Interview with Duncan: Artist
“The greatest challenge is to replace artist-occupied buildings which are disappearing in central London… Sometimes the exclusion of artists from areas that they’ve lived in for a while or worked in for a while, is so obvious that even the authorities notice.”
For over 40 years, educational charity, ACAVA, has been rolling out art education programmes and investigating new ways to educate and connect different groups of people through art. ACAVA also turns vacant property into cultural centers for artists and communities. Founding member and artistic director, Duncan Smith gives his views on the increasingly pressured situation of finding spaces for artists to create.
How long have you been involved in the arts?
When I was six, I picked up my father’s paintbrush, dipped it into the vermillion and smeared a great big cross on his rather delicate watercolour, and I’ve been painting ever since. I’m an artist. I fall asleep thinking about making art. Along the way, I have spent my life as a teacher and I am still much involved in education.
How and why did ACAVA start?
In the early 70’s, in West London, I found a small school and set up a studio for myself and some friends. Over the years, this space became ACAVA. During the first decade or so it was just two buildings with a gallery and an educational programme, I was a fulltime art school lecturer and an artist and I ran it unpaid with colleagues. By the early 90’s we had paid for the purchase of those first two buildings, other artists were looking for studios, and when property values collapsed – always a great time for artists – we took on extra premises. It’s much easier to acquire affordable buildings in recessionary times. ACAVA has since grown considerably. We have now set up over 30 buildings, of which something like 24 remain with us. Consequently, we manage more buildings than anyone else in the UK and for some 600 artists.
There used to be a very standoffish attitude within art schools on community engagement – there often wasn’t any engagement. It was not an attitude I shared. So, ACAVA was set up as an educational charity and our primary purpose was, and still is, to provide public benefit, and I think that whatever the personal rewards of being an artist are, that is actually what art is about. The first users of our services were kids. Over time this expanded to a variety of different community groups and educational initiatives. We worked with the statutory sector, schools, colleges and universities, the National Health Service, and so on. ACAVA’s policy is to set up projects to engage with whoever is interested in engaging with us, if we think we can make it work. That means having the interest, having the space, having the artists and perhaps the resources to put it together.
What are some of the other opportunities ACAVA offers?
As well as long term studios, we offer residencies. We have short term project studios in many of our buildings, an apartment in West London and a work live space in Berlin. These enable us to give artists opportunities to work in different parts of the world. For several years we accommodated artists from Parramatta in Sydney in exchanges enabling English artists to work in Australia. Recently, we have worked with ColArt bringing artist from the USA, Spain and Japan.
How do you source space?
Our methods for finding space vary. Initially, we were dependent on artists telling us about potentially available buildings. These days we not only set up studios but we also provide consultancy services – sometimes with local authorities, regeneration agencies, and others interested in developing studios. Usually they are interested in developing a ‘creative hub’, and see that at its center might be creative artists and artists’ studios.
We do increasingly pick up some of the bigger projects because we’re known and because we have huge experience. Not just with setting up studios, because there are others who have experience of this, but what we uniquely have experience of, is setting up so many studios without any regular state funding. We take money from whoever will give it to us, and on occasions that’s been the Arts Council, local authorities, or regeneration agencies. But we’ve never had regular funding, and in a world in which the amount of funding going into the arts has been under scrutiny or suffered cut-backs, that experience has served us well.
But it’s getting harder to find buildings. During the last recession one of the things that happened was that property development ceased. Property prices dropped and the value of the leases of industrial buildings collapsed. We were able therefore to set up premises for next to nothing. We went to private and local authority landlords, and asked about available empty buildings. It costs them a lot of money to hold onto them empty. Firstly, guardians need to be put on site to protect them, then there are empty building rates to pay after a period of time. There will also probably be a certain amount of maintenance to undertake on the building. We would pitch to landlords, to give us the building for nothing, on the basis that we would deal with the rates and we would put people in these places. We can vouch that our artists are actually fairly responsible people who will look after their spaces. So, we would take responsibility for the site and keep the building in a decent state of repair. As a result, we were able to set up buildings for very little. The downside is that we have these properties for a very short period of time because the leases are typically a couple of years and at the end of that time those leases come to an end. In the early part of the recession, older lease also tended to be renewed, but as we’ve got towards the end of the recession (not that many of us notice that much), those leases have not been extended.
So there was a period when it was very easy – much easier than usual – to provide inexpensive spaces, but because of the short lease they were also buildings on which we couldn’t spend too much money. These types of space are great for young artists or artists straight out of college for whom a couple of years is six times as long as any studio they have previously had. But they’re not necessarily the sort of places that suit artists over a certain age, and perhaps with certain dependents, with an accumulation of unsold work, and all the equipment collected from a professional life over decades. During this time we set up a couple of studios in Southwark, a couple in Wandsworth and others, some outside London.
