Thursday, 17 January 2019

Organisational Development: A Visit to Kerry Campbell at Bloc Projects, Sheffield

Rebecca Davies meets with Kerry Campbell, Public Programmes Curator, at Bloc Projects, Sheffield.

Rebecca Davies, Sandwich 2018.

I meet with Kerry at Bloc Projects, where she is Public Programmes Curator. Part 2 of the 3 visits I am doing to people I believe to be hosting exciting, inclusive, rad activity as part of their arts organisations.

It’s a clear, crisp day in Sheffield – a city I am really enjoying spending a bit more time in recently. I can’t help but draw parallels between Sheffield and Stoke whenever I visit. There are very few parallels really, other than a biggy – the post industrial one. Sheffield seems to have owned and overcome this, it feels progressive – like Glasgow felt when I studied there just over 10 years ago.

Stoke is different: there’s less money here than Sheffield (though there is still high poverty in Sheff) and in Stoke there still seems to be a nostalgia for those past industries – and I find that tough sometimes, because whilst I recognise it’s important to be sensitive about this history, I think the future is more important …… sidetracked there! Back to Bloc Projects, and most importantly, Kerry.

Kerry Campbell got in touch with me in March 2018. She had recently moved from her hometown of Luton – something she mentioned in her email to me, which I instantly picked up on, because her introduction was personal – and where she came from was important to her.

We had a long phone conversation – something that rarely happens after an invitation to work with a gallery/arts institution. She was interested in who I was and why I make work, and we generously shared stories before deciding on a date for my performance and talk with Bloc Projects as part of the SALON 18 programme, this season entitled The Local: Conversation, Representation and Collective Organisation.

Fast>>forward to October 18.  Where this time I had contacted her to share her approach to running this programme. We meet in the reception of the gallery – it’s some time after Frieze, where Kerry has been running tours; "focusing on the fair’s new invitational section – social work. Dedicated to just a selection of underrepresented female artists of the 80s and 90s." We share a laugh about how it’s important to try and maintain a sense of humour during the extravagance of Frieze, and try and take all the credit card waving elite with a pinch of salt. That environment feels a million miles away from the artist led, or from reality for that matter.

Kerry is energetic, bold and hungry – she’s a total asset to the art world - an industry and culture she constantly challenges, largely through her programming (also see the Luton based TMT Projects she’s running.) And it feels great to see her again, to discuss work and listen to how she approaches her role at Bloc Projects. (Please see previous writing about Clare Charles – similar feels here, meeting to share and support each other – not just for research!)

Bloc is run by two people: Kerry and Dave (director David McLeavy). Bloc Projects is a gallery space, programme and artists' studios – the gallery and studios however are separate entities. 

In front of Kerry is an unopened cheese and ham sandwich from Sainsbury’s. "Have you eaten? Do you want it? Do you want half at least? Go on have half – then we can have a proper lunch together later."

Kerry curates and delivers SALON 18 – a multi disciplinary programme running parallel to (but not necessarily in response to) the exhibitions at Bloc. It is inclusive and free and aims to be sociable and educational. It invites arts practitioners to share their practice through talks, events and workshops. Kerry also aims to keep it regular, with something happening either in the gallery or offsite every Wednesday. It aims to support emerging to mid-career artists, but also "opens up to a broader public." The programme seems to have a great relationship with the university and is reaching out to other arts and community orgs across the city. 

Kerry and I agree on and are equally passionate about a number of things – largely representation and the lack of it in the arts (or the overrepresentation of the select, privileged few), but also coiffed (landlady) hair. Sitting at the desk of Bloc, I am reminded that Kerry embodies landlady qualities: she doesn’t take any shit and she feels a responsibility to people, making sure they’re looked after and having a good time. I don’t doubt these are important qualities when running a public arts programme. 

"… My proposed evolution for Bloc Projects next year is that the public programme - just because that’s what I have authority over - becomes more horizontal, more peer led, and intrinsic to it is the supported professional development of young women in the arts."

I’m picking up some important themes to bring across to any plans for AirSpace gallery’s public programme – it’s the porousness I touched on in my visit to Clare Charles in Cardiff. An inclusive, horizontal, peer led approach that seems, from the outside, to be working well for Bloc. 

