Interview with Alice Sharp of SPACE Studios
Thursday 12th March 1998
When did your organisation first come into being and what was it called?
SPACE Studios was set up in 1968 by a group of artists including Bridget Riley and Peter Sedgely. SPACE stands for SPACE Provision Artistic, Cultural and Educational. 100 studios were created in a huge disused warehouse in St.Katharines Dock near Tower Bridge with help from the G.L.C. This pioneering experiment was very successful and SPACE influenced the creation of many other studio organisations internationally, including PS 1 in New York and WASPS in Glasgow.
Alongside the studios the AIR (Artists Information Register ) was developed. This was originally housed in the Royal Academy basement and was then situated with SPACE. This resource was very popular and grew to be large size. The idea there was to enable artists to use the register to obtain exhibitions and commissions outside of gallery structures. The register was open for people to look at artists work and c.v.'s and enable direct contact with the artists. St Katherine's Dock was so successful that SPACE was in undated with applications from all over the world. SPACE had extensive news coverage including a BBC film made about it and St Katherines Dock contained many now established artists eg. Michael Craig Martin. After leaving St Katherine's SPACE took on several new buildings.
In 1973 SPACE became a charity 'Arts Service Grants' with the merger of SPACE and AIR. The AIR Gallery was set up initially in Shaftesbury Avenue and then it moved to Roseberry Avenue in 1978. The Air Gallery had a tremendous reputation for new innovative challenging art, including the notorious performances in the basement and exhibitions by artists such as an unknown artist at the time Mona Hatoum, Langland's and Bell, Alison Wilding and Tony Bevan. Matt's Gallery was founded in 1979 at Martello Street Studio by one of SPACE's original artists Robin Klassnik. The Air Gallery continued until 1988 when unfortunately the lease was up in Roseberry Avenue. When SPACE moved the gallery closed, so we continued to be a studio provider but had no exhibition space of our own, although Matt's Gallery was at Martello St. until 1990. Since then we have continued to provide studios, advice education projects and other services to artists and now have 330 artists on 15 sites.
Who were the founder members?
A group of artists including Bridget Riley and Peter Sedgely. They worked with Desmond Plummer of the GLC and Professor West from Reading University to get a lease at St Katharine's Dock. They held one of the first open studios in 1975 which was the first time that artists had directly opened their studios to the public. It led to events like the present Whitechapel Open.
What was the initial aim or policy of the organisation and how has that changed or been adapted?
Well as far as I know the initial aim was to set up an artists community where artists could be secure and have low rents. There is always a problem of security with studios; artists coming to the end of their leases and having to move on. The idea with SPACE was that you had an environment where once you had signed your lease you had a much more secure situation. If a lease was up SPACE would try and obtain a new building. Also, the artists had an organisation that did the negotiations with the landlord for them, so artists could get on with their work. These aims haven't changed. SPACE continues to deal with security or repair problems. We are now concerned with extending our services to artists, we have plans to offer IT and training on marketing and career development.
were you based first of all and where are you based now?
First of all we were based in St.Katharines Dock and we had those premises for two years and apparently that it was absolutely amazing, thousands of square feet per artist which is quite a different situation from now where things are so competitive and people are in such small studios, not from choice but because they cannot afford large studios. At that time we also had Martello Studios E8. This is one of our original properties from 1971 and we still have it to date. It is a very successful studio, in a good location and is always popular. We are now based at 8 Hoxton Street in Shoreditch N1, it's purely an office for the organisation. The studios are all over East London with two in South London.
was the reason for you to be associated with/based in the East End of London?
Well, I think it must have been because of property prices. St Katharines Dock was never going to be a long term option because the site is so central. When the lease finished at Rosebery Avenue we were looking for somewhere in a similar location but it was easier to get a cheaper and longer lease in the East End. At that time in the early 70's the East End would have been very different, full of reasonably priced, big warehouses where we could locate ourselves.
What part has your organisation had to play in locating such a large number of artists into the East End of London?
We have been absolutely instrumental in that. We were the first studio provider organisation in London, and a few years later ACME started up. We have been vital in creating new types of organisation to support artists. The AIR Register and Gallery, and the Studios have all enabled artists to work in the East End. SPACE has influenced and assisted other studio organisations to set up in the East End. Artists get an awful lot more from SPACE than just their studio through the different support services that we provide.
Being located in the East End of London means that we are part of the Whitechapel Open. This year we have eight sites opening as part of the Whitechapel Show, and that's about 150 artists opening their studios to the public.
Who were you/are you funded by?
We get a London Arts Board grant and that is a vital part of our core funding.I think it's valid for the next seven years. We also get the money from artists rent. We are now spending a lot more time fund-raising and identifying new sources of funding. We are working with a number of regeneration projects in Hackney and Tower Hamlets because we have lots of studios in this area and a good relationship with the councils. We have taken over a couple of Council buildings that were derelict and provided studio spaces. Hackney council are happy with that and are interested in working with us on similar projects.
