Art Along the Line: A Case Study for Engage Journal 40

Art Along the Line: A Case Study for Engage Journal 40

‘The a golden thread that connects our towns and cities. It has the potential to reinvigorate our communities, to support regeneration and generate local employment.’

Claire Perry, former UK Rail Minister, Rail Sustainability Development Principles, 2016

As the funding landscape within the arts sector remains uncertain and subject to shifting priorities, arts organisations are tasked with finding ways to become increasingly resilient, sustainable and reach more diverse audiences. This challenging context calls for reflection so that individually – as practitioners or organisations – we are able to respond to the conditions we operate within and collectively are better equipped to seize control over the future direction of our valuable sector. 

The effects of this landscape have been keenly felt by Smiths Row, a visual arts organisation based in the Suffolk. From 1972, the organisation formerly known as Bury St Edmunds Art Gallery until a rebrand in 2010, provided a resource for artists, makers and  audience through a more traditional kunsthalle programme of exhibitions, commissions and education. For decades our home was the historic former theatre, The Market Cross, designed by Robert Adam, a renowned British neoclassical architect. Artists, audiences and staff valued the Market Cross’ elegant architecture and favourable location but its position on an upper floor of the building limited visibility and audience access. Consequently, from 1994 the gallery worked in a range of partnerships on offsite projects to increase opportunities for artists and broaden audiences, including the National Trust, St Edmundsbury Borough Council’s Parks Department, West Suffolk Hospital and Greater Anglia Railways, with artists’ work on trains across the network. Smiths Row was also concerned about the site’s potential for further income-generating services. 

When the local authorities St Edmundsbury Borough Council and Suffolk County Council announced they were cutting Smiths Row’s funding in 2015, remaining in this location was no longer viable. Anticipating these changes, in 2014 we had developed a new organisational model and proposition for arts infrastructure, rooted in the physicality of the railways. Funding from Arts Council England secured in January 2015 allowed us to explore the viability of this vision and a successful application to Big Lottery’s Local Sustainability Fund enabled us to undertake more in-depth research into the needs of disadvantaged artists and audiences along the Ipswich-Cambridge rail line. 

This case study outlines Smiths Row’s proposal for  art activity along the Ipswich-Cambridge rail line, explores historical and current precedents of artists working with the rail industry and suggest ways to move these relationships forward. Writing this case study presents us with a platform to appraise our journey so far, consider strengths and weakness of cross-sectorial relationships and disseminate the knowledge we have gained for wider benefit. 
Progress and pride: the emergence of the railways in the UK Our railways have a unique place in English cultural, economic and social history. Indeed, we can proudly lay claim to possessing the oldest railway network in the world. From the emergence in the early 19th century to the subsequent boom in the 1840s, trains became synonymous with modernity and freedom.

Greater industrialisation and opportunities for social mobility came with them. 
Artists were quick to identify the new possibilities embodied by the railways. Almost immediately they became a source of inspiration for the avant-garde, followed by the Futurists, who interpreted trains as a symbol of vitality and potency. During the 1920s and ‘30s leading British artists were employed to design marketing posters and carriage prints for the rail industry, providing an invaluable source of income during the recession and a legacy of iconic images. Today these live on in reproductions often used to promote cultural tourism. The new social and cultural possibilities that the railways represented in this period are qualities that underpin our proposal for working alongside them: reimagined and redefined for contemporary arts audiences and rail users alike. 

Today, in addition to the role of the government’s designated Department for Transport, the full scale of organisations and bodies contributing to the development and delivery of rail services is complex and highly nuanced, creating a matrix of agendas, approaches and working practices. Private train companies own the trains and are tasked with running them. They go through a competitive, labour intensive and expensive franchise bidding process in order to secure the contracts. This process requires bidders to set out their operational plan, which spans timetabling, servicing, passenger satisfaction and community engagement. It was within the context of the most recent franchise bid covering the Ipswich-Cambridge rail line that Smiths Row’s vision for a potential collaboration was first conceived. By contrast, the infrastructure of the railways, including the track and most rail buildings, is publicly owned and run by Network Rail. In East Anglia, the rail line we are proposing to work along and the station buildings are leased to the train operator by Network Rail on a 99 year lease. 

