Thursday, 29 August 2019

Public - You & Me: In Conversation with Kerry Campbell and Rose Nordin

As part of Public - You & Me, Rebecca Davies and Selina Oakes invited Kerry Campbell, Artistic Director at Mansions of the Future, and Rose Nordin, a graphic designer, cofounder of Rabbits Road Press and one third of OOMK (One of My Kind) zine, to speak about representation. Rose, who also led a zine making workshop at the gallery, spoke about representation in graphic design, publishing and print - and the importance of being present in spaces where you don't necessarily see your own identity reflected. Kerry delivered a talk about her curatorial practice and focused on her interests in the relationship between class and curating. Both participated in an open discussion with Rebecca, Selina and members of the public.

This excerpt is a recording from In Conversation: Rose Nordin and Kerry Campbell on 26 June 2019. For more information of the Public - You & Me programme (3-28 June 2019).

Kerry Campbell is a freelance curator and producer. Beginning her curatorial practice in her hometown of Luton under the guise of TMT Projects, Campbell’s work is informed by her interests in regional curating, diversifying arts engagement and understanding the complex relationship between social class and barriers to arts engagement and representation. She is currently the Artistic Director at Mansions of the Future – an Ambitions for Excellence funded project in Lincoln, which privileges inherently social, site-specific, and collaborative ways of working.

Rose Nordin is a graphic designer with an interest in self-publishing and DIY culture. She is one third of OOMK (One of my Kind) art publishing collective which focuses on supporting self-publishing to enable activism, conversation and education. Rose is co-founder of Rabbits Road Press, a community studio space and Risograph printing press in Newham, and is artist in residence at Somerset House Studios, London. For this programme, Rose will be leading a two-day workshop which experiments with notions of the public, the private, the visible and the permeable. She will introduce participants to the zine-making process in a creative and collaborative way – the outcome being a series of short zines which reflect the conversations fostered in the space.

Public - You & Me, ran from 3 to 28 June 2019 at AirSpace Gallery.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Public - You & Me: Binding Social Fibres by Laura Robertson

A Text Commissioned as part of the Public - You & Me programme

Binding Social Fibres: An Attempt to Braid Together Three Strands of Public – You & Me

What are your knots? Adana press print and handwriting. Photo by Glen Stoker 2019.

Strand I: to question (unravel)

Rebecca Davies and Selina Oakes’s multifaceted public programme for AirSpace Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent Public – You & Me demonstrates what Boris Groys calls education by infection: teaching art is teaching life. Its deceptively simple and generous set-up – a constellation of free, open door events, which will in turn help shape the gallery’s future exhibitions – is a portal for a complex set of ideas; moored in education, inclusivity, health, activism and usefulness. It is joyful, welcoming. In short, Public – You & Me questions what the gallery can do for its public, and vice versa. What makes it unusual is its artists and contexts. 

At first glance, Public – You & Me could be understood as a measure of potential: testing AirSpace’s strength as Stoke’s first and only contemporary visual art space, yes, but also its role as something more ambiguous: what Hans Ulrich Obrist would call a laboratory, or a place of knowledge production. Internationally, galleries are striving for programming that is no longer peripheral to its exhibitions. Rather, educational events (discussions, symposia, classes) for visitors entwined with curatorial production as one, core offer; equivalent to a rope woven from many fibres. In reality, public programming might rub up against the art presented, but is notoriously difficult to interlace. Large institutions have dedicated departments that typically work on the same projects, but disconnectedly, instead of in harmony; rare, too, is the programme that establishes hardy roots in its local communities. 

For AirSpace, Davies and Oakes invited artists and designers to share their own modes of cultural production with us; contributing to a carefully considered, month-long series of workshops, performances, group crits, film clubs and socials. Drawing on Céline Condorelli’s vision of ‘making things public’, from her 2014 book The Company She Keeps (whose name-fellow, Mary McCarthy’s 1942 novel, charts her protagonist’s life and emotional development), Public – You & Me concerns itself with making with others: strangers, non-artists, friends and ‘friends in action’. Principal questions, learning and action are inherently socially engaged. The results (permanent, like Matt Foster’s Plane Structure CoBuild of chairs, tables, benches and information stands that now enhance the gallery in perpetuity; or more momentary, such as a screening of Andrew Kötting’s feature-length documentary, Gallivant, 1996) are not the point: the point is to create a shared experience. 

This collaboration could be called art education, as the process is certainly a studious one. The teachers – who would probably protest at being called so – are professionals with years of experience in fabrication, publishing, printing, filmmaking and graphic design, and who encourage critical thinking. An integral part of Public – You & Me are the dialogues we have about the teachers’ work – including why they do what they do.

