that we all individually promote value of what we are involved in much more widely.

We need, as artists, to understand the role of studio providers. Back in around 2000, we found some premises in Cremer Street, Hackney – to convert them would have been expensive, so we went to a regeneration agency and asked for some money. They were not entirely sure that artist studios are part of regeneration, and that artists were just taking advantage of buildings before they get properly reused. In the end, they gave us some money, we developed the buildings, and fifteen years later those buildings are threatened by redevelopment.

The problem we faced as a studio organisation was that, while utterly sympathetic to, and in agreement with, those artists who wanted to march in the streets saying this is an outrage, they misdirected their anger. You can’t be angry with the owner of a building that he is a capitalist who wants to make as much money as he can; that’s how he functions. In fact, in this case, the owner was a decent guy who was always fair with us: because he was so impressed by what we did at Cremer Street, he went off and set up some of his own studios in Woolwich and financed them entirely himself.

So, if attacking him wasn’t right who should they attack? The local authority? They’re constrained by planning laws, and a building owner has rights to do what they want within those laws. We need to understand all of that much better.

Finally: cities change. Paris for example was once an important centre of visual arts and now is much less so. There’s no particular reason why London shouldn’t continue to be so, but if it is to we need to ensure that people understand better what a proper regeneration programme would be, and what the role of the arts is in that – and that means political change, which is only going to come about by the education of the public and of the politicians. And that’s our job.

RM
Thank you very much, Duncan, for that introduction. Now Kirsten Dunne from the Greater London Authority.

KD
That was great Duncan, thank you, you’ve taken us through the whole thing. Russell has referred to me working for the Greater London Authority a couple of times and I think that’s one of the least understandable terms to refer to us by: I work for the Mayor of London, and the Greater London Authority is responsible for a strategic overview of London. In certain areas it carries specific and statutory responsibility, including things like transport, policing and planning, but not including culture.

I work for the Culture team [now the Culture and Creative Industries Unit]. The Mayor has a statutory obligation to produce a cultural strategy for London, but it needs to be delivered in partnership. That probably gives you a bit of an illustration of what my day looks like. In the Culture team, we spend a lot of our time working with our colleagues across transport, regeneration, planning, and the other areas in which the Mayor does have a statutory responsibility, to make sure that culture is within everything that happens.

I will tend to talk about ‘culture’ rather than ‘artists’ today, but we in the Culture team have a very wide-reaching understanding of culture. We promote the creative industries: by those I mean the classic creative industries of film, television, design, fashion, gaming, but also visual art. For example, I manage the Trafalgar Square Fourth Plinth programme, which is one of the most visible cultural programmes that the Mayor supports, and a very visible symbol of how important art is to London, right in the centre of London.

But we also take into consideration all the other aspects of culture: what you might call informal culture, things like skate parks and street art. That kind of activity is not helped by formal recognition, so we don’t treat it in the same way as more formal or organised cultural activity. We know that culture is a mix of activities, and that one part doesn’t function without all the other parts. What I and my colleagues spend a lot of time doing is trying to get colleagues within the Mayor of London’s office to understand the complexity of that mix and the inter-relation of all these activities, formal and informal: how important it is to have every single component for the whole thing to really work.

Duncan mentioned not liking the ‘creative industries’ term, but the economic impact of the creative sector is now understood quite broadly. What isn’t so well understood is that you don’t get well-known artists filling the Tate if you don’t have all the other less well-known artists ploughing away with work which perhaps isn’t – and was never meant to be – directly market-focused, but that is vital to sustaining the rest of the creative network. It is becoming better understood, though. I’ve been hearing a growing recognition within fashion circles recently that it’s really important to have visual artists in the mix, because when a fashion designer suddenly has to do a shop window somewhere that’s really important to their career, they rely on the techniques and availability of visual artists to help with those installations.

To give some wider perspective to where culture fits with the other pressures London faces: by 2022 visitor numbers to London will have increased to 21 million, we will need 1.5 million more homes, 600 more schools and colleges, a 50% increase in public transport capacity, a 20% increase in energy supply capacity, 9,000 more hectares of accessible green space and 10% more green cover in Central London. Those are the things that the City has to deal with: we have to consider where, amongst all those pressures, and where in regeneration and growth culture sits, and how we balance those demands – not competing demands, I would argue, as they all support each other, with culture playing a crucial part.