A week or so later at the Social Art Summit, we bump into Rich at the pub – the man who first set up Bloc Studios years ago. He’s a proper geezer who seems really proud of what Bloc Projects is doing, but recognises how difficult it can be to maintain a working space and programme when you are also an artist – something we’re trying to get our heads round at AirSpace, but we can only learn through doing. 

My discussion with Kerry highlights that we’re not miles apart in what we’re doing already. Except, I do it as an artist – as part of my artistic practice, rather than with a gallery. So how can I do this without it feeling like a job on top of my practice? If AirSpace Gallery is truly artist led, then perhaps I am a long term artist-in-residence delivering a peer-led, inclusive, multi disciplinary, sociable programme – like what I do anyway as the landlady of The Oasis Social Club, or as part of The Portland Inn Project?

Next time I meet Kerry the plan is to put the world to rights in a nail salon at the indoor market round the corner from Bloc Projects.  
My nails will spell out 
C – O – L – L – A – B – O – R – A - T

And Kerry will take the E  for the team of us all working together to figure out how best to make art more public, more diverse, more inclusive and more collaborative.

With thanks to Kerry Campbell and Bloc Projects.

Visit Bloc Projects:

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Research Visit Report: Organisational Development, Arcade + Campfa, Cardiff.

Rebecca Davies meets with Clare Charles, Director at Arcade + Campfa, Cardiff.

(Welsh Cake) Rebecca Davies, 2018.

I first met Clare back in 2014 when she bought my ice cream van for a hundred quid. I had put a callout on Facebook for someone to take this vehicle off me: "she’s a beauty and had a good innings as a library, maypole and rave venue, but her heart is slowing down (and my energy at the time trying to store her somewhere in London) and needs someone or a group to breathe life into her."

Clare got in touch.

Clare was working for Made in Roath at the time and the van went on to be a May Day float, bar and temporary space at Spit and Sawdust – a skate park and arts programme in Cardiff.

In the Spring of this year, I got in touch with Clare: we had seen each other a couple of times at workshops or events I had run in London since 2014. She was working as Project Manager with Metal, Southend. Given her experience working with Engage, Ffoto Gallery and on various projects in Wales, I was keen to link with Clare as part of my research for AirSpace Gallery. She responded immediately – but to say that she was leaving Metal and going to be Director of an artist led space, back in Cardiff.

So, on Wednesday 3 October, I made my way out to see Clare in Cardiff. Arriving at the station I was reminded what a bloody big city it is: the last time I had visited was for my friend Phoebe’s 21st – about twenty of us rolled in and out of a Wetherspoons pub to watch the rugby (and on that trip I think Cardiff graced me with two new experiences – rugby and snakebites).

I met Clare at Arcade, which incidentally is in a shopping arcade in the centre of Cardiff. Surrounded by a sea of commercial businesses, Arcade sits in the belly of a brightly lit metal and glass building. It’s main unit sits next door to New Look and opposite a hair salon. Directly in front are two massage chairs. "It takes me back to our unit at The Elephant, Clare!" I exclaim when I arrive. The music blaring from the salon competes with the muzak playing from the mall’s tannoy speakers. Clare had visited the project I ran for years with Eva Sajovic from the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre.

An exhibition is being installed, and Clare introduces me to the artist and walks me through the space. Out the back is an office (Clare’s mostly) and up/down some stairs there is a residency space (the annual residency is six months, the artist finally sharing their work in an exhibition). Clare leads us into another unit – Arcade’s second space, Campfa, which also has a show being installed. "What are your partnerships like?" I ask, "Links with the university are great – the Fine Art course use the gallery for their shows and treat it as their own space." Being the Director, Clare runs the space, leading on all the programming that takes place; she is supported by one part-time Producer and occasionally people volunteer their support (volunteers are associates and associates have an exhibition once a year).

