Monday, 29 February 2016

AirSpace Gallery research visit - A-N Go and See: #3 Bloc Projects, Sheffield

In Spring this year (2016) AirSpace Gallery reaches a milestone in its history; a full decade of artist run activity. Reflecting on this is perhaps a useful starting point to approach our recent series of research visits. Through the A-N Go and See programme Anna Francis, Glen Stoker and myself visited spaces across the UK, to capture a snapshot of what stage in they are at in their development.
For my part I thought about returning to somewhere first visited in 2006 when we were at the very start of developing AirSpace. Now as then Sheffield provides a good comparison for Stoke-on-Trent. Both have gone through serious upheaval as their major industries have declined and both are similar in terms of geography within the country, Stoke is midway between two major centres, Birmingham and Manchester, and Sheffield between Leeds and Nottingham. In 2006 we found that Sheffield was at a point perhaps ten years ahead of Stoke-on-Trent in relation to the end of industry and regeneration schemes taking place, so I was interested to see how the passing of ten years had progressed, and how the changes to arts funding and the overall economic shift during that time had affected cultural activity.

Bloc Projects:
Bloc Projects is an artist led organisation based in Sheffield city centre, they are one of the groups visited in 2006:
“Established in 2002, the organisation provides a platform for early-mid career artists, encouraging experimentation, collaboration across disciplines and critical dialogue among artists, audiences and partners in the city and further afield.”
The main operation is housed within Bloc Studios; a studio complex from which it rents a large street level space. Originally founded by studio holders the project space operates as an independent entity with a board of directors.
Sheffield and Stoke-on-Trent are geographically close with the Pennine hills separating them. To get there you either go north to Manchester , east to Derby or across the hills through the stunning scenery of the peak district national park. It has been several years since I last visited Sheffield, so I was quite interested in seeing what changes had taken place. I arrived about an hour before I was due to go to Bloc Projects and had a quick walk around the city centre. The last time I visited there were major developments happening around the university and the winter gardens had only shortly been opened. The first thing I noticed on arriving was that there were more people around than I had previously seen, students and suited workers populated the streets, which had obviously been pedestrianised since my last visit, the general impression of the city centre was of an active and thriving scene of education and commerce. The number of small independent retailers, coffee shops and eateries around the hub of Hallam University added  a cosmopolitan air. Yet still there is the evidence of past industrial history, Victorian warehouses and factories rub shoulders with new retail premises and office blocks, and where the old is in limbo the Brownfield sites have evolved into interim car parking spaces.

Bloc Projects premises occupies one of these spaces utilising the industrial architecture both on the periphery but also central to the makeup of the city fabric. The building itself is un-assuming , yet closer inspection from the street reveals that there is a strong creative community at work. Bloc Studios is active and plays host to a variety of artists and creative businesses. I arrived a little earlier than my meeting and was greeted warmly by one of the long-term studio occupants who coincidently was a former native of Nantwich a short distance from Stoke, and furnished me with a cup of tea in his studio- whilst having a brief chat about development and the arts activity in Stoke-on-Trent.
My meeting at Bloc Projects was with Charlotte Morgan who is the Creative Director of Bloc Projects. After a quick tour of the space I began by asking Charlotte for a potted history of the organisation and how she became involved.
Bloc Projects itself is housed within a Victorian factory building which was converted to studio space for artists in the late 1990’s. The organisation grew out of the efforts of a group of artists who were studio holders. The gallery/project space moved to the current premises in 2002 having gone through several iterations. The group became more formalised and a board was created. Charlotte was made Creative Director of the company 3 years ago and her roles are to programme and oversee the day-to-day running of the space along side a small number of other members and volunteers.
The formalisation of the organisation was made to allow for funding to be applied for and to make the roles which people involved play clearer, as there had previously been little governance, the project also split from the studios and became an entity in its own right.
The organisation ran for several years with the majority of the programme and activity supported through Arts Council GFA funding until an application was turned down. The organisation realised that they needed to shift their focus slightly away from a reliance on funding and become more sustainable through self generated income and broadening the base of support through collaborative working. The diversification of income has been key in shaping the way the organisation operates and provides security for itself. Although it is still the case that they are working more than funds will cover.

