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Portrait of an Artists Co-op


Hello, and welcome to another Sunday lecture. This week we’ve got a representative from the Artists Co-op. They’re here to speak to you about what they do, how they do it, and maybe also how you can do it too. They’ll chat and then hopefully we’ve got some time for questions from the audience — that’s you. So I’ll hand over to them, if we could show them a warm welcome with a round of appluase!

Hey, yeah, thank you. It’s lovely to be here, thanks for having me. I’m —- yeah, like your tutor said, I’m going the chat about our artists co-op here in London. Cast your minds back to the nineties. Which actually, that’s before some of you were born — that’s depressing. We started off as painters in studios. Originally, a group of friends — we’d all just tipped out of colleges in London, so BAs or MAs, in those sort of pre-made networks of peer groups. Someone I knew took a part time job for a small graphic design company run by a really eccentric gentleman, quite a character. He used to have wine for lunch and he’d play the piano after he had his wine and his wife would sing. They were a — well, an unconventional couple running a very small business, employing, you know, artists — also unconventional, or so I’ve heard… They needed premises so they signed a very, very insecure lease for some offices in Kings Cross, and it had a huge warehouse. But it was really very cheap, and the rent was being paid to British Rail, which doesn’t exist anymore, so you might not have heard of them — but they were a state funded organisation (those don’t exist any more, you might not’ve heard of that hA!) So it was cheap and insecure, there was something like a six month break clause and they could be thrown out at any time. For context, there had been quite a small recession at the beginning of the nineties, so this sort of thing was happening a bit — lots of affordable warehouses and offices, lots of artists setting up in buildings. Generally in smaller groups, we were twenty maybe twentyfive people. Yeah, Damien Hirst famously did his Frieze exhibition, the magazine and the art fair all came later, but the title Frieze originally came from that exhibition that he did in a warehouse in South East London. So it was kind of in the air.

But the eccentric graphic designer rolled up with his piano and his singing wife, and all these artists he was employing asked him what he was going to do with the warehouse space. You know how it goes, ‘we’ve got lots of friends who would probably love to come and make their art here’, and he goes, ‘oh d’you think they’d pay some rent’, they roll their eyes and say ‘oh yes’. Got everyone on the phone, in a meeting, a few of us had a bit of DIY understanding and we organized a working party. It was full up within half a week. Obviously, because the rent was so cheap and it was so central.

But it was also exciting! The eccentric graphic designer paid for the materials and we built a bunch of walls to divide the space up into some studios. It was really quite an undertaking — I don’t know if you’ve ever built a wall before. Knackering job. And we ended up with a large corridor in the middle which became a gallery, well — we wanted it to function as a gallery. The rent was so low we could just waste the space in that way, it didn’t have to be productive, we had the luxury of a gallery. I mean, that was all once we eventually got round to finishing off the building bits and painting it all and organizing everything into some exhibitions in a very haphazard way.

It took a while to get everything together, but we did. And then, we got a notice to quit from British rail about 4 months later! They wanted to demolish the building — it was Kings Cross, remember. Back then it was all phase one of probably sixty phases where they were looking at redeveloping the area, starting with the channel tunnel and on until today. Thirty years later, I guess we can look back and say it took a while but that’s the sort of scale you’re looking at when you’re redeveloping whole areas of large cities. We were just a tiny cog in that machine but it galvanised us to fight! We lobbied the council — luckily, it being Camden and a Labour council, they were sympathetic. Lobbied them and the planning committee and managed to get a bit of publicity — an emerging co-op of artists generated a bit of public sympathy and so we used that bit of leverage and held them over a barrel for a bit. They said, ‘we can’t give you any money because we’re a state funded public organization, but we can pick up bills so if you find somewhere else you’d like to move to dot dot dot’. Better than nothing I guess. We found a new building, signed the lease and they helped sort of facilitate it all, and they paid for Pickford’s — a posh removal company to move all of our stuff and they picked up the bills for that. That’s where all that public money was going, back in the nineties — HA!

