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.

Organisational Development: North East Group Visit, MIMA

On the 15 and 16 February, members of AirSpace Gallery (Glen Stoker, Anna Francis, Rebecca Davies and Selina Oakes) travelled to the North East of England to visit arts organisations as part of an ongoing Organisational Development and Research Period. Key venues included Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA), The Newbridge Project and Baltic 39. Our goals for the North East visit were a) to find out about how specific organisations are run and supported b) to connect with like-minded organisations c) to conduct some team-building and co-writing for AirSpace's future Mission and Vision statement.

MIMA, Exhibitions and Collections

Our first stop was MIMA, where we met with Olivia Heron, Assistant Curator, and Kate Densham, Public Programmes and Events Assistant Curator. Olivia greeted us and introduced us to MIMA's temporary projects and collection. Outside, Joanne Tatham and Tom O'Sullivan's monolithic sculpture provides an additional archway into the building. Brimming with psychedelic colours, the piece, A Proposal to Ask Where Does a Threshold Begin and End, mimics the Tees Transporter Bridge while connecting the gallery's interior space with the exterior plaza. Though only temporary, Olivia informs us that it has already remained standing long-after its initial 'expiry' date – something which illustrates an element of flexibility in the organisation's programming side.

Upstairs, Liquid Crystal Display is being installed – a show which is touring from Site Gallery in Sheffield (and co-curated by former Site Gallery Director, now MIMA Director, Laura Sillars). We're shown into the Collections room, where Olivia explains some of the working relationships which MIMA builds with artists. She reflects upon cyclical processes and the establishment of familiarity between artists and the gallery. For example, MIMA typically enters into talks with an artist over a year – first showing their work as part of a group exhibition, then solo, then perhaps a purchase for the collection. She speaks about how MIMA has shifted its focus and has a more balanced approach to the Exhibitions and Education programmes.

With this, cuts to the curatorial budget have not affected their collection or programme too severely: Olivia remarks that they are resourceful and search for cost-effective methods such as printing things in-house and commissioning artists to make the work onsite. MIMA also goes directly to the artist – and not through auction houses – when looking for new acquisitions: Keith Piper's Four Horsemen, for example, was rolled up in his attic until MIMA showed an interest in some of his not-so-known works. There's a sense of resourcefulness but also support for artists, which isn't always the case in larger institutions.

Visiting MIMA we explored the building, and had a chance to look at the permanent collection, to get a sense of the importance of this within the building, but that the way the space was organised was really interesting. In addition, the types of works commissioned and bought set the collection apart from other Art Galleries.” - Anna Francis

MIMA Public Programme and Education

Later, Kate Densham met with us to chat about MIMA's Public Programme (PP) – its Community Days and Gardening Days (supported by Middlesbrough Environment City) which are advertised as “safe spaces” where “everyone is welcome.” Kate speaks about the PP's aim to have a different use for the building, to connect, and to dispel barriers. The communal lunch space downstairs invites members of the public to have a free vegetarian meal with MIMA staff – it's a “soft introduction” to MIMA.

Anna reflects on MIMA's Public Programme and outreach initiatives: A key part of the MIMA offer seems to be the weekly lunch, which happens on a Thursday. Thursday is Community Day at MIMA, and as well as a lunch slot, where food is freely available to those that want it, the galleries and spaces around the building are occupied by a wide range of projects and activity. There is a gardening group, who look after the little garden/allotment at the side of the gallery, there is a sewing group, and a singing group, and all sorts of other people regularly or irregularly using the spaces. Some of that activity is very self-organised by the groups themselves, and via the partnerships that MIMA has, and other activity is more looked after by the gallery staff.”
The Community lunch is vegetarian, and is delivered by The Other Perspective CIC – a food based group. The crockery currently used is throwaway, but Kate from MIMA tells us that this is potential for a project in future – this interests me a lot, as it is in line with the work we are doing on Portland Street.