Bloc Projects currently operates a membership scheme, hireable space for projects and events, alongside a funded programme of activity.
I was interested in who hires the space and what sort of activity takes place, as this is something that AirSpace Gallery has recently started doing on a more formal level.
Bloc Projects hires the space or a diverse range of projects which ranges from individual artists, groups and also non-arts related activity. On the day I visited there was the evidence of a student Christmas party which had taken place the day before. Charlotte said that these short-term high return events are key to generating income for the organisation without having to expend a lot of resources. In terms of marketing the space these activities are also seen to be bring in a different mix of people- a percentage of who return for the other activities that take place.
I wanted to know a little bit about how Bloc Projects , fits within the wider city, its local authority and other institutions; On the whole the project has developed independently of the support of the local authority, perhaps because of its roots in a commercial studio operation, it has had closer ties to property developers and business, rather than civic entities. Within the ‘Cultural Industries Quarter’ Charlotte said that the are working more towards the periphery, alongside a lot of other small individuals and small groups. Although the organisation is well established within the cultural framework, they lack the marketing resources available to some of the larger institutions. They are however heavily involved with the many festival projects- eight in total- with Art Sheffield being one of the key events on which Bloc Projects is a consortium member and part of the delivery team, this involvement provides them with a foothold and relationship to many of the other institutions, spaces and projects; and in a wider context working collaboratively to make Sheffield a cultural destination. Collaborative working has evolved to be a key way for the group to operate. Alongside this Bloc Projects also works with the creative community to develop projects on site and has provision for educational development and events within its programme.
Bloc Project’s board has representatives from both Sheffield Hallam and University of Sheffield . I asked what their experience was of the engagement with the student body of the City- especially given their proximity to the City centre campus. Interestingly it seems that Bloc Project’s experience is similar to AirSpace Gallery’s with a difficulty in engaging with or attracting the student population to events. Anecdotally this also seems to be the case with other project in the city. Charlotte said that the use of the space as a party venue for students between projects has helped recently with approximately 25% return visitors from these events.
My next question to Charlotte was about what resources had been and are available for them. Very Slim was the answer. During the initial stages of developing the organisation their experience of business support came mainly through peer-to-peer sharing. In the context of the wider city there had been very little on offer outside of the existing arts institutions. One resource was to draw on the experience of board members who are from a variety of backgrounds and use them to garner support. The supporters of the project are the key resource, people who offer goodwill and are able to feel a sense of ownership of a project. This was made clear when the an Arts Council bid failed, and kick started the group to become more organised and sustainable.
Away from the idea of support for the business I was also interested in what the city of Sheffield had to offer in terms of physical resources. During our first research trip there we found a huge number of former industrial spaces either empty or being used for small start-up creative groups. Now it seems that the affordable space favoured if not required by creative enterprise is fast disappearing.  The area in which Bloc Projects is located is fast being swallowed up by a mixture of retail and housing development, many of the medium sized properties which were there previously have been levelled and blocks of student accommodation and apartments built in place. Many of the former industrial spaces still available are either too big to take on or are a distance away from the centre and so remain unoccupied. It also appears that many of the privately owned space is available only on a short-term basis making it difficult to obtain funding given the lack of security available. For Bloc Projects who have entertained ideas of moving to other premises, this lack of long term security has been a key factor in deciding to stay put for now. Charlotte mentioned another organisation CADS (Creative Arts Development Space) who act as a broker of short to medium term spaces in the city for creative uses. To some extent enabling spaces to be used for creative activity but perhaps also acting as a gatekeeper to these spaces as well. A prime example of the change in fortunes for the former industrial spaces to desirable to others beyond the creative community S1 Art Space one of the mainstays of the cultural offer in Sheffield have recently temporarily moved their gallery operation away from the City Centre premises in order to make way for commercial property development.
I asked Charlotte what she felt was key to being sustainable; Apart from money and being able to support yourself and those you work with,  being adaptable is key for Bloc Projects. In relation to funding they have shifted from resorting to the standard 10% minimum of match funding for an ACE bid to one closer to 40-50%. They have scaled back the number of projects within their programme- reducing the amount of resources needed whilst increasing the duration allows the organisation to have additional time to focus on income generation. This has provided the opportunity to have more income generating events to take place throughout the programme.; these events are short-term but generate high income, and have in turn developed a more diverse audience to all events. Applying for smaller grants and being involved in some of the large-scale events that happen in the city is another major factor in moving towards the organisations sustainability

We concluded our meeting by having a quick look at what was being developed, I noticed immediately when I first got there that the space had been grown since first coming in 2006. The recent remodelling of the space has seen the gallery extended and provision soon to be made available for office storage and potential residency accommodation.