It is Smiths Row’s belief that the latent cultural potential of the railways lies in these rail-affiliated buildings. Largescale ownership of historic property is usually associated with the government and the church. The railway industry is often overlooked as one of the largest owners of historic buildings in the UK, with more than 1,700 of these being listed. Most of these buildings are non-operational and have been empty for years. Such buildings are a burden to the rail industry; costly to maintain, sites of vandalism and increasingly attracting concern from heritage organisations. The formation of the Railway Heritage Trust in 1985 by British Rail testifies to the latter. Currently, the high costs associated with restoration for commercial tenants prevent more of the buildings being brought back in to use. We believe that through advocacy, cross-sectorial working and imaginative fundraising these challenges can be overcome. A major untapped resource, these buildings could be unlocked for creative and community use, forming crucial sites for artistic production and presentation.

Connecting artists and audience with and through the railway

In shaping Smiths Row’s vision, we have been working closely with public and private sector organisations in the rail industry to explore the potential of a mutually beneficial partnership. Our proposal connects artists and audiences with and through the railways via a programme of artistic activity and studio provision along the IpswichCambridge rail line. The redevelopment of two station buildings at the heart of the line, in Bury St Edmunds and Stowmarket, will create creative hubs comprising artists’ studios alongside event and education space. By harnessing the existing infrastructure of the railway and integrating artistic activity, we envisage an operational model which is flexible, scalable and transferrable for the wider arts sector. Not only could this approach provide possible solutions to sectorial challenges such as reaching strategic audiences and the ability to tackle national concerns regarding disappearing studio space, it offers an opportunity to redefine the railways as a new form of democratic, cultural space with embedded social value. 

The buildings at Stowmarket and Bury St Edmunds stations offer the potential for central sites of artistic activity. Both are grand Victorian buildings, prominently positioned in the stations’ facades, respectively have been empty for between 10 and22 years and need extensive restoration. Stowmarket Station offers the potential for the first phase of  the significant organisational transition and artists’ studios due to their relatively good condition and scale. Stowmarket is a well-connected and serviced station which includes direct trains to London Liverpool Street and the city of Norwich, the cultural centre of East Anglia.

The train line connects Smiths Row’s proposed sites, which are approximately 15 minutes apart. Both stations have strong commuter bases and high footfall meaning that the studios are in prime position for audiences and artists: Stowmarket’s footfall exceeds 950,000 a year whilst Bury St Edmunds exceeds 604,000. These figures are expected to rise with the predicted growth of  the towns. The locations present different opportunities and contexts for working with artists and audiences. Neither town currently has any dedicated studio space but has a high demand for space from artists and creatives. Cultural provision in Stowmarket is smaller than Bury St Edmunds but the local authority (Mid Suffolk and Babergh) shows a strong understanding of the benefits artistic activity  can bring, the role and potential of culture-led regeneration and how a strong artistic offer can become Stowmarket’s unique selling point in order to retain talent and drive growth.

Artists and the railways: industry-initiated change In the last decade, the notion of train stations as social and cultural spaces has gained considerable traction. Historical precedents of contemporary art deployed within the infrastructure of the trains, through posters and moquette seat fabric, has shifted distinctly towards the presentation of contemporary art projects within the frameworks  of the stations. As one would expect, much of  this programming occurs in London. Art on the Underground is the major commissioner and their example of site-specific projects is now finding form in other new major rail developments in the capital. A dedicated curatorial team are shaping projects for Crossrail’s Elizabeth line, for example. To date, the curators have confirmed partnerships with esteemed commercial galleries including Lisson, Victoria Miro, Sadie Coles HQ, White Cube and Gagosian to commission internationally significant new work  for six stations. 