It’s clear that Public – You & Me is a knotting together of makers who utilise collaborative models of working to address social inclusion; from the invited artists, including Phoebe Davies (whose programme contribution, A Soundtrack for Stoke, played locals’ favourite songs, encouraging the sharing of city-based memories and stories) to those who already reside and work in Stoke, including AirSpace co-director Anna Francis and Public – You & Me curator Davies (who co-run The Portland Inn Project CIC community interest company: a living artwork of buoyant karaoke sessions, kids café and classes in ceramics and opera). AirSpace’s regular, critical programme expresses inclusivity through food; Francis’s Artist Soup Kitchen has historically created a space for people to congregate and debate everything from image appropriation to family art activism. 

Public - You & Me Library (detail). Photo by Glen Stoker 2019.

Strand II: To learn/unlearn (twist)

The metal letters (tin and lead) are tricky to pick up and slot into parallel lines. We’ve chosen a gothic typeface, so struggle to identify the alphabet from dark licks and curls. Everyone in the group is sat on chairs built a few weeks ago; each wooden leg bound to the seat with thick, black elastic (hair?) bands. 

Three Adana presses are oiled, official-looking – intimidating, but less so after Edwin Pickstone’s demonstration. Typography technician at Glasgow School of Art, he tells us (in no uncertain terms) that we are now overseers of the print resources and will be, in using the equipment, making the facilities easier to use – by being organised, checking everything is working as it should be and (this is important) coming back to teach others.

The workshop is called Celebrations and Declamations; we're encouraged to write short, memorable political statements. We concentrate on setting our sentences, brows furrowed, before rolling ink over raised surfaces; pressing small cards with each message. One declares: ‘The Revolution Has Compassion.’

Edwin says that he once burned a print-on-demand book, so that he could manufacture ink from the ashes; a method to question artisan and digital production methods. What are we doing, but that? 

The learning is troublesome, slippery. It doesn’t stick to a curriculum, nor does it have an Ofsted inspector. It cannot really be measured by matrix or exam. The materials can be misused; the ideas veer off wildly, reconstituted, misinterpreted. A lexicon is distilled from the pop-up library and wall hangings – friendship, solidarity, civic pride, co-operation – in a process of subtle influence.

Sandy finishes early and helps out. Made redundant from a job in social care and youth justice, she says that there is little work for young people in Stoke. The Pits and The Pots, meaning the coalmines and the potteries, have closed, leaving only non-transferable skills; each a key part of the production line but useless without it. One person would roll clay into balls, another would fire-up the kiln. No individual was taught how to create a pot from initial sketch to dinner table. And here we are, studying analogue equipment in order to pass that knowledge on. 
In our pockets, we pass fingertips over the scalloped edges of print club loyalty cards.

Something to Say: Celebrations and Declamations - workshop with Edwin Pickstone (detail). Photo by Glen Stoker 2019.

Strand III: To act (bind)

It’s not hard to appreciate the service that AirSpace – as gallery, laboratory, social club, classroom or workspace, or all of these things – offers Stoke. Its residents are at major risk of poverty and financial exclusion (food bank usage has increased by 46% since the introduction of Universal Credit in 2013). There isn’t an abundance of free schemes like Public – You & Me or The Portland Inn Project. 

‘Socially engaged’ programming doesn’t have to dominate every exhibition, nor does it have to work miracles – like improve health and wellbeing (although we know that art can, most recently from Aesop’s 2018 Healthcare and The Arts: GP Survey: revealing that two in three doctors believe that ‘public engagement with the arts can make a significant contribution to the prevention agenda’), or become an art school (as Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) has done this year, teaming up with Teesside University to provide BA and postgraduate qualifications in Fine Art). As a workroom for socially engaged action, AirSpace can do a lot just by opening the doors and making it easy for us to join in.

So, once we’re a part of Public – You & Me, what is to be done? The fibres of our ideas could be teased out, identified, and re-woven as we wished. We could think about our work – our ‘public’ activity or collective action – as we do the Friction Hitch: a knot that can be adjusted, but one that locks in place, from friction, when the load is heavy. As Davies says, we do the best that we can and the most that we can.

If Public – You & Me is a turn towards an educational model that is looser, more experimental, more critical, and perhaps more useful for the future, then we can play. We can build a model of programming in such a way to increase its length and tensile strength; a united community that will carry the gallery through times of uncertainty (lean years, budget cuts, reduced arts provision, or other trials). We can rename the arena in which we learn and make and talk. We can create a space less exclusive and more open to all sorts of unexpected experiences that expand our friendship circles, confidence, abilities and imagination.

