Defining Space: Making Studios Work

On Monday 6 June, Smiths Row hosted a one day forum which focussed on studio provision for artists in the East of England. The project was undertaken in response to what we are aware is becoming an increasingly critical issue affecting the region’s arts ecology: a scarcity of affordable, accessible and sustainable studios, the impact of which is being felt  not only on individual practices but collectively as a network of artists who felt unable to forge a critical, supportive mass.

The research’s starting premise is that shared production facilities are vital anchors and facilitators of a thriving visual arts ecology and acknowledge the valuable contribution artists make to each other, to communities and society. Our proposal is to utilise the infrastructure of the railway, unlocking the potential of currently disused buildings to provide such facilities along the Ipswich to Cambridge rail line. These studios and their activity are imagined as the central components of an ambitious and artistic programme connecting artists and communities with and through the railway.

Although on-going, research to date research has been conducted through a combination of widespread consultations with local artists, focussed meetings with sympathetic organisations and analysis of existing research. Our major consultation event,  was titled ‘Defining Space: Making Studios Work’: a day-long forum which brought together artists, studio managers and other arts professionals to discuss current vacuums in artist workspaces to understand in artists’ needs  and to interrogate our proposal in greater detail.

Through a key note introduction, artist-led sessions, a case study, panel discussion and Q&A sessions, the forum aimed to shed further light on;

  • What a studio means for artists

  • The role of studios in developing audiences for contemporary art

  • The potential impact of studios on arts organisations and their programme

  • The relationship between studios and dynamic, sustainable communities

Forum Findings- Some Reflections In Bullet Points

Whilst understanding the nuts and bolts of the practical aspects of the facilities and resources we could provide, from a curatorial perspective, it was important to specifically consider an overall vision for how they could operate. In sum, the forum was constructed to consider a philosophy to guide a best practice approach rather than solely logistical details.

 

What a Studio Means and Does

  • Questions arose as to the appropriateness of the use of the term ‘studio’. Does it reduce all of the dynamic activity that happens in and around studios to tangible production-based outcomes?

  • There was consensus that the term ‘studio’ is best understood defined as  a space to make, to think, to learn and be social. In general, all four facets  are important- to relative degrees to an artist’s practice- but that successful studio provision should enable all of these processes

  • The issue of a paucity of studio provision needs to be addressed quickly to prevent artists missing out on opportunities to develop their practice and undertake available opportunities.  Whilst it is a regional challenge, the situation is likely to worsen based on the effects on depleting studio space in London, predicted at 35% over the next 5 years.

  • Having a studio is critical to the identity of an artist and is indicative of being a professional person through a designated ‘workspace’. It is a space to develop ‘professional literacy’ by hosting other arts professionals.

 

Artist- Studio- Arts Organisation Dynamics

  • Long-term and mutually supportive relationships between artist and studio providers/ organisation are foundational to artistic development but are often lacking

  • Issues of semi/rural isolation and a lack of peer support initiatives need to be tackled by creating structures of programmes that offer artists the opportunity for discussion, mentoring, self-organisation and collaborations.

  • A common space for studio holders to socialise should lie at the heart of the network of artist studios, both physically and programmatically. The social space should strive to encourage discussion and acts as a place to self-organise

Vacuums in Current Provision

  • The area in and around Cambridge was viewed as being a particular area of key concern. High property prices where vacant land or buildings are being redeveloped as housing, creates a dearth in potential, available space for studios. The impact of this includes long waiting lists and highly competitive process

  • Artists noted that studio providers have a tendency to ‘import’ artists currently living and working in London to the East both through offering studio provision and through residency programmes. A number of artists stated that they felt ‘undervalued and overlooked’ by arts organisations in the region; “I want organisations in the East to create opportunities and recognition for artists from the East- to be regional and proud”.

This forum project was supported by Arts Council England, Babergh and Mid-Suffolk Council and with in-kind support from St Edmundsbury Borough Council. Thank you to all those who ran sessions on the day, to those who contributed through their attendance.

 

10.30: Keynote, Artist Studios and Communities, Prof. Geoff Crossick, Chair of Crafts Council, Director, The Cultural Value Project

11.00 -Breakout Session, Artist- Studio-Institution Dynamics: Types of Approaches, Instigated by Helen Stratford

1.00 – 2.00: Case Study, Outpost Gallery and Studios, Kaavous Clayton

2.00- 3.00: Breakout Session, What does a Studio Mean for Artists? Led by Georgie Grace

3.30 – 4.15: Panel Discussion and Q&A, The Future of Studio Provision, Moderated by Kath Wood, Independent Curator

  • Duncan Smith, Director ACAVA Studios and National Federation of Artist Studio Providers

  • Nina Coulson, Artist and Co-Founder Movement Gallery, Worcester Station

  • Natalie Pace, Curator, Smiths Row

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Working Together: The Impact of Artists on Institutions. Organised by Wysing Arts Centre on behalf of Contemporary Visual Arts Network, East