But within twelve months, we had to rebuild all those walls — just do it all over again. We were all in our twenties, didn’t have mortgages or kids or even jobs, like careers really. People did have time to give and the collective energy and spirit was ‘fuck it, let’s go for it’. The lease on the new place was only eighteen months, but we could see there was a chance to build it properly the second time around — we had all those lessons we’d learnt from building it the first time. We actually designed the gallery this time, rather than just putting up a row of sheds. So it was finished and done better, less makeshift. We put a bit more effort into the actual gallery program too (in that there actually was one). We knew the first three exhibitions were critical, they had to be good and coherent. If that worked we could get a bit of a profile, people would come, bit of publicity. We decided very early on that we weren’t going to put on shows of our own work — there were too many of us, maybe around thirty now, and we didn’t want the gallery to be seen as vanity publishing. We wanted it to be more ambitious and serious and actually cooler than that. So: new rule, we just would not show anyone who was a member and that rule still applies today. But then the question was, who do we show and how do we make decisions about that? So we needed a third party decider or a curator.

At the time, intellectually speaking, there was a rise of this curatorial turn. The idea of artists as curators, or art historians, or critics as curators. Before that, curators had been a sort of fusty, fossilized thing, they only really existed in museums. Back in the nineties it suddenly became a much more creative thing where you could frame an exhibition and give a different meaning to an individual work of art, or its context and all that. So although we understand now that it’s a thing, I remember when it wasn’t. But having a curator at the organisation, that was born out of necessity, from the self-flagellation of our ‘no member shows’ rule. We got three different curators in to do the first three shows, and thirty years on it’s become part of our identity, but it started life as a very practical solution to a problem.

Anyway, we moved buildings two more times. First, back to Kings Cross where we stayed for about seven years. That’s where the first Arts Council applications were made. The gallery was in the basement and we could throw wild parties because Kings Cross was a bit of a clubbing hotspot, not really residential — it was actually a building on a street corner surrounded by three pubs, so no one cared about the noise we were making. Then the second move was only up Pentonville Road, to where we are now in Islington. But it’s all a bit more upmarket now, we’re a lot closer to being an institution than we were back then. Probably still a long way off, but there you go. That’s the quick history.

Now, I’ll give you a quick overview and we can get into specifics. We still think of ourselves as that warehouse full of artists studios. From the outside, you might be more aware of us as a gallery. But we’re still a home for thirty or so artists, with studios of varying sizes. People pay for what they can afford, and all renting artists are members of the co-op with a vote in what happens and what direction it all goes in. We’ve got a public gallery with exhibitions and events, there’s a curatorial bursary program, an education program, where we do outreach with local schools and work with older people. We also have artists in the community programs, sort of similar to artists in residence, in the community, in schools, all over the place and wherever you want us really. We get Arts Council funding, which has been coming into the co-op since the late nineties. Now, we have National Portfolio status: every four years it’s up for review. That and philanthropic foundation funding for a relatively new initiative called the Civic Fellowship. So we now have Curatorial Bursary Fellows, which we’ve had for a long time, and also the Civic Fellowship.

I’ll give you a bit of information about our structure. A lot of it’s just pragmatism really. You know, it comes down to the problem solving at the time. We started off very amateur, a bit disorganized, didn’t really know where we were heading as a group, as an organization. Because, you know, that’s not really what you’re thinking about at the start, and if you are then that’s quite weird. We didn’t really have any clear objectives, we were just interested in having affordable studios and that was the main impetus. The rest came along later.

OK, yes, next slide. Yeah so, we are a registered charity and a registered company. The company came first, we only became a charity a few years down the line. As a company, we’re limited by guarantee which basically means there’s no shares and it’s not for profit. I’ll get into that in a bit. But most galleries and arts organisations are registered charities. Becoming a charity takes quite a long time. It’s quite a lengthy administrative process, the application, it requires a sort of a fair amount of grown up strategic thinking and planning. To become a limited company is pretty easy in comparison, you just fill in a one page form and send it off — basically. Someone signs it while they’re having their lunch. I mean, kind of. You have to anoint a secretary and a couple of directors, but it’s not actually that hard. You just name people, we just said, oh I’ll do that, they’ll do that, you’ll do that, and then it’s done. Then we could go forward and say to whoever we had to negotiate with, landlord or funding body or whoever: this is who we are. We are this entity, we’d like to sign a lease etc. Because so much of being an organisation is convincing people in power that you’re responsible and you can afford to pay them when you say you will and that you’re good for your word, all that.

When we registered as a company, I just want to say, it’s not about capitalism. You’ve got to be a collective or legal entity to start with, to sign a commercial lease. Doing it that way was much more achievable in the short term for us, because when you’re a very new, young, fresh organization and you don’t have much collective experience between you — I don’t know if it’s possible to start something from the deep end, you know? All the rest of it is something you kind of grow into if it suits you, but you have time to get all that grown up business stuff sorted, you don’t have to do it on day one. I think also, if you put it off, you can do it once you have a bit of a track record. If you keep going you can say, ‘look, we’ve done this, this is our work, these are our objectives and this is what we’re about, this is our identity’. To have all of that in your mind, at the beginning is not really possible.