We could each fill in the blanks, writing (and re-writing and re-writing) a modern manifesto that makes us more resilient. You & Me might think about what it means to act:

To act means to bind, stamp, dance, listen, speak, watch, draw, carry, choose, pass on, peel back, come back. To act is to __________, to act is to make __________ obsolete. 

To act human, we must __________. Everyone should question __________.  

We are tired of waiting for __________, and wasting time on __________.

We have never used the medium of __________ to create art, and why not? 
Let’s not forget that we have an abundance of __________. 

What we think now, here, together, in this moment, means to shake-off long-standing presumptions of __________. We must think carefully about __________.
To act is to invent a new name for art. __________ is art’s new name, and it gives us freedom. 

Look round: we can learn to __________, and to unlearn __________. 

Public – You & Me looks like __________, and we celebrate it as we continue to shape it in our own image. 

If we need to, we screw up this paper and we start again.


Laura Robertson is a writer, critic and editor based in Liverpool and London. Her work has been published in international magazines Frieze, Elephant, Hyperallergic, Art Monthly, and ArtReview amongst others, and she is a proud co-founder and contributing editor at The Double Negative online magazine. Laura currently holds the post of critical writer-in-residence at Open Eye photography gallery, and is studying MA Writing at the Royal College of Art (2018-20). She is a former director and trustee of The Royal Standard Gallery & Studios.

TW: @doublenegativeL

This piece was commissioned by Public - You & Me curators, Rebecca Davies and Selina Oakes. Laura spent two days at AirSpace Gallery, experiencing the programme first-hand - participating in workshops and immersing herself into the activities, speaking with and working alongside participants and lead artists.

Public - You & Me, ran from 3 to 28 June 2019

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Public - You & Me on Kettle's On

Last week, Selina Oakes spoke with Peter Herbert from Kettle's On about Public - You & Me, running at AirSpace Gallery throughout the month of June. The clip above is an excerpt from a longer conversation discussing changes in the arts in Stoke-on-Trent over the last few years and AirSpace Gallery.

Public - You & Me is a test-bed programme of public-facing activity. This week, Rose Nordin from OOMK will lead a workshop on Zine Making and DIY Publishing, followed by a conversation on representation in the arts with Kerry Campbell (Mansions of the Future). On Friday, we welcome Figs in Wigs to the Gallery for a closing party like no other, with an immersive performance, a showcase of some of the works produced collaboratively in the space during Public - You & Me, and a drawing battle. 6pm until late, free and open to all.

Monday, 24 June 2019

Public - You & Me: Conversation with Kate Owens, Block Print on Fabric (and dance if you want to)

Photos: Glen Stoker

Glasgow-based artist and designer Kate Owens delivered Block Print on Fabric (and dance if you want to) at AirSpace Gallery as part of Public - You & Me last weekend. On Saturday, members of the public were invited to block print onto fabric by walking or dancing through the gallery space. Beginning with a short introduction to Kate's practice, participants were asked to design patterns on the base of wooden sandals - made, quite simply, with a slab of plywood secured to the foot with two elastic straps. Books about Sonia Delaunay and Textile Design helped to inform the patterns created, before they were inked up by pressing each sandal onto a felt ink-pad. Step by step, participants printed their designs onto fabric, following Kate's advice on how best to move across the space — with some amendments as each participant learnt (and unlearnt) ways of walking, printing, balancing and dancing.

Kate was commissioned by Public - You & Me to create soft furnishings for the space, to compliment the furniture made with Plane Structure. Sheets of printed fabric were cut into sections and paired with blocks of colour to create curtains and cushions — all in a single day. Here, Kate speaks about her experiences with print and reflects upon the workshop at AirSpace Gallery.

How did your practice develop into a participatory print process?

Kate Owens: I think about my practice including a participatory print process as part of a wider way of working. With participatory projects I’m mainly setting up situations with a potential for creative output and then retrospectively analysing the event to see where the work lies. I try to document the event, recording video and audio and also keep hold of some physical material from the process. It’s then about presenting elements that hold something of the spirit of that event. 

In the past I’ve transcribed audio recording during workshops into scripts which are then used to create performance work like Why Don’t You Put Eyes In Those Holes (2016.) I’ve also created works by assembling all the leftover material from a participatory event as a textile hanging Trying To Cut Out A Heart (2016.)