We ask about how the community can connect in to the Community Day, and Kate tells us that basically, “We say 'yes' a lot.” People come and ask if they can do something, there is something communicated out into the community that there is space here and when people ask, the answer is yes. (Something we could consider at AirSpace – where are the points of entry, how can our resources be shared out a bit more?) We delve into this a bit more, how is it possible, how is this managed? What rules are in place? Who does the washing up?
Kate tells us, all the staff are trained in conflict management, which sounds very helpful (given our experience in Portland St and is perhaps something we should think about). There are clear guidelines that everyone knows about (I should have asked where these are accessed): no swearing, no alcohol, there are boundaries and they are communicated i.e. staff cannot sign letters of support for asylum claims. At the moment, as everything is throwaway, there is no washing up, bit who does it once there is some, will be dealt with then.
The programme does inform the community activity, but community activity is also informed by external activity i.e. International Women’s Day etc. Kate works on a lot of the public projects, and tells us about one, which she works on one and a half days a week. It is a Great Places project for North Ormesby, looking at local examples to think about social activism and cohesion. The project takes the approach of ‘joining in with people’s lives’ first and then later introducing creative activity. So far, the project has started with something universal – ‘How We Eat’ – creating space to eat, meet and make together as a community, in order to then understand how else we want to be and work together. This sounds so much like the Community Maker project which AirSpace has partnered on since 2015, and which has developed into The Portland Inn Project.

MIMA Reflections
The resources of MIMA are much greater than AirSpace, but what it tells me is that a lot of the activity which we have been doing now for years on scant resources, feeling our way, have been good and developmental activity both for us as an arts organisation, but also, in contributing to
a) Professional development support for artists (this we want to continue to do, and considering access points into the building and the programme could really help – it can’t be a case that we just create more for ourselves to do, it needs to be about developing space for others.
b) The understanding and value of artists in social contexts within our city (this part needs much more work, because we have identified a discernible gap between how people view the work we do in the city, and the gallery programme. In particular, the work which Rebecca and Selina are doing in relation to the public programme aims to understand more about this gap, and increase the esteem felt towards the gallery by the local audiences. This feels like such a positive for the future of the project.”
Throughout our meeting, Kate speaks about the programme seeks to be “reactive” and tries to listen and act in response to audience needs. She also mentions the personal relationships forged between MIMA staff and members of the public – and that an element of trust in each other is vital.

We drive from Middlesbrough to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and arrive in time for the BALTIC Artists' Award opening night with work by the 2019 nominees Aaron Hughes, Kang Jungsuck and Ingrid Pollard.

In the morning, we regroup to discuss AirSpace's Mission and Vision statement. We reflect upon the organisation's core values, its goals and objectives – what they were, what they currently are, and what we wish them to be. A line from MIMA's own mission resonated with us - “We are an organisation with a social function.” We mind-mapped words like respond, invite, trust, support, permeability, flexible, mobilise, visualise, nurture, growth and sustainability (to name a few!) and began formulating a short statement of intent – with words like champion, artists, artist-led, collaborative and cross-disciplinary.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Organisational Development: Visit to Site Gallery

As part of AirSpace Gallery's period of programme and organisational reflection, research and development, ahead of our intended programme of works 2019-2021, we embarked on a series of research visits to relevant organisations across the country.

In late 2018, I visited Site Gallery in Sheffield and spoke with Executive Director Judith Harry. I was particularly interested in their organisational development, but also to hear about their major - and at the time imminent - Capital Development Project.

SITE Gallery
Site Gallery is Sheffield’s international contemporary art space, specialising in moving image, new media and performance.

Pioneering emerging art practices and ideas, we work in partnership with local, regional and international collaborators to nurture artistic talent and support the development of contemporary art.

At the heart of what we do, is to connect people to artists and to art, inspiring new thinking and debate through our exhibitions, talks, events and other public activity.

We work with early career to established artists to commission new work, produce solo and group shows, deliver residencies, performances, events and community programme. Through diverse programming, we reveal the process of making art and invite our audiences and participants to engage, explore and connect.

In 2018 Site Gallery re-opened after a building programme which trebled the scale of its public area.  We now have a large scale gallery, a dedicated projects space, café and shop as well as a beautiful new façade and main entrance.