I want also to talk about the Mayor of London’s new book, the A to Z of Planning and Culture, that Russell mentioned in his introduction. It’s been an incredibly successful collaboration between the Culture and Planning teams, and various other partners including local authorities. It’s important because it not only shows that culture is beneficial to planning, but it also acts as a handbook for artists and cultural producers on how to use the planning system. It takes a very wide view of what culture means. Really, it’s about London’s character: about trying not to lose the individuality of different areas of the city. ‘Character’ is a word that we use more and more often: that needing loads of new housing is one thing, but that creating personality and keeping it within an area is vital as well.

RM
Thank you, Kirsten. To start things off, I’ll start by mentioning a talk I was at recently at Frieze Art Fair, called Can Artists Still Afford to Live in London? The focus turned out to be why it’s important that artists live in London, rather than London’s affordability for them: there was talk of the importance of local artists to Tate, as you mentioned Kirsten, and about the kind of instrumental things that you were talking about as well, Duncan. I was thinking: it might be important for London that artists live here, but is it important for artists? How important is London to artists? It was suggested at that talk that Tate couldn’t function without artists: I would suggest that Tate couldn’t function without public funding, without international collectors, without tourists paying for the exhibitions, and although certain functions would be very much diminished without artists it would still trundle along quite happily without them. I’m wondering if, as Duncan mentioned, artists should just cut their losses and get out of town?

DS
It would be a great shame for me: I live here and I like London, and it would be a great shame if everybody disappeared. I think it is important that artists get together; it’s critical that artists have the opportunity to be present in the same place for considerable lengths of time. Living, working together, creates a kind of bubble within which ideas can spark. Artists suffer from isolation. And the Left Bank in Paris, or Soho in New York – or Notting Hill, actually, when I came to London first – function as places where artists can be in close proximity and share in their madness, if you want to look at it that way.

It doesn’t have to be London, from the artists’ point of view, but it has to be somewhere. And while artists are going to become much more dispersed – there will be artists in Stoke-on-Trent and Leicester and Margate and all the other places – it’s still important for artists to get together in a metropolitan space where they can misbehave. I think in London we would miss that.

RM
There are very well-established artist communities around England, around Scotland, Glasgow and Sheffield and Liverpool and Nottingham. There’re a lot of other artist communities around the country. I’m just wondering if there’s something really specific about London that provides a special benefit. OK, there are big events like Frieze Art Fair. But Frieze is an international art market event, and I wonder if it has much impact on many artists in London, apart from the ones who have galleries here – but they could live anywhere – or the artists who work at it for a few weeks. What is it specifically about London?

KD
It’s a difficult question, isn’t it? I can say why I like living in London, but one thing that I hear from people – and this is just one aspect that came to mind – is that there’s an economic imperative. Yes, there’s an art market in London that perhaps operates at a level that is different from most artists. But on the other hand, you’re rarely going to get a collector to come to your studio if it’s outside of London: it already becomes problematic to get a collector to come to your studio a few miles from Frieze. There is a conglomeration in London, clusters of activities and services that are relevant for the creative industries, beneficial for artists too. That’s one aspect. But you also need to be where the critical debate is and where there are exhibitions and talks, like this one, and interaction between writers and curators and all of the things that inspire and rejuvenate practice.

DS
Agreed. I would add a few other things. Looking at it historically, the reason that London is such an important art centre is first of all, as Kirsten said, it is an important art market. Secondly, it has a splendid tradition of art schools going back to the nineteenth century. I think Britain as a whole has benefited from that, and London in particular; whether they are surviving modern trends in education is an issue for debate. Thirdly, the huge number of buildings which were left in London after the war, as a result of containerisation technologies, and as a result of the general changes to the British economy, left an enormous amount of post-industrial space that artists could occupy very cheaply. Those things combined to create the benefits for artists that made London as important as it is. The question is how many of those benefits will remain. I suspect that Beijing is doing quite good art market trade right now, art schools are certainly under threat, and access to buildings is diminishing.

RM
The buildings are a particular focus for this discussion, but I also was struck by your mention of how artists work with developers, within regeneration processes, and find instrumental uses of their work. ‘Instrumentalisation’ has become a curse, it’s this awful thing that we’re supposed to be resisting in our practices, but we also have to be pragmatic: it’s surely better to be in those conversations around regeneration and buildings than not.