The particular block printing process I proposed for the workshop at Airspace Gallery came from a method I developed in the studio in 2017, where I realised I could use my wooden sandals as print blocks and walk a design across a length of fabric. It seemed so efficient and exciting because it brought two activities together — dance and printing. I use dance in a loose sense, but I’ve always had an interest in dance and probably spend more money seeing dance performances than I do exhibitions. 

The act of inking and printing a repeat motif is intrinsically rhythmic and requires carefully planned and controlled movement — so in my head these two creative practices were already linked. As I’ve said before I’m sort of pre-programmed to always be doing two things at once — it’s been my method of economic survival and through that I’ve realised it actually helps me to think creatively.

Have you worked with dancers before?

KO: I printed myself using print-block shoes to make a number of textile works and continue to do so in my studio practice. I’ve opened it out as a way of working with other people — initially with a group of dance students for the worThe Shadow of Your Shadow in 2018 for a project in North London, responding to a recently closed textile factory. For this project I taught the group of dancers a short choreography which allowed them to print and move the ink pad across the fabric, using their body weight to transfer the ink. 

I was interested to see how dancers would incorporate their own movements into the process. This whole project was conceived as a live performance so the only collaborative part was how the dancers used their own bodies whilst carrying out the rehearsed printing process. Bringing music into the equation encouraged the dancers to think about the printing process as dance and created a consistent rhythm which gives momentum to the performance. 

What do you most enjoy about working collaboratively with the public?

KO: The unexpected! I rarely get time to experiment so (quite selfishly) I enjoy watching and learning through other peoples experiments. I sort of think about the idea of the workshop in terms of ‘workshopping’ in the pre-performance theatre sense, where a small group riff on an idea exploring its potential, before formalising it into a public performance. When a participatory event works like this, it’s magic!

If any, what challenges have you faced in using this 'less traditional’ method of printing - as well as working in a participatory way? 

KO: So many! At first I was like, this is such an efficient method of printing! Why isn’t everyone doing it like this? Then, I tried getting more consistent prints and making it work on a variety of flooring with a variety of people, with a variety of abilities and found so many difficulties. I’ve worked out a method that I use in my studio by looking at lots of traditional block printing books and tweaking the many variables from the surface you print on to the surface of the ink pad, the viscosity of ink, materials used to make the print block sandal or the fabric for printing on. 

I’ve also found ‘flocking ma blocks’ makes for a much better print but is a bit of a faff and needs to be re-done every three metres or so. With workshops or participatory printing I have to adapt it each time depending on budget, floor surface, age or abilities of participants. I learn more each time I do it. With regards to this particular workshop in Stoke, I was pleased that we developed some new choreography and printing methods through using a wall —  very good for those who need a bit of help with balance. 

Often, your workshops, which are performative, are accompanied by music and audio tracks. For you, why is it important to have a cross-disciplinary practice?

KO: I always find categories of practice problematic even 'cross-disciplinary’ (it’s a mouthful, slightly off-putting and non-specific). I studied painting but didn’t make any paintings, and then did an MA in sculpture where I did lots of printing. Now I mainly make textiles, performance and curtains but essentially I just have a creative practice and always try to be open and outward looking so if music or another element seems right then I include it. For recent performances and participatory block printing workshops, I’ve specifically introduced music to encourage individuals to (almost subconsciously) be aware of rhythm and body movement or dance and essentially find joy in the making process.

For Public You & Me, we commissioned you to make soft furnishings for the Gallery from the prints created during the workshop. How did this differ from your usual process of making work?

KO: Really different to any other commission I’ve had and I’m still trying to work out what happened and what I did…?? I’d usually be invited to do an exhibition or a workshop or both as a related project. I occasionally get invited to propose a workshop with no specific remit and I try to use these opportunities as starting points for new work or to continue on from a previous project. So I am used to dancing a blurry line between education and practice. 

This was different because I was asked to specifically make soft furnishings. Having made textile-based work for the past four to five years I’ve recently started using the fabrics I print to make more functional objects out of the gallery space such as curtains, lampshades, cushions. In a way I’ve found exhibition making a bit deflating as you focus on making work and preserving it for showing in a very specific context. When it’s not on show in a (generally) neutral space, it’s packed up and protected and only lived with by the (very few) collectors of my work. 

The curtains, cushions etc that I've been making aren’t kept sterile, guarded by invigilators: they bump into life— on sofas, in kitchens, captured in casual photography as part of life's context. They are part of the daily conversation. I hope that’s how the textiles made during the workshop will be encountered in Airspace Gallery, now that they’ve been formed into furnishings. They are a bit more self-contained as objects, meaning they are robust and less dependent on context than my previous artworks. In a way I don’t have to worry about them surviving out in the world and I can let go a bit.