Executive Director
Artistic Director
Curator (City of Ideas)
Producer (City of Ideas)
Engagement Curator
Technical and Operations Coordinator
Ops and Front of House Manager
Finance Manager
Finance Assistant
Marketing and Commercial Manager
Young People's Programme Producer
Programme Assistant

Site has been operational for 40 years - transforming from a photographer’s gallery (originally set up by Sheffield Hallam photography graduates in an out of town space) into a long standing RFO>NPO organisation and one of the country’s leading contemporary art spaces, with a focus on performance, film and new media.

At the time of interview, Site were about to unveil a brand new ACE funded Capital build - which trebled the scale of its public area, increasing its Gallery spaces, adding a café and shop. The interview here, and the experience of Site, was of interest to AirSpace as we are exploring any city’s need for a large scale Contemporary Visual Arts venue, the political will to see that happen, the viability and the process of large scale capital funding.

The initial plan for Site’s new build started in 2012 with a rejected bid - rejected because of an unrealistic scale of ambition. The process of putting that bid together, allowed for it to be unpicked to form a more realistic workable plan was submitted in 2013. The new design plan specifically answered the challenges at the heart of Site’s business strategy. The importance of Arts Council’s funding conditions informed this - a clear condition is that they will only fund capital projects that ensure organisational resilience and financial stability. The strategy for income generation with the new build here is to make the building pay for itself - through the lease of space such as its business units, leasing the new project space to other cultural and commercial organisations, developing a larger audience that will spend time and money in the Gallery, in its café (which is leased out) and shop which will stock editions from artists working with Site.

Atop of and necessary for this financial resilience, one of the 5 goals for the capital project was to create a competitive artistic offer - before the expansion, the smallness of the gallery space limited the quality and scale of exhibitions and works the team were looking to programme. Despite the organisation’s reputation for quality, potential touring partners would inevitable be deterred by the small size and potential of the space. Finding arts partners and co-commissioning touring shows forms a major part of the financial model.

Through, and as a result of the new build and capital expansion, staffing at Site increased to project manage the capital process, and then to cope with the increase in its output - adding an operations and front of house manager and a full time curator - taking full-time and project roles to 13 posts. (In 2012, this had been 4 full time posts - Executive Director, Artistic Director, Marketing and Technical - and 1 part time post - Finance. All other roles were volunteers).

It is of key interest that an early strategy at Site was around increasing personnel capacity, through long term funding - via funding bodies such as Paul Hamlyn, Esmee Fairbairn and Arts Council’s Business Development Grants and Catalyst programme - which funded roles on a long term basis, and bought time freeing up the schedule of the directors to allow their organisational restructuring vision to flourish. Judith’s background was in fundraising, and Laura Sillars the new Artistic Director, believed in the strategic importance of fund raising within her position.

A fascinating part of the discussion here was about the role of fundraising and fund-finding within the organisation.

“ I don’t really believe in employing fundraisers - I think everyone (in the organisation) needs to fundraise. Everyone in this organisation, now, has got specific areas within their job description which is about income generation. So it’s either fund-raising or commercial, but everyone knows exactly what they’re doing.”- Judith Harry

This approach allows for a team ethic towards the future prosperity of the organisation, and a sense of ownership of the organisation, and upskilling of individuals within the organisation. The emphasis is on long term roles but not necessarily for a specific individual to be in that role for a long time - an expectation is more that an individual might be with Site for a certain amount of time, and to give all of your energy to your role, take advantage of the support and experience of the organisation to become better at what you do, and leave a more rounded and able practitioner.

Judith made clear the importance of Stakeholder support and political will to allow for their expansion, and more holistically, for the City’s emergence as a cultural hub. Arts Council funding comes with a proviso that the City Council were also heavily invested. For this capital project, Sheffield Council gave their building, on a 25 year peppercorn lease, plus a significant sum towards match funding the project - along with a level of trust in the organisation to allow Site to get on and deliver a programme for themselves and the city. Crucially, throughout the process, The Arts Council and the City Council developed and maintained a close relationship - meeting regularly to assess progress, continued support for Site to ensure best practice through the project.