Arcade is currently in its eighth year as an artist led gallery and residency programme. There is a new show every three weeks – which was first set out to ‘keep things fresh’. I’m a bit shocked, "but that must be exhausting Clare!" The two of us are pretty tired and hungry, so continue the conversation in the Wetherspoons round the corner from where Clare lives – walking distance from the gallery. We talk excitedly about work we’ve been doing over the last few years, projects that have been met with challenges, people who have supported us, institutions who have disappointed us and pitfalls we have had to overcome. The more we talk, the more I realise we’ve both needed this. It feels like support!**

**I keep banging on about this, but feeling like someone’s ‘got your back’ is really important to me. Personally and professionally. It’s about trust, and it’s about feeling like you’re supported enough in the work to take risks and be bold. This, I think, strengthens the artist led.

Everyone is trying to protect what’s important to them right now – that’s a standard result of a shitty social and economic environment. I am trying to protect and champion the arts, because I think it’s rad, powerful and can change shit for the better, if that’s what people want. And I think through doing this organisation development, we are trying to protect an arts space – AND the artist led.

Good arts spaces are permeable – to their locality and community.

This is something that Clare recognises from experience, but also wants Arcade to do more of – permeate. In February 2019, things will be a little different at Arcade/Campfa, in a bid to activate the space more and widen their community. "It’s been a remit of artists to be centred if people hover at the gallery’s entrance – it has always been up to that person to enter. But I’m trying to shift this." In addition to some great pre-existing activity, such as critiques for volunteers (often students) and volunteer socials, the plan is for the gallery to introduce something more permanent, that’s part of the space: a workshop and library. This programme would be curated by an artist, supported by Clare and the Producer. "There would be wifi and tables, and space for people to come and work." The residency would also use it as a space to share work and interact with people.

During my short stay in Cardiff, Clare arranged for meetings with Becca Thomas of Spit N Sawdust and the organisers of Made in Roath (Clare is also on the lead team for this great arts initiative/community and annual arts festival). Some great conversation ensues around being truly artist led, the notion of a gallery being ‘outdated’ but how a space can be used to help develop an organisation. We discuss operating as a space for people to be heard – keeping things small and helping to diversify a programme. But we also highlight how Arts Council England’s pressure for professionalisation of organisations is really just about turning organisations into institutions.

I sit with Clare at an outdoor cafe in the centre of Cardiff, about to get my train. And we reflect whilst drinking tea and eating welsh cakes. Clare has only been director of Arcade since April 2018, there’s a lot to be done – but dammnnn she’s on it. And damn we’ve got our work cut out. My first research trip has shown me this isn’t just research: this is an exchange of ideas and a rallying of support for the invaluable artist led.

With thanks to Clare Charles and Arcade + Campfa, Cardiff.

For more info, visit

Rebecca, Clare (on left) and the ice cream van.

Monday, 15 October 2018

Research Visit Report: Organisational Development, KARST, Plymouth

Selina Oakes meets with Donna Howard, Business Director at KARST, Plymouth.

KARST is the largest independent contemporary art venue in Plymouth: it is both a public gallery space and an artist studio complex. Founded in 2012, it has made extraordinary tracks in a mere-six years – from humble beginnings, it is currently a National Portfolio Organisation for the period 2018-2022 and a recently registered as a charity. In travelling to its home – a one-storey, ex-warehouse in the Millbay area of the city – I was able to comprehend the true scale of its achievements and contributions to the expansion of Plymouth's creative community. Following a busy few days of Plymouth Art Weekender (28-30 September, a three-day visual arts festival in Plymouth), KARST's Business Director, Donna Howard, is energetic as ever – it's clear that her passion and enthusiasm for people and 'getting things done,' is one of the organisation's major drivers.

I Am My Own Primal Parent, Promo, 2018. Courtesy of KARST.


We spend time with KARST's current show, I AM MY OWN PRIMAL PARENT – a group exhibition programmed as part of Plymouth's new cultural addition, The Atlantic Project (a pilot contemporary art Biennial). The opening night saw a fantastic crossover of audiences: here, the artistic community overlapped with individuals of all ages and disciplines. Howard speaks about the evening's energising atmosphere, and how she's committed to maintaining KARST's reputation of being a test-bed for experimentation; producing “cutting-edge” projects which challenge traditional boundaries. In our conversation, she quotes a student, asking her what makes KARST “cutting-edge?” Her response: "we're cutting-edge because we encourage artists to push boundaries of their work to point where risk taking is identified, encouraged and supported." It's refreshing to engage in a frank conversation: in Howard's eyes, nothing is impossible.