Kate Owens, Block Print on Fabric (and dance if you want to) took place on Saturday 15 June at AirSpace Gallery. You can see the outcome of Kate's workshop at AirSpace until 28 June.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Public - You & Me: Rebecca Davies on Radio Stoke

Radio Stoke broadcast on Saturday 15 June - hear from Rebecca Davies about Public - You & Me at AirSpace Gallery. 5mins 31secs.

We were live on Radio Stoke this morning - if you missed us, you can listen to Rebecca Davies chat about Public - You & Me. We're well into week two of the programme: today, Kate Owens invites members of the public to Block Print on Fabric (and dance if you want to) in a participatory workshop which will create one-off textile prints for the Gallery space.
Public – You & Me is a test-bed project open to all. Throughout the month of June, we're testing out different modes of working: we're navigating ourselves and audiences through ways of listening, doing and working together. It's your space, my space, our space.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Public - You & Me: Cobuild with Matt Foster

Public - You & Me: Who is it for? What is to be done? You & Me, we're putting into action the fleeting chats and in-depth conversations, down the pub, on the street and in the gallery – because public isn't a solo-act.

Throughout the month of June, AirSpace Gallery is activated by a number of participatory events, workshops, socials, film screenings and performances as part of Public - You & Me. Curated and delivered by Rebecca Davies and Selina Oakes, the four-week, test-bed programme seeks to develop a new approach to Public Programming at AirSpace.

From 3-28 June, we'll be working with artists from across the country - Plane Structure, Kate Owens, Ed Pickstone, Rose Nordin, Phoebe Davies and Figs in Wigs - to activate the Gallery, daily. Free and open for public use.

In Week One, we welcomed Matt Foster (Plane Structure) to the Gallery as we began our Furniture Cobuild. In the first Public - You & Me podcast, Rebecca and Selina chat with Matt about responding to a 'cobuild' brief for an artist-led space. (Recorded Wednesday 5 June, Runtime: 15m32s).

Public - You & Me. Drop in and get involved, 3 - 28 June.

View the entire programme online.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

CALL OUT: Graphic Design Commission at AirSpace Gallery

As part of an upcoming Test-bed Public Programme at AirSpace Gallery, taking place between 3 - 28 June, the Gallery - along with artists Rebecca Davies and Selina Oakes - are commissioning a Graphic Designer or Collective to refresh its graphic identity. 

Deadline: Sunday 2 June, Midnight
Contract:  4-8 weeks
Fee:  £1,000

ABOUT: Artists Rebecca Davies and Selina Oakes are leading a 4-week test-bed programme of multidisciplinary arts activity at AirSpace Gallery. It will engage in a dialogue that resonates with a local audience and help to establish a revised public programme and long term strategy of education and engagement for Stoke-on- Trent. There are three key strands:

1. QUESTION (talks/discussion)
2. LEARN/UNLEARN (workshops/seminars)
3. ACT (performances/events).

BRIEF: We’re looking for an innovative and engaging Graphic Designer or Design Collective to research and develop a new typeface and logo for AirSpace. They will devise/ deliver an engaging one day workshop to inform the design work.

The Commissioned Recipient must:
  • Consider the future uses of the typeface and logo for print and web (to be extended upon in a 2nd Phase)
  • Be well versed in typography, print and web design
  • Work in an open and collaborative way with project curators and community
  • Be expected to travel to Stoke-on-Trent on 20-21st June and 28th June (can be negotiated)
OUTCOMES: The outcome of this brief will inform the future development of the Gallery’s graphic identity. Phase one outcomes:
  • Typeface and logo delivered to project curators in useable, digital format
  • Typeface and logo presented in a physical format, to be exhibited in the Gallery
  • Delivery of a public-facing workshop
  • Considerate of AirSpace’s ethos / identity
  • Work with the Project Leads
APPLY: Please send the following in an email to Selina Oakes at
  • CV
  • 150 words about their practice
  • 150 words on your approach to the brief
  • 300 words on workshop proposal
  • PDF three pages, max. 10MB featuring up to three / four examples of their work
  • The successful applicant will be contacted by Thursday 6 June.
  • Deadline: Sunday 2 June, Midnight

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Organisational Development: Visit to PEER, London

The last of our organisational development visits was carried out by Rebecca Davies. In March, she met with Alice White, Curator for Local Audiences, at PEER - an independent arts organisation based in Hoxton in East London. "Peer has evolved from the ground up over the past 20 years, putting down deep roots within the socially, culturally and economically diverse area of Hoxton.."