Also clear was the need for experience of Capital funding within the organisation. At the time of planning, Site had this experience on their board, through their Chair and also Claire Lilley - a Site Board Member and head of Programmes at Yorkshire Sculpture Park who have delivered multiple Capital projects. Also, Judith had been working on a capital project prior to her arrival in Sheffield. This experience allowed for a good start to the vision and approach to Arts Council - helping to get the pitch right, especially following the initial rejection, helping to shape the resubmission, and understand exactly what was being asked for and why. Following this, the Arts Council’s robust procedures at every stage offered the necessary framework for planning. Strategically, the employment of a freelance consultant at this early stage proved invaluable for advice.


On the surface, such a huge redevelopment and such large ambition might seem way beyond a small artist-led organisation like AirSpace - yet it was clear from talking with Judith Harry, that despite its longstanding, before the arrival of her and artistic director, Laura Sillars, in 2011, Site wasn’t a huge organisation - it was a small version/organisation of what had the potential to be a bigger institution. The thing that changed in the years prior to 2011, then was that the vision and ambition for what Site could potentially be, shifted - upwards - through a new Chair of the Board and strategic appointments.

Finally, a common theme emerged, as I heard how important the developing cultural infrastructure in the city is - a fraternal relationship of support between all of the city’s arts organisations and venues, built on communal activity such as the Arts Sheffield Festivals, which tests the strengths of those relationships, but ultimately forms lasting organisational bonds, and an understanding of each organisation’s value. Many of the city’s organisations have worked together on Catalyst consortium projects, and Ambition for Excellence projects.

And then also, the Culture Consortium of Sheffield - which is constituted of the directors of all the leading building-based arts organisations in the city - theatres, visual arts and museums and the 2 universities - working, strategically, collaboratively together for the good of the city - including a funded facilitation role by the City Council. Meeting regularly - 11 times a year, with 1 away day to bring in and deliver on city-wide funding and programming. Direct results of this collaborative activity has resulted in, amongst other things, an independent Arts-Education network, and a Creative Guild, for independent artists, designers and crafters.

Organisational Development: Visit to In-Situ, Pendle

As part of AirSpace Gallery's period of programme and organisational reflection, research and development, ahead of our intended programme of works 2019-2021, we embarked on a series of research visits to relevant organisations across the country.

In early 2019, we visited In-Situ, in Pendle, Lancs - an organisation with relevant thematic concerns for AirSpace, but one with a proven ability to engage in real terms with its community and a brand new NPO organisation. I talked with Paul Hartley - an ever present at In-Situ - and new-to-the-organistion - Andy Abbott about their approach and structure.

Some notes from the visit:

In-Situ - Embedding art into everyday life in Pendle
Our vision is for In-Situ to be a part of everyday life. For our art to be an art of action. For our art to contribute to society as a whole. For our art to challenge current thinking about environment people, place and culture.

Paul Hartley – Organisation and Engagement
Andy Abbott – Environment Programme
Anna Taylor – Marketing and Communications
Kerry Morrison – Lead Artist
Hussnain Hanif – Engagement
Sophie Skellern – PhD Evaluation


In-Situ is a not for profit arts organisation started in 2011 by Paul Hartley, Kerry Morrison and William Titley - formed originally in Accrington, from a shared interest in how artists could work in aid of the displaced communities resulting from a housing market renewal scheme - and from a shared frustration about how art was working in communities and in particular a sense of tokenism and short-termism.

Situated in Pendle - a district made up of 3 towns: Colne, Nelson and Brierfield - a mix of urban, post-industrial cotton mills and manufacturing industries - with associated migration from South Asia (mainly Pakistan) mainly based in Brierfield and Nelson, both of which are characterised by around 30-40% migrant communities. Surrounded by wealthier rural areas.

Built from an initial £10,000 seed money investment from a visionary element of Lancashire County Council which sought to strip some existing bureaucracy from arts funding in an attempt to get funding direct to artists. The money allowed for a series of national and international research visits to inform the existing interest in how artists can contribute to social solutions rather than merely offering a mirrored response or highlight of problems. The research visits led to some planning time - based in the back room of a library in Brierfield, where on a scrap of paper, an initial 5 year plan was formed to create an organisation which would;

1 - Commit to one place (Pendle)
2 - To try and always think long-term
3 - To always have artists driving projects in leading roles, rather than local authorities or other stakeholders bringing artists in as deliverers of their projects.
4 - to build on a historic (1960’s), but maybe lost, view of the role of artists working with communities - not as community artists, simply delivering workshops, but exploring the political dimension of the contemporary artist in how they and art can play an active role in shaping policy.
5 - To keep briefs open and allow the artist to develop them through their practice
6 - To allow space for each of the 3 artists to maintain and develop their own collective and individual practices. (Paul > Community Development Work and space finding for conversational activity, William > revealing small town sub cultures, eg Northern Soul, Kerry > the urban environment, brownfield sites and liminal spaces).