I enjoyed my visit to Sheffield and talking to Charlotte about Bloc Projects; although there are many differences between our organisations, it is encouraging to find that many of the concerns and areas of focus that AirSpace Gallery is working with are being addressed there too. I was interested particularly in their approach to becoming sustainable and shifting away from a reliance on funding, reducing overheads by doing less self initiated events and ensuring that other events, such as private hire of their space paid the organisation. In the case of Bloc Projects the size of the organisation also seems to be key to its success in the future, apart from the lack of affordable large space in the city they seem to find that working across different venues and partnering with other groups to work on large projects allows a greater amount of freedom and flexibility.
As two independent organisations I think we are always keen to adapt our ways of working and react to outside pressures in a positive way. I look forward to a return visit to Sheffield in the future and to a chance to re-acquaint myself with the wider artistic community there, alongside this I hope that there is also an opportunity to open up links through collaboration across the Pennines.

The experience that Bloc Projects is currently going through, of an uncertain future in terms of its venue is one which possibly we may face in the future if development begins to take hold. The approach which Bloc Projects has had of remaining positive and being ready and willing to adapt, is perhaps equally important to the sustainability of a project, not to let itself be tied to a particular place or space, but to be willing to drop everything and start again from scratch.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

AirSpace Gallery research visit #2 - Margate

A-N Go and See - Artist Led Development: Place and Resources

AirSpace Gallery is about to enter its 10th year as an artist led organisation in Stoke-on-Trent, and as a result we are thinking about resilience, and how organisations can connect to the places where they are to ensure a sustainable approach.
With this in mind, each of the 3 AirSpace Directors have been on trips around the country to meet up with organisations and individuals whose projects have been around a while, or who we think are making interesting connections to the places that they are situated in. We have been wonderfully supported by an A-N go and see bursary, allowing us time and financial support to make these visits.
Glen has been to Preston, Andy to Sheffield and I have been to Margate.

Recently I have been thinking about the long term impacts of public art and arts programming; Probably for a while, but brought into sharp focus, when I was invited to speak at the 'In Certain Places' and Ixia (Public Art Think Tank) conference 'The Art of Dwelling: Exploring long term approaches to public art and place.'

This was a really interesting opportunity to hear about projects from across the UK who are all  still going after quite a time, what these projects all had in common was that the people leading on them were absolutely embedded with the place that their organisation was based. The projects were specific, and bespoke to those places, and had a flavour to them which would not be possible anywhere else. The projects are site-responsive, completely engaged with the particularity of the places that they inhabit - and in most cases, really making a difference to participants, and the places they operate. It was a privilege to be invited to speak alongside Deveron Arts, In-Situ, In Certain Places and others, but what stayed with me, was a question about what the organisations are responding to in their prospective places, and whether there was any commonality in approach.

It got me thinking about Stoke, and the particularity of this place: and raised some questions for me about the relationship between a place's resources, and the projects that happen there.

In recent years the projects that we have engaged in at AirSpace have often questioned the role of the artist in society, have engaged with overlooked resources (space, skills, materials) and have, in recent years, had recurring themes around food and green space in cities.

Interestingly, we are not alone in this here, and so, this go and see bursary felt like a great chance to undertake some research into the resources in another place, and the effect that may or may not have on the artists living and working there.
I decided to visit Margate - I am really fascinated by the amazing speed of the development of the arts scene in Margate in the last 5 years. My interest is partly personal (my family are from the area, and I worked, with my sister and brother in the Dreamland Fun Park as a teenager) but also, I am interested in Margate as a place that lost its industry, and where the regeneration and development solution has been mainly culture led. This is very relevant to us in Stoke - the industry is very different, but the solutions may be shared.

Turner Contemporary opened in Margate in 2011, and I was there at the Opening, to document and review the opening for A-N.

Nearly 5 Years on, I wanted to look at the changes in the artist led scene in Margate in those 5 years, and to find out from those working there, what it is like to be in Margate now. I set up meetings with Leigh Clarke, at Crate - as I was interested in talking about the changes in Margate, from the point of view of a space that had been in Margate before Turner, I then spoke to Nick Morley at Resort Studios, a very young space, which has achieved so much in such a short space of time and finally to Dan Thompson, an Independent Artist, who moved with his family to Margate a few years ago.

My first appointment was with artist, printmaker Leigh Clarke - in his studio at Crate.

Crate was started in 1996, by some graduates from Canterbury University - a disused print works, they wanted it to be a space for artists to work, and also a project space, for others to visit.
It always had a theoretical slant to it, originally housing the 'Critical Research Bureau' - and the connections to research continue today.

Soon after Crate opened, Limbo opened up next door, creating a bit of a hub and a great relationship between the spaces - which culminated around 2 years in an almost merger, as the two organisations looked to secure the old Burton building nearby.
When the project fell through, they asked Leigh to be a Director there, to help the organisation's develop in the next few years.