- We don’t exist in isolation. We are public. -

I arrive at PEER on a sunny Spring afternoon.

During the morning, I’d been exploring/making the most of London and time with my brother who was over from Germany.

We start at the Lisson Gallery – both spaces.

I stand outside in awe of their purpose built architecture – something I am becoming increasingly mindful of. Why? Because AirSpace was not originally built to be a gallery – not sure what it first was, but it became a resting/safe space for young women suffering from domestic abuse. Then it was a bank.

Now it’s AirSpace – Gallery and Studios. And a great job has been done to turn it into exactly that, despite my feeling sometimes the building makes it a bit of a challenge.

Lisson has shit loads of money: its an incredible space to view work, to show off the work it has on its walls and plinths AND, in the case of this particular show we saw, warts and weaknesses (gaah it was so boring – apart from one piece that was basically van Gogh postcards in a frame).

We moved on to The Approach – a small gallery space above one of my favourite East End pubs. Definitely NOT built to be a gallery, and I’m sure some of the Eastenders old and new are surprised there’s white walls, and meticulously placed expensive artworks right above the space they lovingly refer to as their local. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful space and nice to hear the hum of afternoon pint drinkers climb it’s way up the stairs and provide (me anyway) comfort while looking at the art.

A bus ride from Hackney Road to Old Street.

A short walk through Hoxton Square.

The old White Cube looks derelict – now surrounded by gourmet burger cafes and cocktail bars. Some people ACTUALLY LIVE on Hoxton Square. EU Flags hang in the door way of what looks like a sexy design studio. I’m not digressing, I’m trying to set the scene, because then you’re on Hoxton Street and outside PEER. Where it feels so, so, so different to any of that: just a five minute walk from the terrifyingly polluted and noisy Old Street Roundabout there is a neighbourhood. And there is PEER.

The Khadija Saye Garden is blossoming and a luscious green (I learn later that Khadija was once a gallery intern at PEER and the garden is a memorial to her after she died in the Grenfell fire). Two trees with circular benches are full of college students, and skateboarders are utilising the spacious pavement outside the gallery - which, to the passing public, is two giant windows from ground up. The invigilator beams and stands up from her chair (not behind a desk) when we come in. We like the exhibition – but we’re struck even more by the action and life outside. It feels like a two-way viewing space. The pavement is a stage, but to those sat on the benches in front of the gallery, we are onstage.

I say to the young woman invigilating that I am here to meet Alice, but know that she’s tied up right now having a meeting at the local sixth form college. "So I’ll just hang out here till she arrives," I comment; "oh in that case… would you mind filling out a feedback form? It won’t take long," she responds. It is actually quite lengthy, but I am pleased to provide some feedback and take photos of some of the pages on the i-Pad she’s passed to me.

I happily share why I’m there, when I was last there, why I went last time, who I am, where I live – because answers to these questions, I am learning, are very important if you are a gallery that wants to listen to people and create a space which tries to engage its audiences – or represent and engage better with the ones it might not be. She tells me she went to the local Sixth Form and it was through a talk that Alice gave at the college that she heard about opportunities at PEER to work – PAID – in the gallery.

Alice arrives and we go through to the back – a smaller space with a video playing and PEER’s edition prints of artist works are hung on the walls. She makes me tea and dries the cups using a tea-towel that hangs from a cat’s bum tea-towel holder in the kitchen.

"I’m a curator FOR local audiences. Not OF. And people often say OF. But it’s FOR - they’re local PEOPLE I work with. NOT objects." She has said this to me before (we are currently working together on a project in Barking and Dagenham with social services.) "PEER sits within the community, down the street from the library, a social housing estate, next door to a post office, it’s on a street where there are other cultural organisations, cafes, restaurants, newspaper shops, hairdressers, bakers, a funeral director and a Poundland. We don’t exist in isolation. We are public." One wall of the gallery is pretty much a window – "..the hope is that outside will know about what we’re doing here and be able to look in."

PEER maintains a core ethos to make ‘art part of daily life’ – I instantly think of the beautiful street clock that Chris Offili made with them, standing outside the gallery.

A brief introduction to the gallery’s Director, Ingrid Swenson MBE (for services to the arts in East London) actually turns into a much longer discussion with her about NPO – PEER surviving on 5OK from its first three years as an NPO – it being difficult for some time, but how she’s glad they went for it. We plan a PEER trip up to Stoke – the potential of AirSpace being a location for their touring shows is discussed, and Alice and I go back to the space where we’d started our conversation.

