Monday, 15 October 2018

Organisational Development: Research Visit to 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.