Leigh moved to the area, from London two years ago. It was really interesting to hear from Leigh about his experience - he described his experiences as an artist, with a studio in London, and the gritty reality of Hackney at that time, a trip to the local pub, 'The Gun' was literally the place you visited to get a gun, but a recent visit reveals the stark realities of gentrification - the pub now serve craft beer, The Prada and Burberry factories are now round the corner. Margate today feels like Hackney did 10 or 15 years ago. The fact that artists are completely part of the gentrification was not lost on Leigh - he talked about the strange push pull of the process. Its a process that is replicated in every city - we (artists) move in, the place is gritty, reality on the doorstep - our presence starts to change things, cafes open, the street art improves, the costs to rent space start to go up, other types of business start to take an interest and move in, space becomes a premium, artists can no longer afford the rent, artists start to move out (and anyway the place has changed, so artists aren't that interested any more.)

Leigh talked about the effect that Turner Contemporary has had on Margate, and the amazing rate of change -saying 'It's still cheap in Margate, but you can definitely feel that it isn't going to be like that for long.'

The same week that I was in Margate, I heard from another artist that we, at AirSpace have collaborated with, that he would be moving to Margate imminently, to open a new studio project - it is a story that we are hearing more and  more, as the prices to rent studio in London become completely beyond most artists, the train service to London from Margate, which was greatly improved a few years ago, and now sees you able to be in Kings Cross an hour and a half after setting off, and for just £13 makes the option of living by the sea so much more viable.

This is something that we are really interested in, we don't have the sea in Stoke, but we are one of the U.K.'s greenest cities, the train to Euston takes at best an hour and 23 minutes (unfortunately the price is something that needs work) but with the low cost of living, and London based studio provider Acava opening 43 artists studios a 5 minute walk from Stoke Station, the prospect of being a Stoke based artists looks more interesting than ever.
Crate, as organisation that has been running for 20 years, is very interesting, having been in Margate, before Turner Contemporary, and since. We talked about the way that organisations develop into their buildings in an organic way - and not necessarily in a strategic way which recognises the resources and potential of the building - and that because of this an organisation will need moments of restructuring and rethinking, and that Crate is in a bit of a period of change now, with 2 new directors and an interest in getting back to some of the original emphasis as a research hub.

One of the main questions I had was a direct question around whether Leigh, Nick and Dan could identify what the particular resources might be in Margate, and what impact that might have on the way that artists and art organisations work in Margate.
Leigh felt that Margate, first and foremost has big spaces that are accessible to artists, but also that the place has really interesting pubs and shops - that feel non-commercial and unlike other places, an unspoilt bohemia. He also felt that Turner Contemporary are providing a great support to artists in the Town, and that the networks in Margate work well - people know each other and collaborate across organisations really well. Leigh also described the upsurge in popularity of right wing politics in the area as something which had galvanised the creative community, and brought people together to counter that.

I was interested in whether the resources of the place, may impact on the themes and ways of working of artists in Margate, Leigh talked about the landscape having an impact and featuring in people's work, but that in many cases it is a slow creeping thing, that happens in people's work, and is almost unnoticed at first. It is of course like this for most artists, whether an artists work is directly related to place or not, places do seep in, and impact on
the direction, rhythms, materials and feel of work.

In terms of making work, Leigh talked about how cheap it is to get materials and to get things made, compared to London. He also talked about the Charity Shops as a fantastic resource for him and his work. Leigh turns the abundant wastage of a consumerist society into materials for new works of art, and currently that material is the Celebrity Autobiography.

'The Charity Shops are my Art Shops, the more I wander around Charity shops, the more I am spotting things that appear a lot at one time. In 2009 I exhibited my collection of 500 Batman Forever VHS videos, that I'd collected for 5 years.

At the moment, these autobiographies are everywhere, because nobody really wants them. I would never have been able to get the stuff I make my art from if I was in London. I just got Anne Diamond for a quid.'

My second visit took me up the hill to Cliftonville, to Resort Studios, and a revisit to Nick Morley at Hello Print. I was in Margate in March for one to one Print training with Nick, write up here

Resort and hello Print are already established as an import part of Margate's arts ecology, providing affordable studio space, open access to the print facilities, and recently a jewelry and soon to open dark room are added to the Resort Menu, which includes drawing club, professional development and a series of interesting events throughout the year.

Resort now hosts at least 40 artists, but many more associates, with the print space and events, the energy in the building is positive, productive and friendly - and the space there is obviously already very desirable - there is a selection process at Resort - and they really can attract 'serious' people, as there can be 3 applicants for each studio or desk that becomes available.