From here - Arts Council funding allowed for R&D into organisational and structural development and In-Situ was set up as a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee. Aided by the coalescence of Libraries, Museums and the Arts in the local council, their ad hoc space in the library became more permanent, offered free of charge and became their base for 5 years and allowed for a follow up 2 year ACE Grants for the Arts bid which crucially allowed for the specific non-prescriptive development of an embedded, social practice-led way of working.

The work

- Initial set of 12 artists’ residencies built on conversation, communication and social practice - affording time to be spent in place to identify concerns.
- Using the Library as a base - for talks and meetings - but not for exhibitions.
- Having artists “out and about” was crucial - engaging with the community on their terms, but being visible as artists.
- Projects grew organically from these residencies, meetings and conversations with the public.

Particular attention has been paid to:

- understanding the organisation’s place within its specific location, something helped by the organisation’s founders being from the area.
- and in particular the migrant character of the area.
- always paying attention to the central idea of being embedded in the place
- how to engage with those communities
- building relationships through committed, time-plenty activity
- maintaining built relationships
- working with particular artists sensitive to those communities
- building partnerships with organisations who already work in those communities.
- delivering talks in an open a way as possible, to allow the community access to the thinking behind the works
- being realistic about how much work can be done, and ensuring quality of work is maintained
- disseminating word of the local activity to a national audience

Being central players in the area’s Arts Council Creative People and Places project, allowed In Situ’s existing activities to be scaled up, to deliver much bigger set piece activities, reaching a much larger audience and participant group. This in turn alerted the local Council, private sector and stakeholders to understand the value of artist activity. Ultimately, In Situ were gifted their current premises by the Council who understood from previous activities, that there ought to be a continued presence of artists within the development of their area.

The decision to apply for NPO status came at this stage - with increased visibility, a settled place in its community, a confidence in what the organisation was and what it wanted to do, support from its community and the local policy makers, and a building.

Capacity building had been done through paid intern schemes with young, emerging practitioners, working on organisational projects. NPO status has allowed for this time and energy hungry organisational aspect to be more effectively balanced and efficiently managed. Previous intern-led activity such as marketing and communications is now officially undertaken by specifically skilled members of the organisation.

Does NPO mean the end to artist led? What is In-Situ’s thinking and how has it changed the organisation?

Ultimately, following a personnel change, with amongst two new members - (Andy Abbott - heading the Environment Programme and Anna Taylor - heading Marketing and Comms) filling the gaps made by the departures from directorship of William Titley and Kerry Morrison - the key for In-Situ has been to develop roles for specific themed activities, but then hiring people who have arts practices - and in this way, maintaining the artists perspective at the heart of the organisation.

Finding the balance between members of the organisation who enjoy or are capable of the necessary admin and fund finding, and those who thrive on the delivery of the artistic output is paramount. p

Audio Clip #2 -

Audio Clip #3 -

It is clear that it has also been key for the new group running In-Situ that there is an aspiration for there to be a fluidity between the roles - a hierarchy free structure, and that each main player in the organisation, in theory, can deliver in each role. However, it may be that in realistic terms, you have to play to the strengths of each individual, and allow this to inform your way of working.

There is a sense that the organisation, as Andy Abbott suggests, has morphed necessarily into an arts collective, built on artist principles and sensibilities. The conversations between the group are ongoing as to at what stage can each individual’s arts practices be brought into their specific roles within the organisation and into the organisation as a whole?

Organisational development : Visit to Backlit, Nottingham

As part of AirSpace Gallery's period of programme and organisational reflection, research and development, ahead of our intended programme of works 2019-2021, we embarked on a series of research visits to relevant organisations across the country.