Commissioning contemporary art in a rail context is part of wider rhetoric by the rail industry and those who govern it, of a drive to improve the passenger experience, become more community-focused and fulfil their duty to perform a broader social role in their locations. Over the last few years in particular, these idea have been evident in documents by key stakeholders such as Rail Delivery Group’s Vision for Stations: Nine Principles for the Future of Britain’s Stations (2015). Publications/2015-10_vision_for_stations.pdf   

In metropolitan areas of the UK, these principles are enshrined in stations’ sizeable commercial offerings and more visible cultural remits. The cost of creating or redeveloping large stations requires income generation through increased provision of retail, hotel and hospitality outlets. This approach is exemplified by the transformation of major London stations feeding into the East of England: at Kings Cross, St Pancras and Liverpool Street a train user may experience a farmer’s market, public art and events such as impromptu performances by well-known musicians Ed Sheeran or John Legend. The prevailing message of the capital’s larger stations is that their strong cultural offer means that rather than simply being a terminus, a point in a journey, they are in fact deserving of being considered destinations in their own right. 

Greater variety in facilities and amenities may improve the experience of the visitor to the station but the experience of the regular rail user is often  less satisfactory. Although passenger numbers have risen, the public image of the industry is often critical. High ticket fares and repeated disruption on some routes, especially those servicing commuters in and out of London, are cited as persistent causes of passenger frustration. The qualities first associated with the emergence of the railways can seem removed from today’s railway culture: in some  cases a disconnect between the reality of travelling by train and the rhetoric of the rail industry. In order to encourage art-rail partnerships in the future,  rail operators must be culturally-focused and community-minded, by collaborating with artists and arts professionals to translate a discourse into high quality programming. 

Social stations: artist-led change  

From the perspective of the rail industry as a whole, in order to create an equitable passenger experience across the country, the social and cultural services provided in the large, urban stations cannot remain  a preserve of the major cities. Thankfully, outside of England’s metropolitan centres, artist-led initiatives have been instrumental in establishing programmes of activity within rail buildings in diverse locations. The growth of this approach has occurred in a relatively short space of time, partly galvanised by regional devolution that gives local authorities more control over the services provided by rail franchisesThese projects have contributed to culture-led regeneration initiatives, and no doubt towards a change in perception of the broad, cultural potential of non-operational buildings amongst the art and  rail communities. 

Consultations through research trips in early 2016 took Smiths Row to Metal at Edge Hill Station in Liverpool, Platform A in Middlesbrough and Banner Repeater at Hackney Downs in London. Additional conversations took place with Movement at Worcester Foregate Station. We have also forged  a relationship with a new more local initiative,  Art Station in Saxmundham, Suffolk. Gradually Smiths Row is nurturing a network of likeminded organisations through regular dialogue, exchange and joint working. It was with real interest that we learnt from these organisations of their distinct visions, unique contexts and artistic foci. Varying in size and scale, they offer diverse resources and facilities; from formal gallery space with a commercial remit, to affordable studio provision, project/event spaces and reading rooms. Countering these artistic differences were commonalities amongst the organisations’ interest in working within a rail context. There is no denying that the space and opportunities offered by the number of empty rail buildings was significant; the natural flow of people through stations and the potentials for reaching diverse audiences was a key incentive and the unique context rail locations offered, with a renewal of interest in critical studies theories  such as ‘rhythmanalysis’ 1 creating additional rigour. This reasoning utterly echoed our own intrigue at Smiths Row in the possibilities of working along and around a rail line.
We are grateful to these organisations for sharing their knowledge and experience with a generosity  of spirit. Individually and as a movement, they have created important footprints for artists or organisations considering brokering public/private partnerships. As a result of their energy and foresight, firm foundations and strong precedents  for the development of relationships with this sector are in place. Solidifying them through formalising Smiths Row’s role in advocacy, knowledge sharing and collaborative working  is the next logical step

Connecting the past to the future: art in transition

This period of research and development has been challenging but ultimately rewarding. The Big Lottery funding was critical and enabled us to begin the crucial work of navigating a physical and psychological transition to a new model of working with more diverse artists and audiences. In the midst of organisational uncertainty, we relied on our instincts as well as new insights. Hindsight has made clear connections between our historical work with artists and the proposal taking shape: a mirror onto our past work has unquestionably given us greater clarity of purpose and focus. At the forefront of the vision was an extension of our work in 2013-15, which had explored durational and more embedded relationships through residencies and expanded artist support work.

