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 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.