In late 2018, I visited Backlit in Nottingham and spoke with Directors Matthew Chesney and Suzanne Golden. Backlit was of particular interest, set up in a very similar way to AirSpace at a similar time, in a city not dissimilar to Stoke, but with marked differences in the city's arts and cultural infrastructure.

Some notes from the visit :

An artist-led gallery and studio space based in Nottingham, hosting an annual programme of events and exhibitions

SUZANNE GOLDEN - Deputy Director
HEATHER PERKINS - Marketing Coordinator
GINA MOLLETT - Learning and Community Coordinator
ALICE JACKSON - Catalyst Project Coordinator
JOEY HOLDER - Office Manager and Studio Coordinator
CARYS BOWEN-JONES - Volunteer Coordinator
PETER CHESNEY - Technical Assistant

Background and Ways of Working

Central to the BACKLIT ethos is its strong working relationships with regional universities and its partnerships with other galleries and creative organisations. It is also committed to supporting projects that promote community and local heritage.

Set up in 2008 by NTU Fine Art graduates, one of whom was current director, Matthew Chesney, with 2 board members remaining from the original instigators. Originally housed in a derelict building, they moved to their present location - a large two storey building just outside the centre of Nottingham in 2012. The present building is home to 45 resident studio artists on the first floor with Gallery space on the second floor.

It was clear from talking with Suzanne Golden - Deputy Director - that the organisation is directly linked to its studio - who form, and are acknowledged as, a core part of their audience.

Studio artists are a mix of mainly new arts graduates / emerging artists from the Universities, and artists relocating back to or to Nottingham, attracted by the city’s affordability and the affordability of the studio spaces.

Studio spaces are also hired by specific arts groups and independent businesses.

Backlit’s 3 major exhibitions per year, always include activity by studio artists - offering professional development for the studio - a core ethic of the organisation. This might be, for example, a new commission - working alongside a more established artist. But a crucial way of aligning the studio ethic with the Gallery ethic.

Studio artist benefits are stated as:

    24 hour access
    Internet, heating and electricity (unless excessive usage)
    Profile on the website
    Access to any member only opportunities including exhibitions and events
    Priority over non-members to workshops, talks and other critical sessions
    Being part of a diverse and exciting studio community
    Opportunities to apply to BACKLIT Artist events including projects, annual group show and participation programmes
    Access to regular development opportunities
    Access to regular workshops
    Access to one-to-ones with relevant members of staff in person or via Skype

Backlit’s studio provision is augmented by an Associate scheme which for a small monthly fee offers

    Expanding your network with access to like-minded people in the Nottingham arts scene
    Acknowledgment on BACKIT’s website with a link to your own page
    Opportunity to apply to BACKLIT’s annual group show
    Opportunities to show work at BACKLIT’s makers fair, Open Studios and within the building year-round
    Priority access to BACKLIT events and private views
    Invitations to quarterly BACKLIT Studio meetings
    Regular communications that share Associate and Studio artists’ work, practice and projects
    Access to BACKLIT’s Dark Room and Screen Printing studio
    Discount rates to hire out our project space
    Priority notification of short term studio rental
    Direct contact with BACKLIT staff

2 main audiences were identified - the artists they work with (including studio) and their local community and associated community groups. A recent Arts Council grant allowed Backlit to reassess how they can work with those two specific sets of audience. This process has let to a more defined way of working - building relationships with specific community groups - eg Refugee Forum, the Women’s Muslim Community Group, Community Recording Studio and the Renewal Trust. Building those links allows for an embedded sense of operations within the organisation’s community.

To enhance their embedded sense of activity, there is a commitment to being present at as many community events as possible to build the community network and level of trust and engagement - done largely by Gina Mollett - Learning and Community Co-ordinator.

Their involvement in the Tate Exchange programme as helped learning about how to best engage. How to evaluate relationships and connect properly, and work most effectively in a socially engaged way. How to best work in this way - how to collect evidence, how to log information, observational tracking - eg overheard conversations as case study, storytelling,
Key learning included
- that evaluation should start at Day 1 of a project and shouldn’t be done at the end - it’s an ongoing process allowing for continual reflection, assessment and change.