DS
I think it’s extremely important. If people don’t quite get what artists do, it helps if you explain their importance to the economy, if you describe the way in which artists have been important to the development of computer games and many other technologies, for example. If people begin to understand that art really is helpful to health, that would key in with the current wellbeing obsession. Not every artist wants to do it (some do want to confine themselves to their studio and just produce work, and I entirely understand and respect that), but for those who are able to get out and engage in these ways, they can broaden people’s understanding of art’s role in society and culture. I think that’s important.

KD
Yes, I would agree with that. I think there’s a lot that people in the arts can do – some things that may be done as an afterthought that could instead be planned from the start. I wonder how many people go into art college thinking that they’re going to be the kind of artist who works in public spaces and makes sure that they’re the most creative and interesting spaces they can be. I would hate to see that as an ‘instrumental’ interpretation, because I think it’s really important that artists get involved with how we live in and how we build and rebuild our cities.

At the Mayor of London’s office, we’re currently trying to enact a vision for culture for the Royal Docks. The Royal Docks is a huge area of London around the Millennium Mills and around London City Airport; it will be developed soon and there will be lots of housing included; and it’s actually much more central than people think. What we would like to do is make sure that artistic production is absolutely embedded at the very beginning and throughout everything that happens in that scheme. For that to happen, you need artists with a particular set of talents. Some of it is about working with the people who live there, and some of it is about applying a different type of thinking to architecture and public space. There are so many different ways to think about artistic practice and how it’s relevant in the construction of a community and a city. I don’t know enough about how art training works, how much leadership there is in the field, but I know there are powerful opportunities for culture brokers, for residents, for developers and arts organisations. Who brings those people together, and who says that the spaces being built are the right ones? That is an area of opportunity for artists to take on.

DS
Picking up on the subject of artists’ expectations when they come out of art school: the fact that artists end up doing so-called ‘instrumental’ stuff, working on public sculptures or projects with local communities or whatever it is: it seems to me a better fate than stacking shelves or many of the others menial jobs that the artists have to do in order to survive in the city.

Back in the 1970s, as ACAVA was developing, there was a big debate about artists who were interested in the instrumental uses of art, that they were just ‘misguided social workers’. The ‘misguided social workers’ of course looked upon these other artists as ‘ivory tower wankers’. My position was, we need to embrace all kinds of practice, because actually you’re mutually supportive. Those artists dealing with instrumental projects, they’re broadening a perception of what art can be and increasing support amongst audiences. Whereas those who dedicate themselves to studio practice reach the high pinnacles and get the promotion and achievements which are so much respected by those who see public adulation and wealth as an objective in life.

I think that if you look at the system as a whole, we would be quite right to say we’re not interested in that false debate, we’re all artists and we’re all involved in it together.

RM
I wanted to come back to something you said, Kirsten, and that I agree with, that the economic impact arguments being quite well understood. Last week John Kieffer, at the talk that we did here, said that he was reading a report about presenting culture to politicians which stated that, basically, they’ve already made up their mind if they’re interested in culture or not, and they’re usually not. It doesn’t actually matter what arguments you put to them: if it’s about culture, then they’re probably not going to be interested anyway. At the time I thought it was pretty disingenuous. You must work with quite a lot of politicians: do you have any reflections on that?

KD
This goes back to the very beginning of our discussion: what does art mean, what does culture mean and what are the creative industries? ‘Creative industries’ is understood, largely because people think of film and probably fashion, and now they’re starting to think about gaming. Politicians, however, are a bit uncertain about gaming because it can be violent. It is also known that one in six jobs in London are in the culture and creative sector. That’s the reality; it is a growing industry, whether you like the terminology or not. It is one of the only significantly growing industries that we’ve got right now, and it is set to continue to grow. I think we’re being really short-sighted if we don’t think about the opportunities that we’re creating for people to work in this field, because that’s where there are going to be jobs.

There is some quite pragmatic stuff that one can do, but it does go back to what I was saying earlier, about really getting people to understand what goes into encouraging the creative industries. Explaining that you don’t just get a film industry out of nothing: publicly-funded theatre has done a really good job of explaining how it has directly resulted in the success of the commercial UK film industry. They’ve had loads of spokespeople – actors, directors, filmmakers – who have said, time and time again, that if they hadn’t been able to work in publicly-funded theatre or hadn’t benefitted from public subsidy at a crucial time in their career, they and the UK film industry would never be in the financially successful situation they’re in now.

