Figure ground invited a number of arts/public realm practitioners to meet at Banner Repeater on the 2nd of April, 2011.
The aim was to facilitate an open conversation between an interesting handful of practitioners working in the field of public art.
This conversation informed Figure Grounds future development. It also gave other practitioners involved a chance to reflect on their own practice and find out what makes other organisations tick.
All attending were given a specially commissioned goody bag. All attending were expected to bring an item for the goody bag.
Figure ground = Jack Brown, Katy Beinart, John Adams, Laura Krikke, Jo Thomas, Lucy Andrews.
Artangel interaction = Rachel Anderson
Artangel Interaction projects place emphasis on process; the ways in which ideas, thoughts and experiences are transformed into images, print, performance, text and objects. We are interested in how artists work, but most importantly we are interested in how artists can open up and expand the way they work to involve other people, how working with other people can enrich a project and transform ideas into something which couldn’t have been imagined at that first conversation.
Fermynwoods Contemporary Art = James Steventon, Education officer.
Fermynwoods Contemporary Art is an independent arts organisation and commissioning agency that works with artists and audiences. A year round programme explores and reflects on art and ecology to enhance understanding and engagement with our environment. This is achieved through artist residencies, site specific installations and participatory events which take place in the public realm across Northamptonshire and beyond; in collaboration with regional, national and international partners.
Stour Space – Rebecca Whyte, Director.
A not-for-profit exhibition and performance space devoted to the promotion and production of art and design, entrepreneurship, and the development of creative opportunities. Designed to stimulate and enhance creativity and support the well-being of local people, emergent artists, designers and creative entrepreneurs STOUR SPACE was founded with a passion to enhance and develop creative opportunity – an essential skill for life that should be accessible to all.
Banner Repeater – Ami Clarke.
Banner Repeater is an artist led contemporary art space, curatorially run and initiated by Ami Clarke in 2009, it is located on Hackney Downs Network Rail, platform 1. It has a reading room dedicated to artists printed material, and project space with a programme of exhibitions, events, and performance.
What was discussed
Individually we all in some way or another represented an organisation. Some were founders of the organisations they represented, some had joined and worked within it.
All attending were artists or worked closely with artists.
After introductions, we ran through brief histories of each organisation; Banner Repeater being set up through the Hackney Empty shop front scheme, Fermynwoods beginning as a gallery in a private home, figure ground growing from three core members to six and Stour Space’s not so fruitful beginnings as a co-op.
Stour Space is a well-established creative hub in Hackney Wick. Starting out at proposal to a landlord for the use of an empty warehouse, it is now 25 studios, gallery, venue and café. One of the spaces strengths is its adaptability.
A self-built space, Stour can easily move walls or construct new workspaces. It has also adapted to change, moving a nearby café into its main space and adding windows to reveal amazing views of the Olympic stadium. Rebecca, Stour’s Director told us about the holistic, all hands on deck atmosphere, artists helping build walls, developing monthly craft fairs with local makers and curating their own band nights. They all seem to be aware of fact that, to keep their rents low and to keep an audience for the work, they need Stour to succeed and continue to do so. Stour’s self-generated income – its studios and latterly its café mean it’s not reliant on funding and can therefore set its own agendas.
Banner Repeater is where we held our meeting, it is situated on the platform of Hackney Downs Rail Station.
Ami set up the space and runs it, grants cover costs but not salaries –Ami has a reliable group of volunteers to man the desk.
Being on a railway platform Ami felt it important the Banner Repeater was open during rush hour to make the most of the 4000 a day footfall at the station.
Although this is an art space very much in the public realm it does not dumb itself down and is a space for ‘critical art in the public realm’ . Its open door policy means many commuters wander into the space and its ambitious exhibition programme, talks and reading room attract people from further afield.
Banner Repeater sits in the centre of a network – it disseminates artists books, leaflets, flyers and discussions through the national rail network, these objects and thoughts can be carried almost anywhere in England.
Art Angel interaction is run by Rachel Anderson. Art Angel interaction places a strong emphasis on process, how an artist can work through a problem whilst working with others. There is a commitment to the unknown that runs through the whole of Art Angel and manifests itself as an emphasis on process within Art Angel Interaction.
Rachel used a quote to define her position within Art Angel and how she might meet artists as they become involved in Art Angel Interaction
‘Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing, there is a field, I’ll meet you there’. Rumi.
Art Angel Interaction find artists they want to work with through existing networks, they go and find artists as opposed to artists finding them. Then a project starts, maybe with an initial thought or question, but never with a pre-conceived or pre-determined outcome.