What mechanisms or solutions could be put in place, to make it easier for local authorities, developers and landlords to offer up space?
The regeneration schemes aren’t quite happening like they used to. The first answer is for artistic production to be valued properly. Everybody values artistic consumption. People think that London is great because of the theatre, the Tate Galleries, because of the music and all the rest of it. Extraordinarily, people don’t seem to understand that somebody’s got to make that stuff, and so we have a big job persuading people that artistic consumption can only happen if you’ve got artistic production. Of course, we-artists also work in less glamorous places and also suffer when it comes to publicising our cause compared with our performing colleagues who are more recognised and, sometimes, more photogenic!
Secondly, we need planning laws which help, rather than hinder, artistic production. The fact is that recently planning law has gone in the opposite direction, so that industrial premises are used increasingly without the consent of local authorities, for turning into homes and very often homes for people who don’t live there. This is a source of great frustration to us, to see old industrial buildings which were initially turned into creative spaces with dozens of artists, finally being turned into rich pickings for property developers and security for people who are ripping off populations in other parts of the world.
What are the most challenging threats to London-based artistic spaces? Is the city in danger of losing its reputation as a vibrant creative center?
The greatest challenge is to replace artist-occupied buildings which are disappearing in central London. There are two or three ways in which one can go about dealing with that. Sometimes the exclusion of artists from areas that they’ve lived in for a while or worked in for a while, is so obvious that even the authorities notice. An example of this would be Hackney Wick. So, it’s conceivable that the problem can be so dramatic that something might be done about it at the political level.
There are those seeking to understand the issues, like the LLDC (London Legacy Development Corporation). They are aware of the fact that they now have all of that expanse of green and those fancy buildings which were part of the Olympics, next to a jumble of old industrial buildings. If all this is left to market forces the lot will be demolished and turned, in all probability, into extremely badly designed, and expensive homes for the indiscriminate buyer. So, there are discussions about how some residual creative presence can be ensured. One of the ways that can be done is through planning law. Section 106 Agreements ensure that developers, while making their money, provide something of social value, and devices like that may mean that there are going to be a few places left in Central London. At the same time the majority of artists in London will be pushed more to the periphery so there will be more studios in Peckham, Walthamstow, Brent and Merton and places like that, and indeed outside London along the Thames corridor, north and south of the Thames into Essex and Kent, where there is already a steady stream, particularly of older artists. The third thing is that fewer people will come into London and I think that there will be more studios set up in other parts of the country.
The danger of course is that London will stop being the city that it’s been. Paris doesn’t happen anymore, New York barely happens anymore. If people get pushed out to the periphery you don’t get that fervour which you get when people are forced together. When I came to London it was Notting Hill, then it was Brick Lane, then Hoxton and Bermondsey and out to Peckham where there is still that sense of concentrated creativity where brains and ambitions are bashed together 24 hours a day. You don’t get that if people get pushed out to the periphery, so it will become a much more suburban place with gentler art. Much less interesting and the international epicenter will move to… I don’t know, Shanghai … it could be anywhere that artists can afford to live, work and socialise.
Do you think the arts are valued more abroad?
It’s certainly true that there’s a greater appreciation of art in other parts of Europe. I remember people coming back from Russia in the very early days of glasnost, having gone to set up exhibitions in Moscow, and talking about queues of people going around the block to get into artists’ exhibitions. I think that time has probably gone, along with the changes in the Soviet Union. But, that kind of public interest in art depends upon the relevance of the art to the context in which it’s happening, and in Russia it was extremely relevant that people were living individual lives and expressing individual feelings, thoughts and aspirations in a world dominated by the state, so of course people were interested. In the 60’s you had dramatic social, political and economic change across the western world, and of course, some very exciting art went with that. I think it is possible that if London does lose its importance as an artistic center, this would not be unconnected to the fact that we’ve got a very rapidly declining economy and a very, very uninteresting political situation. I don’t mean to sound too gloomy about London, which I love, but I think we must stop taking for granted its global status.
There are those who feel alienated by or suspicious of art and artists, because although we have freedoms with which they identify and from which they may get vicarious pleasure, when they go to a gallery or listen to music or watch a decent play, they are nevertheless at some level aware of the fact that there is an implicit criticism of their values, Art is constantly looking at the way in which the world is seen and proposing new angles, creating a critique of cultural history, along with celebrating those things which are great about our culture.