To aid understanding of their organisation to new audiences, projects have included work around the building they’re inhabiting - its history and how it has and does relate to the community. Work was done, within the project to find personal attached relationships and shared experiences of the building - rooting the local community in the past, present and future of the building.

From this, there was a development of a group of community ambassadors - The Morley Union - who could advocate for the organisation, champion its actions, within the area’s activities.

An important element of the organisation is their volunteer support - from the Backlit website:

Any volunteer at BACKLIT will benefit from networking and industry experience, but each role has specific skills development to ensure the perfect match!

Volunteers at BACKLIT can get structured support as well as having an increased number of opportunities available. So far the volunteers have experienced several benefits from joining the programme, some of which include:

    Networking with local & national Artists
    Developing: Curation, Communication, Creativity, Cohesion
    Mentoring & Friendship
    Confidence & Public Speaking
    Relevant Industry Experience
    Work Experience & Employment References
    Community Involvement
    Free attendance to Events & Exhibitions

Volunteer activity is formalised, largely through a symbiotic link with the Universities - who benefit from the relationship - and understand and value the relationship - as it allows them to offer a work placement element within their courses. There is also a partnership with the Job Centre to offer volunteer placements for non- students - increasing the reach of the organisation. Also worked with NCVS - Nottingham Community Voluntary Services.

Volunteer activity largely consists of Gallery Assisting and Invigilating, but also extends to help with building renovation. The organisation has a specific role attached - Carys Bowen-Jones co-ordinates the activity. Voluntary activity is unpaid - but at the end of each exhibition, for instance - the volunteer group is offered the Project Space, free of charge, to respond to the exhibition in any way they feel.

The organisation benefits from good support from the Local Council, and specific individual councillor/council officer advocacy -

and also through a supportive relationship with the City’s main gallery-based arts organisation - Nottingham Contemporary and the other arts organisations in the City - such as Primary. The Backlit programme activity often includes complementary activity happening at NC - but interestingly, NC understand that there are mutual benefits, particularly in terms of audience development for both organisations.

There is an acknowledged understanding of a sense of a contemporary arts infrastructure in Nottingham which helps, in a fraternal and supportive way, the individual organisations to prosper.

However, as Director Matthew Chesney mentioned partner and sector support from, in particular, the Universities could always be better - a conversation is still to be had, and an argument to be won, about the bi-directional benefit of artist-led organisations - in terms of helping with Graduate retention in the city, their role as part of the cultural infrastructure and offering possibilities for new arts graduates to build a career in the arts.

An interesting development in the Nottingham arts ecology, relevant for AirSpace, is the effect that the growth of Backlit and Primary, and their move toward NPO has had. There is a sense that new projects and organisations are continually cropping up - but interestingly, whereas previously they may have happened independently, new projects are happening within the walls of these 2 new NPO’s - Trade, 4x4(formerly HUTT) and Tom Goddard at Primary, and Chaos Magic from within Backlit. As building development in cities grows, and available building space and resources dwindle, the ability of existing arts organisations to house and nurture new activity becomes ever more important in order to keep the overall ecology fresh and developmental.


Backlit is currently set up as a charitable organisation and also a recent 1st time Arts Council NPO organisation. Application for NPO for an artist-led organisation is a daunting prospect, in terms of having the organisational structure in place, and the ability to cope with and thrive from its implicit demands - but the move for Backlit seemed an obvious one to make for the future prospects of their organisation - and also, they found that, in a right time right place sense, the move made sense. Ultimately, they believed they had nothing to lose by applying, and in terms of the potential organisational benefits, the move made sense.

However, there have been and continue to be challenges, especially for the artist-led - Suzanne talked of “spinning plates” - “ as an artist you need to be able to multi-task…you put yourself in this type of job and its HR, finance, curatorial, working with the volunteers… trying to prioritise and work out what needs to be done when…it’s often quite difficult.”

And for Matthew Chesney, the NPO experience so far has been fairly straightforward in terms of programming and in many ways easier than during the days of project-to-project funding. The difficulties have been issues around Human Resources and getting systems of organisation and policies in place - “ we’re not HR trained, we’re not accountants - we’re artists who got into directing and curating, admin and fund-raising…”