James Stevenston is Education Officer at Fermynwoods. He joined in 2007. Fermynwoods began as a gallery space in the water tower of Rosalind Stoddard’s home, but quickly grew into a regional centre for contemporary art practice. Through art council and regional funding it acquired staff and further space including the refurbishment of Sudborough Green Lodge; two adjoining cottages set up as artists residency spaces.
James works at the Education Officer, working with local schools, local educators and local community groups.
James is an important part of a small team. He is involved in restructuring, re modelling and planning for the organisation as a whole whilst still being involved in its everyday running. He has forged important working relationships with local landowners and his family help with the upkeep of the Lodge.
Fermynwoods has become known nationally for the quality of its off-site public realm projects. James has been integral to these projects; finding the ‘public’ the artists may be planning to work with and ironing out logistical problems along the way.
Although it seems Fermynwoods has been in a state of flux since its inception, it recently when through an important transformation. A new director, the loss of some core staff, moving out of its home at Fermynwoods and a new strap line ‘Beyond the confines of the gallery wall’.
James is now working within a nomadic organisation, working across Northamptonshire
maybe they are better placed now to interact with a cross section of public James described as – ‘depressed towns and affluent villages’.
Still in the move, their website’s front page currently shouts ‘infiltrating the everyday’
What we discovered
Stour Space’s original organisational structure as a Co-op didn’t work. With over 20 artists, it was too large to function; artists with different time commitments and artists visions for the space made meetings difficult. This was quickly changed into what Rebecca calls a ‘Benign dictatorship’ – a core team running the building with the help of artists that rent a space there. There is still a cooperative feel to Stour, people chipping in and helping out, but the core team are able to make important decisions behind the office door.
‘Artist led’ can mean a number of different things. Figure Ground, for example, is led by practicing artists, working together; taking on different responsibilities within the group but always approaching their work as artists. Fermynwoods was founded by an artist and is now run by a team of artists and non-artists. Ami Clarke talks about Banner Repeater as part of her artistic practice and she often shows work in group shows at the space. Rachel no longer makes artworks but still works as an artist through her role at Art Angel, she wouldn’t be able to do her job if it wasn’t as an artist.
There was also a long discussion about how we use the label of ‘artist’. Katy, a member of Figure Ground and a qualified architect, feels more able to work in the public realm as an ‘artist’ than an ‘architect’. We discussed how we name our professions and how ‘artist’ seems to cover a multitude of roles or activities; John a member of Figure Ground works with Geology in his work, Ami curates as much as works as an artist, Katy and Jo are both studying for PHDs and Jack works as an artist in residence at a school three days a week. There may be people doing what we do and call themselves oral historians, art teachers, students, gallery managers or accountants. We discussed how ‘Artist’ allows us freedom, enable us to take risks and often work as an outsider looking in, is this a fair privilege.. if so how did we earn it?
Just as words like ‘community’ and ‘public’ need to be used carefully, we should bear in mind the different associations and implications the word ‘artist’ brings with it.
It also became clear that many artist lead organisations rely on/work because of help, volunteers and friendships.
Building long term working relationships with other artists and artist lead organisations is key. A favour here, a borrowed projector there, helping build a wall or manning a desk, organising network events or meeting for a pint – all these activities have real value.
As much as we spoke about funders we spoke about helpers, friends, volunteers or collaborators. James has spent years getting to know the forest warden and the local pheasant farmer – they now get on, have repaired parts of the lodge together and what used to take weeks to negotiate; a walk through the woods or a camp fire, now takes a phone call.
Artist can gain from these relationships because they are building genuine working relationships with art organisations and often exhibit work with or curate shows/events at the space they have helped.
In some cases it seems difficult for artists to find a way to start those relationships, for example, Art Angel don’t do open calls and don’t accept speculative applications, they find their artists through existing networks and by going out and looking for them.
Figure Ground is well placed to help artist led organisations find artists, and to set up mutually beneficial relationships between artists and arts organisations, particularly when this is happening in the public realm. We are also building a unique knowledge of how small artist lead organisations work and are therefore well placed to support other artist lead groups that are starting out.
Figure Ground are currently working with James and Fermynwoods to organise a collaborative residency scheme at the Sudborough Green Lodge that will involve pairs of artists and non-artists working together to create work in the forest surrounding the lodge. Jack is working with Rebecca as Stour Space in aspects if the Hackney Wicked Art Festivals education programme.