The response to these projects had confirmed a need on behalf of  the artists and audiences for their continuation and was strengthened through additional research benchmarking regional need. We were mindful  that within the framework of this ‘expanded’ model, this work would be presented within a different context and testing seed projects in a location beyond Bury St Edmunds emerged as a priority. Given our ambition to develop Stowmarket Station House first, it made Mid Suffolk the natural home for this new activity. A three-strand programme, Smiths Row Connects, focusing on testing artist support initiatives, artists working with communities and developing talent was conceived and thanks to Arts Council England, will now be delivered across the summer of 2017. Smiths Row Connects is the first phase of creating an artistic programme that also exploits opportunities presented by the Department for Transport mission to build communities through the railway lines.

Creating a new democratic space for art through the railways: some reflections, conclusions and next steps In essence, what Smiths Row is proposing  echoes many other initiatives that operate at  the intersections of public/private space, cultural provision and commercial activity. Ours differs  due to the inherent potential for an innovative  and transferrable model that could be used by partners and stakeholders across the rest of the UK: one that is intrinsically linked to the infrastructure of the railways.

The strengths of the partnership lie in the implicit opportunities presented to address cross-sectorial issues and agendas on different registers; regional economic development and tourism, the perception of the transport sector, audience development for the visual arts and heritage and environmental sustainability needs. The very nature of this interdisciplinary model, however, means that the development to date  has not been without challenges. The working cultures are very different and it is down to us  to understand and treat those differences as opportunities for reciprocal learning and developing trust: the basis of every successful partnership.

Moving forward, the key considerations and areas of focus must be: 

Knowledge-sharing: understanding how to  access the relevant staff of a multi-agency rail industry, known for its matrix of bureaucracy,  makes instigating and sustaining communication lengthy. Sharing this information between art organisations working in a rail context would make organisations more efficient, build trust between  art/rail sectors and encourage collaboration.

Advocacy: our consultations have revealed concern on the part of the arts organisations operating from rail buildings that the benefits of their work were not understood by elements of the rail sectors. 

Standardisation: the franchising of the rail services means multiple companies are involved in its delivery and there is little standardisation regarding how arts-rail partnerships might be formed. A concise summary outlining the process agreed by the major operators could negate a sense of opacity and a ‘postcode lottery’ amongst those who wish to broker public/private relationships. 

Accountability: rhetoric about social stations and community agendas amongst the rail operators is evident: the practice less so. Again a collective approach would help ensure that rail users and communities across the network had a much better and more consistent experience. 

The future success of projects born from an art/rail partnership lies in the ability of each sector to listen, respect, trust and challenge one another’s working practices. Patience, an understanding of compromise and an awareness of the benefits of success and risks of failure on both sides will need to go hand-in-hand. If the mutual strengths and benefits can be harnessed, we believe there is potential to develop a sense of place within the railways: one of community which connects artists and audience and instills pride in all. 


This document is an extract from Engage 40: Civic role, public space, 2017, Barbara Dougan (Ed.), London: Engage, The National Association For Gallery Education. All contents © The Authors and Engage, unless otherwise

1. A method of analysing the rhythms of the train carriage and the impact on passengers to describe the complexities of experiences in the train carriage. Despite emerging in the 1930s, rythmanalysis has been given renewed focus in the work of Marxist sociologist and philosopher Henri Lefebvre.

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