There is a map of the local area titled ‘Adopt a Tub’ – it sets out the locations for bath tub planters across the estate – a recent offsite project that Alice has been leading on with an artist and a gardener. Alice recently successfully applied for Paul Hamlyn funding with the gallery – a sum of money that covers her leading PEER Ambassadors (enabling young people to get paid Gallery Assistant experience) and PEER Notices (a year long public art project on Hoxton Street across a year; allowing deep and embedded relationships to form with place and the people who live, work and study here,) thus "pioneering projects across two years that aim to provide opportunities for local young people from BAME and lower socio-economic backgrounds and artists to work together on public art projects."

This is great news and means Alice can continue collaborative activity, like the Adopt a Tub scheme, in the local area. Alice is passionate about such collaboration, and about PEER working with local residents, "it’s where they live; they have the power to shape it." It’s clear how important it is to her that people locally feel like PEER has got their back, "because some people feel powerless in their home situation." This has meant that Alice’s role at the gallery includes going off-site a lot, meetings and projects at the local college, attending Local Ward meetings. And we discuss the politics of this, the level of responsibility Alice has for locals working on these projects, how involved she can or can’t get when situations between residents and the council arise – and how important it is for her and PEER to represent those residents when they too are a neighbour. "Residents ask you to fix things," but that’s not Alice’s job. Is it?

For me, working in a similar way on projects, i.e The Portland Inn Project, it’s about putting the pressure ON. Not taking it off. To be truly collaborative is about solidarity – and there are certain things that cannot be fixed in this way – that is the job of local services/the council. "Sometimes," Alice continues, "there are snapshots of a failing system, but then you see small moments of great things happening."

These conversations with Alice, I don’t doubt, will continue (I hope) for years. I think we both see sharing this knowledge as a vital way of our learning methods of best practice. PEER is important. As far as East London galleries go, it’s quite an exception. It listens, it works with, and is truly neighbour to the area it sits in – and Alice’s role is imperative in that.

Thank you to Alice White and PEER.

This activity has been funded as part of an Arts Council England National Lottery Project Grant.

Saturday, 30 March 2019

AirSpace Gallery Programme Evaluation 2015-2018

AirSpace Gallery Programme Evaluation
For the period September 2015 – September 2018
by Selina Oakes

In order that we continue to offer the city a relevant cultural output, we tasked arts researcher and writer Selina Oakes with an evaluation of our activities at the end of the Gallery's 2015-2018 Arts Council England funded programme. Through detailed research and feedback from contributors to the programme, and our physical and remote public audience, Selina has provided us with a comprehensive reflection, confirming what we are doing well, and identifying areas for improvement, which we will seek to embed into our future thinking. 

To download the full pdf click here 


Thursday, 14 March 2019

Organisational Development: North East Group Visit, The Newbridge Project

On Saturday 16 February, we visited The Newbridge Project site in Gateshead. Founded by two Newcastle University graduates in 2010, The Newbridge Project has grown, changed form and changed buildings since then. Currently, it is split across two sites – one in Gateshead and one in Newcastle. We meet with Director Rebecca Huggan to chat about the organisation's development, its changes to a charity and more recently an NPO.
Glen Stoker notes: “It [The Newbridge Project] is an interesting arts model built on the provision of studio space and an artist community-resourcefulness which acts as a motivator for their programming. NewBridge occupy two buildings and have recently moved one of their studio blocs to a new building in Gateshead. Their business model is built on having a lot (100+ over two buildings) of low-cost studio provision to cover all business overheads.

Staffing and Salaries
There are currently two full-time members of staff: a Director, who is largely tasked with organisational stability and programming strategy, and a Programme Director, who looks after the gallery programme and off-site public programme. There are also two Co-ordinators – an Artist Development Co-ordinator and a Studio Programme Co-ordinator – who operate three days a week each. Salaries made up from various income streams such as NPO funding, support in wages from Newcastle University and studio income.

Gateshead Building
  • The new building layout gives over 90% to studios with a small exhibiting space at front of building
  • Newcastle University architecture department delivered plans for this building – for no charge – as part of NewBridge’s Early Career Artist Programme which is supported with funding by the University.
  • The delivery was carried out through an ACE Grants for the Arts commission by TILT, a technician & artists services organisation – the space was built in three weeks.
  • Important inclusion of a large social space, with open access to the public, makes for a good communal atmosphere and attractive to studio seekers
  • Felt that they had to move from being a CIC to Charitable status to be eligible for business rates relief following move to new council-owned premises.