We are also developing new projects. We are working on a lottery bid. This is going to the second stage, we have already had a feasibility study and what we hope to do through the lottery is to get a lot more money to put into the studios and develop new services for artists. We want to fund raise for four of the sites to become resource centres, so that we can give artists increased provision in terms of IT. We would like a situation where artists can get their own email through SPACE, we want to make sure that they have access to training in IT. We would also like to run some training workshops for artists that help bridge the gap between making art and selling it. These would involve providing training in marketing skills, presentation skills, managing yourself as an artist etc and would be very helpful I think. A lot of artists find these things very difficult and unless artists have an established gallery who are backing them, it is hard to make that link. We are hoping to bridge those gaps with this provision and spread the benefit throughout London.
Were you supported by the local councils , in particular Hackney and Tower Hamlets?
Yes they have been very supportive to SPACE and we are working very closely with Hackney at present and both the Arts & Cultural Services and a number of the regeneration departments are supportive. We have been called "one of the unsung heroes of Hackney". The council sees us as providing an important service to local artists.
Can you say the point at which the local councils realised your value because there seems to have been a kind of sea change? In the early years the councils were not supportive at all, they couldn't see art as having any meaningful function.
I think it has taken place in the last few years and it is not unconnected to the whole revival of the Hoxton and Shoreditch area of Hackney. The renewal of this area has been positive for the image of a council that has had quite a chequered past. They have had a bad image and are now very keen to revive a positive image of Hackney and part of doing that is through the artists, by celebrating that there is a huge amount of talent in the area, and that they are the main borough for art. Everybody wants a studio in Hackney, we are inundated with applications from hundreds of artists on our books who are really keen to get studios in Hackney. It is definitely the place currently to be and I think the council wants to make the most of that. We are pleased to see them having a positive attitude towards working with arts organisations
What circumstances do you think enabled your organisation to survive and flourish?
I think that there were a lot of artists that moved on from SPACE who it is a shame we were not able to keep hold of, important artists like Alison Wilding and Paula Rego. However although we were not able to keep those artists we have a lot of new artists that are maybe the new Paula Regos or Alison Wildings. The good thing about SPACE is that it acts as a seedbed, a lot of new artists come into SPACE Studios when they are first starting out and it gives them an environment where they can spend time on their work. That has provided a very good reputation for us. Artists know that we provide secure studio spaces and we are in the heart of the East End art scene where everyone wants to be which is very positive. Artists recognise that we are providing a very good service and we hope to improve our services and become a place where artists want to be for the future. If we can provide these new resources I think we are going to be a very supportive organisation for artists to have their studio with.
What effect do you think you have had on the profile of current British Art and Artists?
As I have said we have been a seedbed for a lot of artists who have gone on to be very high profile. We have done a lot of the basic work by providing artists with what they actually need to get on and now we have a number of new artists attached to high profile galleries. I went to a show at Delfina the other day with John Frankland in it , he is one of our artists. Melanie Counsell is doing a new show at Matt's gallery, which is interesting because we have had a relationship with Matt's from when they were in Martello St, so its nice to see Melanie having a show there in our 30th year. Things have come in a big circle
How do you think the social/financial and artistic environment has changed since you first you first started?
I think it is much harder, if you can think back to St. Katharines dock being studio spaces its absolutely incredible now. It's in the heart of the City and all the multinational companies and finance, you cannot imagine that artists could be in a situation like that now. The situation now in the East End is that artists are actually losing their studios because rents are going up, we have had several people who have just come from Brick Lane where their rents have gone up.They are keen to get a SPACE Studio. Artists are starting to get forced out of this area. A lot of live/work areas are being set up by the council which will benefit artists because it seems that a lot of people are going to have to move out. A lot of famous artists like Gary Hume and Gavin Turk have their leases coming up and they live a stones throw away. So, they will have to find another building to live in. They are being squeezed out by the economic pressures.
The lottery is one positive thing. Acme have just benefited by buying their own building and that has put them in such a secure position. That's what we hope to do. Through our lottery bid we hope to buy a building. Looking at the past history of SPACE one of the things we should have done is to buy a building. If we had purchased a building in the 70's we would be in a much better position now.
How would you describe what happened to the artistic community in relation to the East End between 1972 and now?
I think what's happened is that it has become much more popular and I think the most popular bit has been in the 90's out of all of it. The AIR Gallery was around in the 80's with a lot of pioneering shows where people were doing all sorts of interesting performance. That was an interesting time in art with a lot of people experimenting with a lot of different things. It has been in the late 90's when everyone wants to be here. It has a media buzz about it and as we know art is very much influenced by the media and vice versa. The media is very interested in this area, when artists come from this area they are much more likely to be latched on to. Its kind of self perpetuating. Artists want to be in Hackney because they know they can get the profile out of it
This year in the East End of London is actually our 30th year and we are celebrating with a number of events. The Open Studios is the starting point for that, eight studios opening and we have an event Open Space where we will get a lot of people from our history along. The fact that SPACE has kept going for all those years I think reafirms that we have achieved a lot of things and the AIR Gallery's success. We are going to run some events later in the year and we hope to support a mixed media festival with SPACE artists involved with it.There are a number of different projects which we are going to launch and re-establish the idea of SPACE as an events organiser, and as a training provider and we are very keen to open up that side of our provision.
Where did your property stock come from and are you aware of any history to this?
Old East London factories including lots of family clothing manufacturers and a Peanut Factory Britannia Works.