We need to look at how all the creative industries can make similar arguments and linkages across all of those pubic and commercial sectors. The Mayor’s office now has a focus on artist studios and how we keep creating affordable artist studio space in London. I’ve been wondering recently if we should be talking about affordable artist studios in terms of research and development for the creative industries. No industry will thrive if you don’t allocate a certain amount of resource to research and development, which is just purely there to find stuff out. Whether you use that stuff in the end or whether you can make a commercial product out of it is unclear at the time, but you have to put the resources into research and development or you’re not going to get new ideas. It could just be a small change in how we talk about things to make a difference in perception that could unlock different kinds of support.

I also wanted to say something about how politicians interact with art and culture. I’m Irish, as you may have noticed, but I’m also half-German, and what I find really interesting about England is that, whereas in Germany it’s expected by the public that politicians will attend cultural events, in the UK there seems to be no such expectation. This is across the whole spectrum of cultural events, not just more exclusive things like opera. Any German politician would go to the opera any day of the week; it’s not a problem, it’s part of life, it’s part of what you are as a human. But that doesn’t happen here. It’s no problem talking about the box sets that you watch or even the apps that you play. To pretend that there’s no connection between the arts and culture on the one hand and highly commercial creative activity on the other is completely ridiculous.

RM
That reminds me of a conversation I had with an artist recently. She said that she’d done a project in Italy, and when it was launched the mayor and local MPs turned up; they wanted their photos taken shaking her hand and gave her a big civic welcome dinner. She’s done many projects in the UK and none of the local politicians turn up. Audiences turn up, but politicians don’t seem to want to have anything to do with it. Culture is promoted as an add-on, a bit of a waste of money: yes, it might make people feel a bit happier, but who cares about that anyway? There’s an embarrassment about it, about activity that’s publicly funded but doesn’t have a direct, immediate economic impact. Something that’s being echoing around academia increasingly, with the need to prove impact and benefit beyond academia even at application stage for research funding.

KD
I just think it’s a real contradiction: we celebrate the creative industries; it’s a huge economy and it’s really growing. Four out of five people who come to London come here for culture and heritage specifically; politicians even talk about the importance of the creative industries. It’s crucial to the existence of the city, but there seems to be a slight disconnect with how it’s valued along the whole chain.

DS
Exactly: supporting culture isn’t only about supporting its consumption, it’s about supporting its production.

KD
Yes. That’s important in the Fourth Plinth programme too, in areas like the fabrication process. Think what it takes to get a sculpture of that size to stand up, first of all, and then not to fall over in the wind, and to raise it up to that height. It’s a really valuable testament to creativity, to engineering, and to ingenuity throughout. We show the value of culture in that programme, because it is in the centre of the city in prime position in Trafalgar Square. I’ve heard from lots of other global cultural cities, and there’s no way they’d ever be able to do something like it in their city. You can’t have a programme like that without the place to make it and support it all along the production and exhibition process.

RM
I want at this stage to swing the conversation around to solutions and actions. What can we – the people in this room and anyone else listening in – do to help bring about some of this change, both in relation to regeneration and the other things we’ve spoken about. I’m interested in when you talked responsibility, Duncan: artists having a responsibility to engage with the system in which they operate, in and out of the arts, in a particular way, even if just to understand it.

We’re sitting in an artist-led gallery and studio space, which is also a charity. The artists who run this space have had to understand how to set up a charity, how to do their annual accounts, make sure they comply with the law, to find and maintain a board, and many other things apart from programming the space and making art. Artists across London – artists everywhere – are ingenious in how they can make things happen and add new skills to their core activity. Equally, we have conversations with artists where they ask: when do I have the time just to be an artist, at what point do you stop being able to call yourself an artist when you’re doing something else?

So, while I completely support taking on that responsibility and think it important, I’m wondering just how we build it into an artist’s practice? How do we encourage artists to see that it is a part of their practice, and how do they find the time? Because it’s not just about making the work, it’s about getting it out there.

DS
It is difficult, absolutely. But that’s partly why I say that we have to look at the whole system. I think that there is space for artists who are just entirely focused on their production and they can be carried along by the rest of us, as long as there are enough of ‘us’. If we can get people to accept all kinds of practice, all the activities that artists have to do, then it is possible to carry forward those people who have enough ideas to keep them occupied all the time.