  • The studio revenue from the two buildings (in Newcastle and Gateshead) is £85k per annum. This income allows for solid match funding and a steady cashflow. There is also a selective application for studios – asking for evidence of work and why they want to be part of, and how they can contribute to NewBridge. This acts as evaluation/ provides evaluatory material for funding reports.
  • Studios are always at 100% capacity with a waiting list of around 60 – showing that there is studio demand in the area
  • Some studios act as residency space
  • They have difficulties with the environment of their studios – particularly the cold – but their cashflow enabled them to sustain themselves and install a new heating system.
  • Studio holders have a tenancy agreement and contract, and pay a £50 deposit upon entering their studio

  • The Newbridge Project only has a 3-5 year lease – so there is a sense of impermanence and precarity as it is a lot of work to move 100+ studio holders to a new building for an acknowledged short amount of time. This frustrates existing studio members to some extent, though, there is a general understanding that this is just the way it is all across the city: all of the studio providers in the city - Northern Charter, B&D, Ampersand, Breeze Creatives - are all on short term, temporary leases - so generally all the city’s artists are in the routine of regularly moving studios.
  • Most of Rebecca’s time is spent searching for a building with a longer term lease. Aconversation to access a new City Council-owned building with a 25 year lease, big enough to house both current building’s worth of studio artists has just fallen through after 12+ months of negotiation - so now looking at new options, is it feasible to buy a building?
  • The area they’re looking for buildings is problematic. Most artists want studios in Newcastle, and even though Gateshead is only 10 minutes walk from Newcastle centre, the perceived poor transport infrastructure (public and private) deters people from Gateshead as a location. 9/10 of prospective studio holders state a preference to be in Newcastle rather than Gateshead.

Running an Arts Organisation on Studio Provision

“It is clear that there is a successful model here for running an arts organisation based on its studio provision. The business model is built on a steady large scale revenue stream from its studios, which in turn, opens up access to other funding bodies. There is almost a readymade supportive community made up of the artists inhabiting the studio spaces, meaning there are plenty of resources to tap into. The potential for the associated gallery programme is rich with professional development possibilities for the studio community and it is clear that the human resource-rich nature of the organisation is attractive to the artists Newbridge work with. There are clear links with and formal support from the University and its culture department - as the benefits in terms of attraction for new students is clear, and the prospects for graduate retention are high. A symbiotic relationship, which ought to also offer the ability to sway the political stakeholders as to the worth and value, both socially and politically to this level of cultural activity.

Whether this sort of model could ever be transferrable is moot, as it relies so heavily on some basic fundamental infrastructural realities - namely stakeholder support, a critical mass of practitioners and a healthy and vibrant, dynamic and fraternal cultural eco-system. However it is clear that if these conditions exist, this model is not only feasible but desirable. It is clear that in the case of Newcastle and Gateshead that these conditions exist - and is further helped to by the presence of a high quality, supportive arts institution - The BALTIC, who appear to understand the worth of and necessity for grass roots, artist-led activity in support of its activities and as an essential element of a city’s cultural offer.” - Glen Stoker

Public Programme
We continue the conversation by speaking about Newbridge's Public Programme. At present, Newbridge receives some support from the Newcastle Cultural Investment Fund which is put towards an offsite commission. Rebecca notes that, a few years ago, Newbridge delivered Hidden Civil War, which comprised of 20 events in one month. It focused on austerity politics and presented existing works. Following this, Newbridge has decided to slow things down: to deliver less but to commission new works which are responsive and more embedded in Newbridge's overall output (Rebecca's points to the more recent Deep Adaptation as an example).
Newbridge's Public Programme exists alongside the Exhibition programme. It focuses on a) its public audience and b) support for artists. The PP in itself can be divided into public-facing and an associate scheme, the later of which is called Practice Makes Practice - an artist development programme run by artists for artists and the wider arts community. PMP is given structure by a steering group and regular activities managed by the PMP Coordinator. They have communal soup meetings once a week and specialists workshops such as lifedrawing once a month (which attracts 60 people each session). PMP focuses on developing artists as people who are part of a community.

As with most artist-led spaces, volunteers play a crucial role. At present, Newbridge has an informal placement programme whereby volunteers are able to gain membership to PMP and discounts on space hire. As well as its studio members, it also has “Hot Desk” members who pay £25 per month for flexible desk space and a key to the building. It could be beneficial to AirSpace to begin an Associate scheme - similar to PMP - to generate a 'returning' audience and community, as well as introducing a Hot Desk membership (or Resource Room) where people hired out the space on a regular basis for a set, annual membership fee. This would form part of the gallery's Public and Outreach programme.