There are a number of things which make Resort such an interesting place to work - the physical design and how the building has been broken up, is purposefully thought out to encourage interaction. The 4 directors have very different skill sets, which makes for a well balanced organisation - the pool of skills, contacts and interests across the board keeps things interesting.

We discussed how quickly things are moving in terms of development in Margate - in the six months since my last visit, new galleries have opened on the route from Turner to Resort, and just around the corner on Northdown Road a new clay based open access shop has opened, and is already offering clay workshops.

Nick talked about the pace of change as being the thing which really feeds creativity, but that there is also something (in the background) which is worrying about the speed that things are moving. There is a worry that they are starting to reach a tipping point, that point where Margate becomes cemented as the next big thing - and the gentrification becomes the thing that makes Margate lose its Margateness. It is a responsibility that artists and arts organisations may have, as we know we are part of the process - the thing which is shifting and speeding up the change - and which ultimately means we end up having to move on.

We talked about the need for organisations to think forward - to after the gentrification has happened, to do our best to think sustainably - and try to secure the properties we are in ahead of the curve.

This is such a difficult thing for an arts organisation to do though, our experience at AirSpace has been that we did try to secure a longer lease, but that without spare money hanging around, it is really difficult to future proof the precarious artist led organisation.
What is amazing about Crate, is that they own their building, and this really has to be the holy grail, you can't be shifted on, when the proces rocket, if you are the owner of the building.

Nick and I discussed the resources that Margate has to offer - Nick chose Margate in the first place, for its seaside location as he and his partner were looking to get out of London, but also for the large buildings, and importantly for Nick, no other print provision anywhere near the area. Nick talked about the feeling that in Margate, you really can make a bigger impact,

'If you put on a good event here, everyone knows about it, but in London there is so much competition.'

I think it is more than that too, In Stoke, it has felt for the past 10 years like the lack of infrastructure and other activity has perversely made it somehow easier to do things, not so much red tape, and in a way, because you are often doing things for the first time, it does make a bigger splash.

Resort is a young organisation, and therefore at this stage is rightly focused on getting established and getting organised, and not overtly concerned with engaging the public around them, in my experience anyway, this will come later - but the day to day connections with local residents and neighbour businesses will see the slow and steady, and more natural impact that the presence of Resort will have. We talked about the responsibility of the organisation to its neighbourhood, and what that might mean - which for now is about improving the spaces around the building, being welcoming and open, so that the locals don't feel alienated by the changes taking place - and which may, eventually change the area entirely.

 Dan Thompson - site responsive artwork in Arlington House - etched Parquet Floor.

The final visit in Margate cemented the conversations around gentrification, and the artists role and responsibility. It was great to catch up with artist and writer Dan Thompson. Dan has been working and campaigning for many years, around the use of abandoned high street shops - and on his website his about describes him as being
'... interested in the creation of social capital, in abandoned or underused spaces, and in DIY approaches to art, culture and social action. '

As an independent artist, who very consciously moved to Margate with his family a few years back, I was interested to hear from Nick about the phenomena of culture led gentrification in Margate, and the impact that people like him are having on the town.

Though Dan moved to Margate two years ago, he has been working in Margate variously since 2003, so had a real knowledge of the town and the potential there before moving his family, there was the draw of the sea, but also Turner Contemporary being in the town was important.

We talked about the interesting question around resources, and the impact that this can have on the way that artists live and work. In Margate, like Stoke, Dan identified that space is relatively easy to get hold of, and that it is impressive, characterful space, that makes the project so much more interesting and ripe with creativity.

Recent projects have seen Dan working with a group of other artists to put on a site responsive exhibition in Arlington House, one of the most controversial, and impactful buildings on Margate seafront. Getting hold of amazing spaces like this would be difficult anywhere else. This building is an interesting one, I remember from my youth, Arlington House being regarded as something of a ghetto, by those that didn't live there, and in Pawel Pawlikowski's 'Last Resort' film, it was there that the main character ended up, Arlington House, the ends of the earth.

My Gran's friends had a flat there, and said it was the best place they had ever lived, as Dan pointed out, due to the amazing architecture of the building, every flat has a sea view.
In Stoke too, projects like Art City have seen some amazing spaces made available for artists; our colleagues at Re:Stoke put on an epic production in the closed down Tunstall Swimming Baths, AirSpace led on the Kules Residency in the old Olympus Engineering Works, and the project itself launched from the Chatterley Whitfield Colliery. In Stoke, we are in the moment before the moment that Margate is in, amazing spaces are accessible, at little or no cost - but people are starting to notice - 43 artists studios on the Spode Factory this month will bring a much welcomed influx of creative people, but this, like in Margate may be just the start.

