Interview with
Jonathon Harvey, ACME
Friday 13th March 1998

When did your organisation first come into being and what was it called?
"The organisation was founded in November 1972 and it was registered as a housing association. We called it Acme Housing Association, and I think the word Acme came from the fact that it was merely a means to an end, it was the means to access short life property in East London and we didn't think that the organisation would go on into the future so we chose the most cliched trade name that we could find, which was Acme".

Who were the founder members?
"The founder members came through from Reading University Fine Art Department; a group of artists who were moving up to London. London seemed the place to be in terms of continuing and trying to develop ones fine art practice.There were one or two pioneers who had gone up to London a couple of years before who suggested that there were possibilities of finding places to live and work, because that was the big issue, something that one could afford. So, we followed people up there, but effectively the core was a group of artists from Reading University."

What was the initial aim/policy and how has that changed/adapted?
"The initial aim was for a small group of artists to find not only somewhere to live that they could afford, but also somewhere to work as well. We were conscious that SPACE Studios were beyond our means, that is if you looked at the cost of a SPACE studio (albeit they were cheap), put together with the cost of somewhere to live.So, what we became aware of was that there was a lot of short life semi-derelict GLC/Local Authority housing stock that was due for redevelopment, that had possibly a short life use and we formed a housing association to get access to it. The initial idea was simply to house the original group of seven. We needed seven people to form a housing association and being constituted as a housing association allowed legal access to the property. The alternative was squatting but we decided to go the legal route and form a housing association.Having put a lot of pressure on the GLC and kept pestering them we were allocated a couple of properties in Devons Road in E3.Then very quickly, (because we were able to demonstrate that we could make good use of semi-derelict properties and make them work) they started transferring more property to us, which was actually beyond the need of the initial seven people. So what came from a very small group, and a self help approach, was suddenly to find ourselves providing accomodation for other artists. We were aware that there were so many other artists in exactly the same position as ourselves and very quickly it grew from being one or two houses to within two or three years managing 80, 90, 100 houses and becoming the largest single user of short life housing stock in East London (all of which was being occupied by Fine Artists at very low rent)"

In the light of later changes to the squatting laws it was a key strategic decision to go legal wasn't it?
"Right at the outset we said lets try the legitimate route which was suggested by the GLC who said basically 'we cannot talk to you otherwise'.I think one of the most difficult things was actually getting 10 from seven people to raise the 70 needed to register as a housing association"

Can you say who the seven people were?
"Yes, it was David Panton, Claire Smith, Kevin Goldstein-Jackson, Rosemary Harvey, Susan Sauerbrun, Tom Goodman and myself"

Where were you based first of all and where are you based now ?
"The first two houses were in Devons Road in Bow and had a 21 month life in March of 1973. One of these is still standing, and that is the kind of pattern that some houses are still around 20 years later.The first office was based in my house which was an old shop in Devons Road. In 1976 we formed the Acme Gallery and moved into Covent Garden, Shelton Street which was the office and gallery base.Then when the gallery closed in 1981 the office moved into a new studio block, a Crown property in Robinson Road which we still manage. In 1992 we moved from Robinson Road to a new studio block in Copperfield Road where we are now.This building is also the base for Matts Gallery."

Artist Mineo Aayamaguchi in his studio in Robinson Rd.
Photograph:Hugo Glendinning

What was the reason for you to be associated with and now based in the East End of London?
"As I said it was being aware that other artists hade come to London and managed somehow to survive and get hold of cheap property in East London. We followed and it was purely for economic reasons. There was no other reason whatsoever; the East End looked like the only part of London where one could actually survive and where there were enough opportunities to find space to live and work.Indeed, and to be actually able to afford that space and have enough time to do ones own work"

What part has your organisation had to play in locating such a large number of artists into the East End of London?
"Its quite difficult to say, but obviously we have been instrumental in providing homes and work spaces for 2,000 artists over the last 25 years, which is a considerable number. A lot of those living as well as working in the area. The implication from that in terms of artists as members of the community and putting down roots, bringing up families and so on is obviously considerable. Its difficult to measure the impact, whether we have had the largest single effect in establishing artists in East London, I'm not exactly sure, but I think its possible that we have"

Who were you/are you funded by?
"Very early on we got support from The Gulbenkian Foundation, seed funding for the first couple of years and then moved on to Arts Council/Admin funding and the Arts Council then delegated responsibility for both Acme and SPACE to Greater London Arts and then that became the London Arts Board.So we have had continuous funding over the last 25 years.Its worth saying that that funding is a very small part of our income, it was originally "short-fall" funding and now its funding in relation to the services we provide"

So you are self-funded?
"We are 95% self funded and always have been"