RM
Which is another fantastic argument for London remaining a gigantic hub for artists. The critical mass of artists that you need is enormous, because there will always be artists who are entirely focused on making work and just doing that bit, that one small piece of the whole art sector puzzle. It needs a lot of other artists to do all the other stuff to support the infrastructure of the art world.

DS
You told us before the talk that we could be provocative; I’ve not been saying anything very provocative, so I’ll try now. Some artists aren’t very good at making art, so helping support the rest of the sector is something that they could do with some of the spare time between their ideas. Is that provocative enough?

RM
I think Iwona Blazwick, who isn’t here to speak for herself, would agree with you; she famously went to art school and said she was terrible at making art, and that’s why she went into being a curator, and is now director of Whitechapel.

KD
There’s a valuable lesson there. It’s very true that things change; the city changes; people’s roles and motivations change. The way we look at art and artists changes; the way artists look at themselves changes too. You’re right that there’s a percentage that doesn’t want to communicate with the wider world (or not right now) and that’s OK, as long as the sector has a wider network of people who will do the administration.

One of the things I have come across a lot is that whenever you talk to developers about studios or arts production spaces, inevitably they end up wanting something else to be outward facing; it can’t just be a bunch of artists locked up in a building. There often has to be something public for the developers to agree to support it. An exhibition space needs resources of work and money and time that take away from production, and it isn’t always appropriate or needed. We need to find other ways to communicate how artists work and what they need. There’s something here about platforms through which people can broadcast their work in different ways that we haven’t quite nailed yet. It is a system failure actually.

RM
Yes, there’s also something about the business models of artist studios. When I go to artist studios, a lot of them are empty. There’re enormous waiting lists for studios – the Mayor of London report suggests over 6,000 artists on waiting lists for studios, I think – which artists can barely afford when they get them, so they have to work full-time to maintain the studio that they never have the time to be in. Isn’t there a better model, some kind of AirBNB for artist studios, a timeshare system? People with jobs or kids would use them at different times than those who care for elderly relatives or work full-time as an artist during the days only. That model, however, is incompatible with licensing or tenancy agreements, where a named artist is responsible for whoever uses the space, with regulations around keys or sub-letting and responsibility for payments, which need solutions. It’s also these other, older models, the system of law that we have to operate in, that impact on our ability to innovate.

DS
Well, you’re right. Studio organisations find themselves as intermediaries between the artists that they want to help and the world as they find it. We have to deal with building owners, regulations around health and safety, asbestos, hazardous chemicals, all the rest of it. But there’s an increasing tendency, even within some of the older models, for people to share. Particularly younger artists, we find, are happier with a big space they can work collectively in than in spending more money on dividing it up.

At the same time, the old model is an expression of something quite important, which is that the studio becomes an extension of the soul; it becomes a part of a person’s essential identity as an artist. Maybe that will change, but for a lot of artists, it is that. So even if it’s empty, remotely, that is the place to which they will resort.

KD
Yes, I really wish I had one of those! To be a bit provocative myself: I don’t even have that in my head, let alone in an actual place that I can actually go to. There is something extremely, crucially important about having that space for artists, and at the same time it’s a responsibility. It’s an interesting road to walk, really.

DS
Another thought: some of the people in some of our studios are getting on a bit; we’ve been running studios since the mid-1970s, the best part of forty years. There are quite a lot of elderly artists in some of our studios and sometimes I see them going in, some of them fairly regularly, still making art, and it’s twenty years since anyone was interested in exhibiting it. It occurs to me that actually they are a lot happier than people in old folks’ homes. They’re continuing to make art, continuing to have that studio, continuing to have that sense of identity. These things are important irrespective of public attention and wealth. We can have new models, but they still have to take account of our need not just for a space to work in, but for all those other psychological things.

RM
That’s a good point to end on: I’m afraid that’s all we have time for now, so I’m going to thank you all very much for coming, and thank Duncan and Kirsten very much too, as well as our hosts Block336.

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About the author

Russell Martin

Russell is a graduate of The Glasgow School of Art who has lived in London since 1998. Initially working in gallery education, his self-initiated projects include workshops, residencies, peer mentoring, artist-led galleries, radio programmes, and a series of interdisciplinary arts social events. Russell is director of Artquest, a member of the board at Block 336 and City and Guilds of London Art School, and an advisor for PRAKSIS, an artist residency in Oslo.

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