Talking to Dan, Nick and Leigh, they all shared this story of a move to Margate being about getting away from the commercialism of London, or towards the amazing character that Margate has, where space can be accessed, things can be done but that there presence itself could be the thing which makes it all flip the other way.

In Dan's case, in the two years that he has been living there he has seen property prices rocket - purchasing a flat in Arlington House was something that could have been achievable two years ago, but its proximity to the train station, sea views, and the influx of other tower block appreciating creative people have pushed the price above and beyond what most artists could hope to afford.

In Margate they are not at the tipping point yet, but everyone seems to feel it coming.
We don't have a Turner Contemporary in Stoke, or the sea for that matter, and at the moment it feels like a bit of that gentrification might not go amiss - but there are rumblings here that its on its way.

The city is bidding for city of culture 2021, good places to eat have suddenly begun to appear, and the positive press we are getting is really making a difference to how we are viewed from elsewhere.

What it feels we are missing is one big catalyst to really bring it all together - and it does feel that that needs to be artist led.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

AirSpace Gallery research visit #1 - In Certain Places, Preston

In Certain Places headquarters, Preston

In 2015, AirSpace Gallery received some funding through A-N (Artist Newsletter)'s Go&See Programme. The funding was timely. We had just come to the end of a 2 year Arts Council-funded programme, and had been awarded new 3 year funding, and we were in the process of commissioning a reflective creative evaluation of our activities in order to best tailor our activities for 2015-2018.

Hand in hand with reflection on activity goes research into how other organisations are effectively (or not) operating in similar areas. During an unfunded period prior to 2013, the new directorate at AirSpace had decided on a subtle change in approach. We had decided to take stock of our organisation, and our position in and relevance to our city - Stoke-on-Trent. We wanted to harness our individual concerns, around themes of sustainability, contemporary existence, human relationship with the land, and the artist's role and their regenerative powers in improving the overall societal condition of a city - and build them in to a high quality contemporary visual arts programme within a Gallery which would be relevant to our surroundings. We were clear - we thought there was little appetite for a "white cube", "London" experience here in Stoke - but there was space for a programme which explored ideas pertinent to this city and cities like it, and the experience(s) of its inhabitants. We wanted to diversify our activity, taking content out of the Gallery in to the Public realm, and using the city as Gallery space, and taking our ideas out to the audience, where they could be viewed and engaged with on the public's terms, rather than sitting back and expecting visitors in to our building, on our terms.

After this initial turn in direction, the three Go&See visits we undertook in December 2015 offered us valuable insight in to how we might ensure our next steps built on this initial activity and embedded this way of working into our next 3 year programme. Visit #1 is outlined here, with #'s 2&3 to follow.

My visit took me to Preston and the enduring Public Realm project In Certain Places.

In Certain Places is a programme of artistic interventions and events, led by curators Elaine Speight and Professor Charles Quick, with the support of associate Rachel Bartholomew, in the School of Art, Design and Fashion at the University of Central Lancashire. Based in the City of Preston, in the North West of England, the project examines how artists can contribute to the form and functions of a place, by exploring new approaches to art, culture and urban development.
Since 2003, In Certain Places has worked with artists and architects to develop temporary interventions in Preston City Centre, hosted artists’ residencies, and organised talks and debates about art practice and place. Collectively, these activities have generated new understandings of the urban environment, enabled new ideas to be tested in the city’s public spaces, and formed collaborations between artists, institutions, communities, businesses and other individuals in Preston and beyond.
The project is financially supported by the University of Central Lancashire, Preston City Council and the Arts Council of England through their Grants for the Arts scheme. - source: ICP website
My 2 day visit to Preston comprised an interview with Elaine Speight and an observer's role in to a new project, taking them outside the City's centre - to its rural, and developmental outskirts.

 - There are several synonymical crossovers between Preston and Stoke-on-Trent.

Both are post-industrial cities, a little dwarfed by larger urban neighbours. Both are small, walkable cities, surrounded by and nestling inside beautiful rural countyside. Both have civic art spaces, universities, historic buildings and are studded with large public spaces. Neither is renowned for being go-tos for contemporary art, and have been described as "cold-spots" by Arts Council England in their funding strategy. These are, on the surface, difficult places to operate and deliver contemporary arts programmes. Producers and artists have to work a little harder to operate in such places, where the public is maybe a little "art-sceptical".

