Wednesday, 21 November 2012

In search of an Artist's Studio


I attended a talk in late October on 'Finding and Managing Property' sponsored by the National Federation of Artists Studio Providers at Phoenix, Brighton. Phoenix is the largest artist-led arts organisation in the south east of England located near Brighton city centre, it has 100+ studio spaces, a project space for hire, a gallery and arts education programme. The talk was given by London-based studios provider ACAVA which manage over 20 buildings across London of varying size. They are one of several studio providers operating across London, an internet search on 'artist studios London' will give pages of listings, from small groups to the large organisations, with prices from 'affordable' to the high end commercial rates. You get what you pay for, the more 'affordable' the less heat, light, floor space, and access there may be. But at least there are lots of them to choose from, so if you live in London chances are good you can find one you could afford and get to by public transport. Now try doing an internet search for 'artist studios Berkshire UK' and note the difference. Indicative of the situation is a recent posting on the Berkshire Artists Network Hello, I'm an American artist. We just moved to Berkshire in August, I'm looking for studio space ...”. Not very promising as over a month later there still hadn't been a single response.

The largest studio group in Berkshire is located in Reading, it is OPENHAND OPENSPACE (OHOS). OHOS provides affordable studio and exhibition space for 15 artists located in west Reading. Since its creation in 1980 in a former military keep its studios and exhibition spaces have been used by well over 100 artists, including Cornelia Parker, Paula Rego and Andy Goldsworthy according to their web site. They have an associate member scheme which allows regional artists to hire out their project/exhibition space at reduced rates but they have no available studios. The former military keep is an interesting building, though it offers limited access to some studios, little natural light, and is cold in the winter. But the studios are affordable, there's an active network of artists who sponsor an education programme and hold regular exhibitions in and around the town adding a valuable cultural element to Reading. Unfortunately the building is in serious need of major repairs. OHOS is working with Reading Council to gain funding for a secure future, but if that doesn't materialise soon the studios may close in the very near future.

OPENHAND OPENSPACE Studios, Reading and NEW GREENHAM ARTS, Newbury

The second complex is also located in somewhat unique premises, an outbuilding of the former RAF Greenham Common Airbase in west Berkshire. New Greenham Arts were established in 1998 and are part of the Corn Exchange, Newbury. They have studio spaces for 10 artists, with a large exhibition area, an education programme, and an active artists group. The studios are affordable, of varying size, reasonable access, and good light. The drawback is you need to have a car to get there as its a 10 min drive from Newbury. There are no spaces currently available but they are starting a residency programme for recent graduates giving a year's free studio space.

The third studio group is managed by ReOrsa set-up in 2011 in a vacant shop in Bracknell town centre offering studios for 8 artists as well as the exhibition space Gallery@49. Thanks to the landlord and the local council the large studios are very affordable, in an easy to get to location, but are cold in the winter. There are no vacancies as the studios will be demolished in the planned regeneration of Bracknell town centre beginning very soon. Furthering my search I came across a few small groups that have pooled resources to share a space here or there across the county. Shinfield artist Tom Cartmill lost his previous 1 man studio to development plans for new housing and took up a new space with two applied artists. He's now in an outbuilding of a farm, lots of space, affordable, but his paints freeze in the winter and there is the threat of yet another housing development on the horizon.

ReOrsa Studios, Bracknell and The Rear Door Studio of artist Tom Cartmill, Shinfield 

Not surprising then that I discovered many artists in the region make do with the 'home' studio, that's anything from clearing the kitchen table to the spare bedroom, or if your able, a purpose built outbuilding in the back garden. I visited artist Hildegunn Gravdal's home studio which was about the nicest and warmest set-up I've seen, but many artists may not have the funds to cover the purchase and set-up costs and/or a garden of sufficient size, especially recent grads. And for many artists there is the desire to be in a community of other artists, a support network that facilitates creative things to happen.

So it is a dire situation for artists seeking studios in the 'Grey Zone' but why should this matter to anyone other than the artists? What is meant by affordable? ACME artist studio providers in London say “The vast majority of non-commercial artists do not earn enough from their art practice to afford a studio at open market rents in addition to a separate place to live. Many artists support their practice by working in education, training and community development, encouraging innovation and creativity across the social and regeneration agendas. If artists are to continue to provide maximum cultural and community benefit, they need space in which to work at a rent they can afford.” Ask an artist what is affordable and of course the answer varies widely, the NFASP 2010 survey of the affordable studios sector showed that the average ‘inclusive’ rent for a studio nationally was £6.80 per square foot, per year. Many artists in the 'Grey Zone' say a monthly ‘inclusive’ rent of £150 is the maximum they can afford, £75 to £100 was more the average.

In our present age of austerity, with cuts in Arts Council funding, cuts from local councils in all areas of the arts, and recent news of cutting the arts in education, non-commercial visual artists in the 'Grey Zone' who mostly survive through part-time teaching in either arts centres or schools are going to struggle to maintain a viable studio practice no matter what the cost. There may be lots of studios in London but out here in the 'Grey Zone' with no available, affordable, studios for those artists wanting them the 'Grey Zone' will be very dull and dark indeed. With lots and lots of empty office buildings around here what we urgently need is a property developer philanthropist who believes in the visual arts and is willing to work with the regions artists to create a viable, affordable, long-term artists studio complex. So if you know of any, drop me an email, I'd be happy to discuss!

Sunday, 4 November 2012

'The Dying Sea' an installation by Dorothea Reid

Extreme weather, that's what the world has been experiencing these past few years, what with hurricanes and droughts, extraordinary temperatures and record rainfall, even hardened skeptics should begin to give climate change some credence.  And if Mother Nature wasn't doing enough on her own to alert us to the destruction, we have over-population attributing to globalisation and food shortages making matters worse. It's enough to make you want to bury your head in the sand, but preferably, to make an effort in whatever way you can to change your own behaviour and encourage others to do the same.  Small actions can grow into large movements.  Artists are often taking the lead on these difficult subjects, trying to open our eyes and minds to topics or concerns we may otherwise overlook or want to forget, making us think afresh.

One such artist is Buckinghamshire based Dorothea Reid and her ongoing ceramic installation work entitled 'The Dying Sea'.  She states that "the sea is absorbing half the carbon dioxide produced by humans over the past 200 years, resulting in increased acidity which attacks and kills shellfish, plankton, and coral at the base of the marine food chain. Coral reefs are also being destroyed by destructive fishing practices and tourism.  The issue of climate change can be seen clearly in what is happening to coral and marine life."

Her recent exhibition of this body of work in Gallery@49 in Bracknell town centre had as it's centre piece a suspended hanging of what seemed like hundreds of dead, ghostly white, corals. At the base of the work was a large mirror reflecting the hanging above it, giving the impression of one looking down into the descending seabed.  White was the dominant colour throughout the work in the show, white being the colour of sun bleached dead corals. Placed around the gallery were numerous collections of gathered plant like pieces, many were fine porcelain ceramic objects made from dead plants that echo the shape and textures of corals. Near the front window of the gallery was a table arranged as a scientific research bench, complete with petri dishes and notebook, and dozens of coral like pieces in various stages of decay.

The exhibition was artistically beautiful with its quiet presentation of destruction and loss.  I left it feeling in awe of the detail and craftsmanship on show, but angry at what humanity is doing to the planet and the creatures that inhabited it long before us.  And very sad that future generations may only experience the beauty of the coral reefs in exhibitions like this one, the creatures in the sea will have long since died.

Works from 'The Dying Sea' by Dorothea Reid