You have also had lotterry support?
"Yes we recently had lottery support. Even though we are a large organisation managing a number of different buildings, up until recently all of those buildings were leasehold, negotiated on the open market. In a sense the organisation is only as strong as the collection of leases that it has. Most of our leases are good leases in terms of the rents we pay and the reviewsthat are built in to them, but it does mean that we are very vulnerable to changes in the property market and the way in which rents can be reviewed. For Acme to survive it was essential that we were able to buy property and the lottery has allowed us to buy two properties; the Fire Station in Gillender Street and this building in Copperfield Road.Not only does that ensure greater revenue because we are not paying rent, it also allows us to build a surplus to be able to move other leasehold properties into freehold.Otherwise the whole pattern of studio provision would be one of buildings being acquired and then lost and so the capital investment just gets dissipated and you have the situation where otherwise artists would actually be forced out of East London in the end. I think after 25-30 years its time for there to be some permanent property available"

Were you supported by the local councils , in particular Hackney and Tower Hamlets?
"We've never had any support at all from the local authorities and in a sense, in terms of property negotiation, we have always felt it best to negotiate on the open market because one can actually do things a lot quicker.Often council property has been so surrounded by political considerations and other interest groups that to try and negotiate would have not been effective.So we have always gone for the open market. We do get charitable rate relief but that is at no cost to the local authorities anyway. We have never had any discretionary rate relief, nor have we ever had any other form of financial support.Tower Hamlets did support our lottery bid by writing supportively but they have never supported us in terms of cash"

What circumstances do you think enabled your organisation to survive and flourish?
"A combination of good fortune and continuityin terms of those involved. Both myself and David Panton, as founder members, have been consistently involved in the organisation and I think that helps, as does a very loyal staff with a very low turnover. That build up of experience has meant that one is more able to judge opportunities than others, and we have learnt to do a lot with a very little. We have had to learn to be very economic in the way we have run the business and we have managed to survive"

What effect do you think you have had on the profile of current British Art and Artists?
"Again I think it is difficult to measure that but undoubtedly we provide a basic means of suopport which is cheap and well managed , secure studios, allowing artists to get on with their own work. Now not all of those artists will produce what may be considered at any time to be great work but one measure, and this may be controversial, is that a third of artists that have been nominated for the Turner Prize have had Acme houses or studios in the past and six or seven Turner prizewinners have. So that is a measure of the way we have helped artists over the years"

How do you think the social/financial and artistic environment has changed since you first you first started?
"If you were leaving Reading now I think you would probably have the benefit of your course providing more information about what its like being and surviving as an artist.I don't think that things are any easier now than they were when we moved up to London and I think the economic position of the artist is still as dire as it was 20 years ago. I think in the 80's there was maybe a small blip when there seemed to be more opportunities and artists actually seemed to be able to afford their space but I dont think that is the position any longer.Artists are still as vulnerable as they were in the past"

How would you describe what happened to the artistic community in relation to the east End between 1972 and now?
"Well, over the last 25 years what has happened is that from artists moving into East London as a temporary arrangement, because it was the only place they could move, people find quite quickly that East London represents their home and they build links throughemployment and with the local community and so on. It means now that the artistic community is actually intergrated into the fabric of East London. The way that this is identified by local authorities is often innacurrate because they tend to look at certain areas and say 'that's a cultural area' whereas in fact its much more widespread than what they attempt to identify.Tower Hamlets for example look at Spitalfields and say thats where its all happening, and its not"

Carpenters Road studios, Stratford, E15

Photograph: Hugo Glendinning

Where did your property stock come from ?
"It comes mostly from the commercial property market and we have been fortunate in being able to aquire leases on buildings at the right time whebn there has been a dip in the property market. We are also very good at making use of buildings which are problem buildings in the sense that planning restrictions mean that they cannot be used for development or residential purposes.The Fire Station project is one where we are providing work/livespace for artists in a building that was an old fire station, it falls into an industrial employment zone so the building had no potential for conversion into loft living and therefore had a low value.We were possibly one of the only users because we could demonstrate to the local authority that we would use it for workspace and they allowed us then to be able to insert the living element because the work element was the thing that drove the whole project.The living element is ancilliary to the studio space"

You state in your booklet that "Acme's efficiency as a short-life housing organisation, rather than as an artists' group per se, produces further transfers of housing stock" 1975. Can you comment?
"I think we said that because we were getting access to GLC housing stock because we were an efficient user of semi-derelicat houses. There were artists who were able to make really good use of them and we didn't approach the GLC as an arts organisation. In a sense the GLC never considered, until a short time before abolition, that Acme was anything more than a user of housing stock. Because I think approaching them from the arts point of view would not have worked at all. We had to really satisfy them that we were a good user of housing.That was the key.If we had been banging on about the needs of artists I don,t think we would have got very far.We had to satisfy their criteria"