In 2012, Plymouth was a different place: it was post-industrial, like many cities, but it was also struggling to foster an environment in which graduates may find stability, post-university. In 2011, Plymouth hosted the British Art Show 7 – the first time the city had staged a cross-venue event on this scale. Howard describes it as a turning-point in the region's creative output. Following this, Howard and Carl Slater rented the Millbay property at a pepper-corn rate and invested a lot of their own time and minor finances into renovating the building into a gallery and studio space. It's impressive: Howard says how they were selfish in the first 12-18 months in terms of KARST core programme: they had to be to transform the space into a project really worth striving for. And it's paid off: KARST's Brutalist, concrete box is a modest exterior to the hive of activity within.

I Am My Own Primal Parent, KARST Main Space, 2018.

Inside, skylights illuminate a white-walled gallery, providing an expansive, well-light space for exhibitions and performances. Opposite is “The Pit” - a test-bed space in what appears to be an ex-garage or bay-loading area. Howard reflects on CLAIRE FONTAINE's I AM YOUR VOICE (2017) in which a matchstick map of Great Britain was installed and ignited. Titled UK (Burnt/Unburnt) 2011-17, the piece is a prime example of the risks that KARST takes: it was a huge gamble to light an artwork in an in-door space; it paid off, without the fire-service having to be called, and enabled CLAIRE FONTAINE to experiment; to take risks – and the audience to experience an element of danger in their Brexit-brink condition. Programmed as part of We The People Are The Work by PVAPG (Plymouth Visual Art Programming Group), the show also illustrates how the region's arts organisations are working together, supporting each other.

UK Burnt/Unburnt, 2011/2017, Claire Fontaine. Photo: Jamie Woodley.


KARST has come a long way since 2012. It has changed from being a Limited Company to a registered charity – as a charity, KARST is granted a charity rate relief of 80% on its property. Much of this transition has been aided by Howard's prior experience in partnership working but also in her astute attitude of seeking help from different individuals. KARST has gradually incremented its Arts Council England BIDS from £10,000 to £98,000 across five years and is now in the process of securing funds for capital development. Howard is sharp when it comes to bid-writing: in recent years, external consultancy fees for Business Advice have been written into funding applications – this financial support has enabled her to seek additional advice regarding KARST's business plan.

In receiving external consultancy regarding KARST's budgeting and operations, Howard has been able to implement suggestions from an independent Business Advisor. For example, KARST's human resources have been rearranged following the realisation that people's roles were overlapping. Now, clear job descriptions in which everyone leads in one area ensures that there is clarity and no overlap in operations – i.e. time and resources are maximised. Currently, there a seven staff-members at KARST covering Artistic Direction, Operations and Engagement, Technical, Marketing and Programme. There are also three gallery interns and a pool of volunteers.

Talent Development

We speak about KARST's invaluable partnerships and the relationships that Howard, in particular, has built over the last six years. A key relationship is the one KARST has built with Plymouth University and Plymouth College of Art as part of its talent development initiatives. Every year, KARST hosts two Graduate Residencies – one for a university graduate, and another for a college graduate. Both run concurrently for five months and include studio space, three critiques, mentoring and a culminative exhibition in The Pit. KARST encourages all of its Graduate Residents to feed back to their peers and respective institutions through talks and mentoring: this not only reinforces the bridge between organisations but also provides students with examples of 'success stories' – of graduates practicing and beginning to make a living from their work in the city.

KARST also develops talent through its Test Space strand: here, the main gallery is used by students to push the boundaries of their creative practice. This benefits KARST as it feeds into their annual partnership agreement income but it also embeds the organisation within a young arts ecology – equally, it benefits both Plymouth College of Art & Plymouth University by becoming part of its offer to incoming students. As with all relationships, the partnerships which Howard and KARST have built are about trust and communication.

KARST Exterior in the Millbay Area of Plymouth.