ICP began as an arts collaboration and informal partnership between the Harris Museum and Art Gallery and the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), and is now based exclusively at UCLan. Elaine describes ICP as a project rather than an organisation with an autonomy of operation, with no board to report to.  It has no venue, which directly affects its relationship with an audience as there is no "go-to" place for people to attch ICP to in their minds.

I was interested in how ICP works with and develops its audience in a non-gallery, public realm setting - an area increasingly important in AirSpace's programming. 

ICP has a core audience, developed over the years of accumulative activity, mostly regional, from Preston and surrounding areas, made up of artists, graduates of UCLan's MA programme, and members of the public who are interested in art and place and cultural activity happening in the city.

But when asked whether ICP factored the non-core audience in to their project planning, Elaine was clear.
"I think..I suppose, and this is something people have said to me as a criticism, I think, maybe, we're more interested in the artist and the artwork, perhaps, than the audience. (for us) we're interested (primarily) in the project and what that might be."
Me: And so you trust that the artist and the strength of the artwork will automatically generate and attract an audience?

"Yeah. I think our audience is very self-selecting. Our work since we started has always been focused on the city centre, rather than small towns or suburban communities, where lot of different things happen and no one necessarily has ownership of it - people work there, live there - and so our work, (which is about place rather than the individuals within it) has never been targeted at particular types of people, but each project, due to the nature of the work and the nature of the artist, develops its own audience. So for instance, when we made a film with Shezad Dawood, we had loads of people involved in that who were actually in the film, working as extras and crew, but they got involved because they were interested in being in a film. And then with the project that we've just done - The People's Canopy , that involved all sorts of people because it was more of an architectural framework, specifically involving community groups.
Iain Broadley did a piece of work for the Preston Guild called The Black Parade where he developed this whole float and parade as part of the Preston Guild Processions. He was interested in working with people from the Goth sub-culture, something which he identifies with, and so he brought to the project people he already knew from within that subculture and also working with a lot of young people who hang around the city centre. Also, when John Newling did his Preston Market Mystery Project , just because of where it was, that involved the stall holders and the shoppers.
So, I think the audience for a work, and the audience can sometimes be quite tiny, I guess, and sometimes the audience is quite incidental, in that they might experience the work, but not know that it's an artwork, like some of the sound pieces that we've done, is either accidental, or self-selecting, but not the driving force behind a project. "

Working in the Public Realm, as a pose to a Gallery setting would seem to demand a relationship with public authorities. How does In Certain Places view this aspect of their activity?

Elaine affirms the importance of a good working, trusting relationship with the City Council in order to operate effectively in the Public Realm. She recalls, however, a tricky early relationship with the Council in In Certain Place's early years. As well as a complicated internal bureaucratic structure, largely around the city's regeneration policy, they had to overcome some scepticism borne of what seemed to be an inability to visualise the efficacy of Public Realm work that wasn't traditional sculpture. She cited Jeppe Hein's piece - Appearing Rooms, the value and spectacle of which, once eventually installed and operative, became immediately clear to the councillors, who at that stage could "get" the work and buy in to its worth. From there and through subsequent large scale "impact" works such as "Harris Flights", the working relationship has become more tenable - it's easier to negotiate the intricacies involved and an acceptance of a project's value is more readily forthcoming. Elaine noted an important individual relationship with a member of the Council's Planning team - Nigel Roberts who has risen through the Council to a top Job in  Planning and Urban Design - who was consistently supportive of the ICP project.

It's clear from talking to Elaine, that there isn't a specific strategy to target effective working relations with the Council, more, it's an organic trusting relationship built through activity and consistency of activity and proving, through successful delivery of projects that there is minimal risk.

Up until recently, support from the Council has largely been logistical, save for some very small offers of cash support. However, recently, with the advent of Preston's City Deal project (which is a long term, nationally-funded housing and regeneration project), In Certain Places has attracted more substantial financial support from Preston Council - which can only be as a result of embedding itself within the City's cultural fabric over a long time and over the course of a series of projects.

The interest here, beyond the importance of Council involvement and support in the delivery of Public Realm projects, refers directly back to In Certain Place's core way of working. It is about PlaceMaking and right at the heart of that is the artist and the artwork and the notion that
" artists are part of a place as well "
The result, and this is vital, of consistent successful delivery of well-received, high quality art projects carried out with the public, in the Public Realm, which ultimately garners the acceptance and support of authoritative and institutional bodies, is that it affirms, embeds and cements the cultural sector and the position of the artist in a place alongside those more traditionally associated components - business and the public sector.