You published "Help Yourself to Studio Space" to 'stem the flow' of artists in London.
"I think naievely one thought that you could stem the flow of artists to London. What we were trying to do was to suggest to artists in cities outside of London ( and we were working with SPACE on this initiative - a booklet which was a simple point by point guide to how they could go about trying to find space)that they could satisfy their own studio and housing needs where they were.What happenend strangely enough was that once we promoted and distributed it we received many more applications here in London however it did help some organisations to set up in their local areas in the 70's. Also we were involved in the idea of an international studio programme with the idea that we would provide the conduit for artists elsewhere to swap with artists in London and the UK. It relied on the host organisations in other countries doing their bit and the problem for us was them maintaining their commitment to the programme and that fell away quite quickly. What we find ourselves doing now is because we are good at managing property we have been asked by a number of internmational arts organisations such as; Australia Council for the Arts; Austrian Ministry for Science, Research and Art; hessische kulturstiftung, Wiesbaden, Germany; Zuger Kulturstiftung Landis & Gyr, Switzerland and the Arts Grants Committee of Sweden to act as their agents in London so that they can send artists to London and we provide the means either buying or managing property on their behalf. This means that overseees artists can actually visit London, because London is perceived by a lot of other countries as being the most exciting place for the production of visual art at the moment.So, we act as their host and we manage property on their behalf which is better for us because its consistent with what we do anyway"

Jubilee Terrace, E1.
Accomodation for visiting Swiss artists on Landis & Gyr fellowships.
Photograph: Hugo Glendinning

Why no gallery now?
"Well, the gallery came about because one recognised that as young artists we all had a need to show and there were a number of other artists that had that similar need. Also recognising that its important to show artists at the right time and to show artists in a major way. We tried and were successful in getting a central London venue.We got it cheaply because it was in Covent Garden when Covent Garden was beginning to move from the market being shut down to the current development.We got in on that opportunity, in that window if you like from 76 to 81. During that period we developed quite quickly a programme that allowed artists the opportunity to take a coinsiderable responsibility for the way in which they showed their work and for Acme to partner and support that. I think towards the end there were very few public galleries that were allowing artists to produce installation work, made radical changes to the building, make performance work and that was the kind of thing that we championed in the context of a lot of public galleries who were uncomfortable with that.I think the building and the gallery during its last couple of years in Covent Garden had a sense that so many artists had thought about so many ways of approaching it as a site for work that perhaps one had run through and exhausted those possibilities. The gallery was also beginning to run quite seperately from the core activity of helping artists by providing cheap studios and living and when the building had to be returned to the GLC we took stock of the situation and said well, it had been a very successful gallery and helped a lot of artists in a short period of time but it was important to return our energies to the core activity.There is a considerable distinction between being involved in something where you are making choices on art and artists and actually providing the means to support that and we wanted to concentrate on the latter"

Acme Gallery, Ron haseldon Exhibition. 1980?
Photographer: Hugo Glendinning

Do you perceive Matts' Gallery as being associated with Acme?
"We are delighted that Matt's Gallery is in our building and we support other galleries such as The Showroom. In a way there was an opportunity to help Matt's and also for them to help us in terms of us taking on a building which was too large for just our use.It is nice to have art in the building but if we had had the money to develop the ground floor as studio space we would have preferred to do that because thats our priority. The involvment of Matt's though has allowed the building to stack up economically in terms of conversion. Its good being able to support Matt's and leading up to that we were also involved with support from Greater London Arts in terms of providing advice to matt's when Robin was thinking of relocating. So we went looking at buildings with him and it just so happened that we got a building ourselves and we said why not come to one of ours. There has been no policy to provide a gallery space but its good to have Robin here. Obviously we go back a long way. We are both in different ways quite fiercely independant organisations and its an appropriate conjunction"

Where is Acme now?
"The real way forward, given that we are quite a large established organisation but non-the-less pretty vulnerable (only as good as the leases we have), is to move from leasehold to ownership of property.This is an amazing investment when you consider the benefits over 20, 50 or a 100 years. Our aim is to create a permanent network of space and to add value to that, as at the Fire Station, by saying perhaps we can not only provide physical space for artists but also a breathing space with the development of work/live space, but also to try to attract to such programmes funding from other organisations and so on to provide bursaries. We would want to develop that further alongside the core activity we are providing with non-residential studio space"

How do you perceive that you can protect the future of those buildings?
"Through ownership by Acme Studios, because it is built into our charitable constitution that they have to be used for those purposes.We would like to think that we will be leaving behind a permanent resource, not only in the sense that it doesnt need support from elsewhere but that can actually generate income to be able to grow and build. We want to add quality to the services we provide as well so I think that is the vision"

Finally, can you say at this point how many artists you have on your waiting list?
"Yes we have 620 on our waiting list, with currently 500 placed in studios/housing or shared use and only 2 available spaces"

The Fire Station project

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