Artistic Community

Alongside its exhibition spaces, KARST has a total of nine studios – current artists include Carl Slater, Graham Guy Robinson, Rosie King, Clare Thornton, Keith Harrison and Paul Hillon, the latter of whom is also KARST's Head Technician. Within this tight-knit community – the studio complex spans 2000 square feet – KARST has established a dynamic and professional work environment: it maintains the quality and dynamism of its artists by requesting a proposal from each tenant every six months. Howard explains that this formality ensures that KARST Studios remains a thriving part of the organisation. The KARST website states: “Integral to the development of KARST, studio artists play an important part in contributing to the organisation’s growing presence.” Howard also highlights that their studio artists benefit from critiques and one-to-ones with artists and curators exhibiting in the main gallery space.

KARST has no official public programme; instead it maximises the value of its visiting artists – Howard says these interactions “fuels the hunger to create.” Within KARST Studios, is its Residency programme: it regularly invites international artists to work in designated spaces; but it is an area up for expansion in the future. It launched it's official Artist Residency Programme earlier this year with artist Mike Ballard. Unlike other artist-led spaces, KARST doesn't have an Associates Scheme – PAC Home currently fulfills this role, however recent changes in its funding may shift the responsibility of this city and regional-wide membership network to another party.

With regards to Outreach and Engagement, led by Angela Hilton, KARST works with groups which already exist rather than creating new initiatives. In being situated in a deprived ward in Plymouth, the organisation is well-placed to build connections with the nearby Homeless Hostel, the Millfield Trust and Plymouth School of Creative Arts (the first free arts school in the UK, sponsored by Plymouth College of Art).

Paul Hillon, Presence In Absence (Detail). 
Welded Steel, 250cm x 148x148cm, 2018.

Mike Ballard, Laying in the cut.
2018 KARST Gallery.


Judging by Howard's own personal vigour, KARST is constantly on the move – its forward-thinking attitude has facilitated a quick and stable progression. We speak about the importance of the digital and how an investment in these practices is crucial – particularly sound and gaming. She's been working closely with i-DAT, a Plymouth University research-strand dedicated to new technologies. Lead-member Birgitte Aga has recently joined KARST's Board of Trustees. Howard highlights the value of having a range of skill-sets on the Board - “they can advise with knowledge and experiences from their specialisms and contribute to the direction that KARST may take in the future.” She's interested in how individuals working in business and design can contribute to the development of KARST.

The Future: Expansion and BAS9

KARST draws on notions of 'smart-working' to support itself. It has received support from local businesses such as Leyland – a company which provided materials for some of KARST's renovations (Howard mentions the 'community budget' that most businesses have to aid initiatives in their area.) Recently, KARST has been working on its future identity through plans for a major expansion. Howard shows me the project's Feasibility Study, RIBA stages 0-1, which envisions a new glass entrance to the building, new studio spaces and an entire new floor. The benefit of being housed inside a box, Howard reflects, is that you can add things to it. KARST's flat roof, which has been privy to briefly-lived thoughts of a garden, will be developed into a second floor: here, further exhibition and test spaces will enable KARST's curatorial trajectory to grow, while commercial spaces will provide the organisation with a steady income. A platform lift will also be installed to make KARST a fully accessible building.

Marcin Dudek, Sing When You're Winning at KARST, 2016. Courtesy of KARST.

As a whole, Plymouth is a dynamic and fast-flourishing city for the creative arts: KARST is growing from strength to strength and municipal gallery The Box is on the horizon. It's a city which appears to be forward-looking and keen on relationship-building – qualities which Howard brings to KARST. In visiting PAW and The Atlantic Project too, I experience PVAPG's work in action – both projects are part of Horizon, a two year programme funded through Arts Council England's Ambition for Excellence fund and led by Plymouth Culture. This partnership (between The Gallery at Plymouth College of Art, KARST, Peninsula Arts at Plymouth University, Plymouth Arts Centre and The Box) represents contemporary art's resilience and potential for change in a region which, not so long ago, was struggling to sustain and build upon its creative community.

KARST, 22 George Place, Stonehouse, Plymouth, PL13NY. 

I AM MY OWN PRIMAL PARENT runs until 3 November. For more details, visit:

AirSpace Gallery would like to thank KARST.