Jane Morrow is an independent visual art curator, writer, and PhD researcher with a specific interest in artist development, and in building organisational capacity and resources to place artists at the centre of their work.
As part of our Trustees' Week 2021, Jane considers how the concept of the artists studio can be considered as a viable alternative governance model.
Make no mistake - artists’ studios are not always an easy sell, and it’s not just here. It would help if, even within the visual art sector, we hadn’t been debating their significance for many decades, and particularly in the face of increased digitisation, where, for many, the studio is now a laptop. But what once was the preserve of the wealthy, white, gentleman painter, studios have gone through numerous iterations in finding their place as the sites of dynamic collective action that exist today. Traditionally, and globally, these tentative organisational shoots emerge amidst the cracks in overlooked areas within city centres. The studio ‘sell’ can be particularly tricky when they don’t generate income, or footfall, or much of anything that arts funders really like. Except art. They germinate, facilitate, communicate and disseminate art.
My PhD research focuses on the precarity of artists’ studios and workspaces; labour and practice, collaborative and co-operative models, and permanence and peripateticism. This topic emerged from many years of working with artist groups and studio providers throughout England, and, on returning to Northern Ireland, realising that the challenges faced elsewhere were only exacerbated here.
A few factors, in particular, amplified these organisations’ precarity: firstly, the concentration of artists’ studios in Belfast (some 17 organisations, host to an estimated 450 artists; accurate numbers for which are difficult to gauge because they are in constant flux), as well as the severity of the issues they faced (extremely short-term tenancies; enforced moves further away from the city centre areas they had both established and been established in; a steady stream of artists leaving their studios to pursue their careers elsewhere, or leaving the sector entirely; and whole swathes of particular practices dying out due to a lack of facilities). Where other cities might include provision for visual artists’ studios in their larger, flagship/capital build arts centres, that didn’t seem to be the case here. Where studios in other cities could perhaps occupy former schools, some factors around schools’ religious designations here complicate any such further, adapted purpose. Most significantly, a particularly fraught and risk-averse funding climate has led to organisational funding being withdrawn if any insecurity around premises is mooted.
In one interview that I conducted, a representative from Arts Council of Northern Ireland reports feedback from a member of the public questioning why studios exist at all, especially when we don’t fund workspace for writers or businesses or anything else. I don’t know what their answer was in response, but mine is this: artistic production, simply because it doesn't yet have a public, is no less valuable than that which does. And that is the very core of supporting the arts, because otherwise then we end up in very murky territory where absolutely everyone is encouraged to make art and be creative… except the artists. To some extent, I get the point that the person who challenged the Arts Council was making, particularly in light of the pandemic – we are all questioning the nature of all workspaces, for all sectors, and how they contribute to our urban landscapes. However, if the public want the end products - the quality of life that art demonstrably offers, and the social, environmental, cultural, and economic growth of your city - then the seeds – the space for production, for trial and error, for honing a practice - have to be nurtured.
And so, against the odds, artists’ studios came into their own during the pandemic. These organisations that pick up the space that no-one else wants, which receive less funding put together than many of the city’s larger organisations, were designated as workspace. Studios reopened and kept going, despite the closures that affected every other stratum of the cultural infrastructure. However, many organisations are still in the position where they need to find new premises, and a continued local authority rates cap – implemented to assist some Northern Ireland businesses impacted by COVID-19 – means that there are few incentives for property owners to rent their spaces to charities.
Then, as most cultural venues began the slow and often painful process of reopening, another curveball: a noisy wee studio collective from Belfast was nominated for the UK’s most prestigious (and most consistently controversial) art prize. It seemed to be a shock to some, that the organisation that sits at the very bottom of the annually funded organisations table should bloom quite so spectacularly.
Array make incredible work, and they do it from their studio in King Street (noted advantage: ‘we can make banners and show up at a protest outside City Hall before the paint has even dried’). Their building has recently been sold, although they think that they might have 18 months left there – a comparative luxury for all of those other studio organisations on tenancy-at-will contracts. Whilst preparing for the exhibition, Array were granted a small amount of additional funding so that they could expand into the floor above, but this period has now finished, and their existing studios are crammed with the detritus of such a labour-intensive period. Occupying meanwhile space, and with three mothers amongst their members, getting access to their third-floor studios was already made difficult without a lift.
Is there interest in hosting Array’s Turner Prize show here in Belfast? You bet. Is there interest in making a longer-term investment of, say, even three years, in continuing to support these and other artists by helping them to secure space? No. Or not so far, though a representative from Belfast City Council’s Culture team has told me that they are establishing a working group to enable arts organisations and property organisations to speak one another’s languages and build fruitful relationships. Offshoots from studio organisations such as Flax, themselves on a highly precarious monthly tenancy at Havelock House, are springing up in abandoned city centre buildings, albeit on a further temporary basis.
Throughout the sector, so many of us – artists, curators and producers alike – have needed to learn the language of planning, of working with estate agents, of property law and tenancy rights. This is a language way beyond anything in our training, and we need support from board members in this. Without building relationships and networks in the property sector, studio organisations will continue to be ill-equipped to face these challenges; we will continue to work in inaccessible, poorly heated and poorly ventilated spaces with water ingress and the occasional furry visitor. Even for those who do have contacts, salvation in the form of new or appropriate premises can come too late in the day. But if there is one thing that my research and these recent developments indicate, it is that invisible labour does not equate to invisible benefits.
Anecdotally, studios have been compared to weeds that, once pulled, will simply re-root. But like weeds, these organisations nurture an entire ecosystem. Like weeds, value is conditional on your perspective. Give studio groups secure space in which to grow and the resources with which to do it. And wait.
BUSINESS PROFESSIONAL? Learn more about Arts & Business NI's Board Bank programme here. If you are in the earlier stages of your career, and interested in joining an arts board, find out more about our Young Professionals on Arts Boards programme here.
ARTS ORGANISATION? If you're interested in recruiting business professionals with talent and a passion for the arts, please get in touch with Adam Bradley (firstname.lastname@example.org) and share a completed Board Matching form, to let us know what skills you need
MORE ABOUT TRUSTEES' WEEK: In celebrating of Trustees' Week, we're taking time out to consider and celebrate governance, and what makes a great trustee, with blogs and a dedicated event series. These daily 15-20 minute discussions with the boards of five NI cultural organisations will take place at 1pm from 1st- 5th November 2021. They will feature the chair/CEO of each organisation in conversation with a board member who went through an A&BNI governance programme, hosted by an A&B member of staff.
You'll see the full line up below:
Monday 1st November, 1 - 1.20pm: David Codling & Mark Eaglesham, Outburst Arts
Tuesday 2nd November, 1 - 1.20pm: Fiona Bell & Mark Walker, thrive audience development
Wednesday 3rd November, 1 - 1.20pm: Stephen Beggs & Matthew Jeffrey, Tinderbox Theatre Company
Thursday 4th November, 1 - 1.20pm: Sophie Hayles & Cormac Maguire, Crescent Arts Centre
Friday 5th November, 1 - 1.20pm: Sean Fitzsimons & Ciara Smyth, University of Atypical
Arts & Business NI is generously supported by The Arts Council of Northern Ireland.