And so, from here, we started to talk about the particulars of place and ICP's particular way of working. I wondered if In Certain Place's focus was about Place, or was it specifically about Preston? Elaine was keen to stress some important factors in ICP's approach.

 - work with and support local artists, not just because they are local - quality of work should not be secondary, but an understanding that to strive to ensure the involvement of the artist in a place, you have to acknowledge their existence, and work to develop and support them.

"For me, it's not  about place or about Preston, it's about doing things in  a place. It's about being part of a place. Through our activity, and through the projects, we start conversations about Preston, that also have a wider relevance to other places. But, again, it all comes down to the artists that we work with and how they respond to the place."

 - Don't "do art to people" - make sure that you shape your arts project so that it's part of a place and an everyday experience.

"Becky Shaw, in her essay ("Local Art for Local People" in Subplots To a City p155-148) articulates this really well. She says when artwork is just there in a place, and presented to people, without any other context - so without being in an art gallery, or seen within an arts festival, it kind of has to work a lot harder because it's up against this cacophony of a place, of commercial things and everyday routines - and it has to do something within that. At the same time she talks about how this frameless encounter also means that the art isn't "done" to people. People can engage with it, but on their own terms. And they can choose not to, and I think that's fine."

 - A "spectactle" in Public Art isn't necessarily important but it can be useful.
"One of the things we've learned is that because we don't have a regular visibility, not having a venue, not having things happening all the time, sometimes you need a spectacle to benefit thos things that aren't spectacular. We've done really quiet pieces of work like Lisa Wigham's The Waiting Room or Magda Stawarska-Beavan's sound piece The Arcade that maybe have the incidental, accidental audience that we were talking about - and they're really quiet works - but maybe it's helpful for those to have the spectacles like the Canopies we've just done where we went from the University and cycled them up in this big procession up to the Flag Market, and people were coming out of shops to see - and it was a really unusual event. Those events, visually striking, photograph really well and are easy to put out on Social Media which increases the audience. By doing that high profile visual project it maintains the visibility, perhaps, of In Certain Places, which is, hopefully, useful for the artists who are making smaller, quieter pieces."
 - The "Temporary" and "Momentary" in the Public Realm
" I don't think it's necessary for Public Art to be temporary or permanent. You can have permanent pieces of public art which are successful but they work in a different way to the temporary. The temporary is useful for us because we're interested in testing things - in Preston - and if other people want to take those on then that's great. It's about starting a conversation. That's how we see In Certain Places - having a conversation with Preston and bringing people in to that conversation - whether that's artists or members of the Public, or the Council or the University. So in that sense, the artworks are contexts for conversations."

This was a fascinating and wide ranging conversation, with invaluable learning strategies for us at AirSpace Gallery and potentially an evidential model for our city's stakeholders to draw inspiration and trust from . At a time when Stoke-on-Trent is planning a bid to become the UK's next city of culture in 2021, In Certain Places is a proof of the worth of understanding the role, the professional role of the artist in a place. People talk about In Certain Places in terms of being within Preston's DNA or a constituent part of its soil structure. A Part of the place, doing things alongside and with other people, some of who happen to be artists. Their long term approach utilising short sharp projects is a model to be admired and learned from.

The last word, here should go to Elaine's In Certain Places colleague, Charles Quick from his website.
"In Certain Places has successfully raised the level of ambition for Preston's public realm, both within the City Council and the wider community, and has generated a national profile for Preston as an aspirational city. Evidence that the programme has changed attitudes towards the role of art within Preston's redevelopment has become increasingly visible and decision-makers, such as the Council's Planning department, have adopted a holistic and ambitious approach to the inclusion of art within the city's public spaces."


DAY TWO of the research trip allowed me an insight into ICP's next project - a multi artist exploration of Preston's City Deal initiative - a housing, transport and regeneration scheme looking to transform and modernise the city into the 21st Century. This initial scoping exercise is inviting a group of 6 artists - a mix of local and national - Gavin Renshaw, Rebecca Chesney, Emily Speed, Olivia Keith, Ruth Levene and Ian Nesbitt - to respond to the scheme. It was obviously early days, as the group were toured around specific areas of interest, and given background info by Charles Quick and Elaine Speight, but immediately of interest was the characteristic slow and considered, long-termist approach adopted by In Certain Places. here the artists were being afforded time - at least a year, with the prospect, funding permitting, of longer to research develop and deliver their works.

My privilege, here, was to be invited to see this stage, allowing me to follow its progress with an understanding of context, and I'm looking forward to seeing its resolution, and bringing that learning back to our city.