We’ve also found that becoming a registered charity has brought some limitations which didn’t exist when we started in the nineties. Some laws came along in 2014 that mean you cannot be both a charity and a co-op. So although we are a co-op, we can’t be legally or formally registered on the directory of UK co-operatives. Oh, right, so I can see a few confused faces — should I take a minute to explain what a co-op is? Yeah? Ok, it’s — generally and officially — it’s an ‘autonomous association where people come together to meet their common needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise’. In a business sense, it’s a way of running a company where it’s owned and directed by the people who work there. It’s pretty cool, a pretty nice way of working if you’re into it. But yeah, we can’t be legally registered as a co-op because of the registered charity status, which we need to have because of funding stuff. But we aspire to and we identify with the idea of the co-operative model. It is an attempt at a flat management structure, with everyone involved in decision making, working together for the good of the organisation and co-operating — we don’t need a legal document to do that. So we still say we’re a co-op and still basically run things like a co-op. The co-operative ethos is part of the vernacular of the community in the studios and in the building. Even to the extent that we all share the same toilets, the same corridors, and so people bump into each other in a very democratic way.

But on the level of governance — that’s a word organisations are really interested in at the moment — for our governance structure. We have a Board of Trustees, because we are a registered charity and those trustees also double as directors because we are both a charity and a limited company. Obviously, not for profit, not about capitalism. But in a business context, we use our surplus (not that we have very much, but there is some) to benefit the members and that is put back into the building. Basically, we have a very onerous kind of rental agreement, a fully repairing commercial lease, which is another little bit of realism you may have to deal with once you graduate. We have about thirty two co-op members and about twelve directors-trustees. I say about because after thirty years people come and go, but that’s the general ratio.

Now when you join, you’re renting the studio as a tenant, but you’re also becoming a member of the co-op. All of our members sign a license agreement when they rent a studio. They agree to a couple of things: you have to actively use it, not just use it for storage — difficult to navigate what that means in practice, but — we’ll get onto that. You also need to give time to run the co-op and help it meet its objectives, we ask for up to two days a month — whether it’s more or less in reality and in practice, well that depends. Also, members all have a vote when it comes to big meetings where we decide on the direction of the organisation. So — it’s interesting. We might not be registered formally but you can still build the co-operative ethos into the formal structures and governance with things like tenancy agreements or licenses. That vote is there so the directors aren’t just dictating down to members about what’s going on, the members can contribute to the co-op and help shape its direction, its ethos and its character. Our structure disempowers the trustees to some extent, because they can be outvoted by the members if they disagree. But, that doesn’t mean its like us against them. Most of us generally are quite happy to step back a little bit and allow a board of trustees to take on responsibility for strategic direction and governance. Members have to be quite self-confident to kick up a stink and outvote the directors if they disagree. But it’s never actually come to that kind of confrontational moment. I guess because we have a structure that makes sure the directors-trustees talk to the members, you know, through committees and committee chairs and stuff. Also, generally speaking we’re all quite polite, nice people. We don’t go around picking fights and being stroppy. If there is any disagreement, it’s all done in a kind of relatively subtle way. Members do make their feelings known occasionally, and the trustees are receptive enough to pick up on the general mood of the membership and they take it on board. So it doesn’t escalate to a conflict — like it’s literally never been us against them at a meeting with the whole board and membership involved. There have been frank conversations and direct words, but in practice it’s all quite civilised really.

I guess that’s the whole point of the structure, isn’t it? It’s like a check or a balance, the structure itself means that informal methods work because they’re formally backed up. Members feel comfortable speaking up because they know their opinion will be taken seriously and considered rather than disregarded. The structure itself with the vote and the ratio is kind of just like a failsafe more than the way every single decision is made. That’s actually a point worth making. As we’ve gone on, we’ve obviously held onto that flat management structure, but we’ve also had to acknowledge the need for a certain amount of quasi-hierarchy. If you have thirty or so people sitting in a circle to debate every single decision, it just takes too long to acheive consensus on every tiny thing. We’d be in meetings that went on for four hours and as we got older, that started to feel a bit ridiculous. None of us were convinced it was necessary to make every single decision that way. It’s much easier to allocate jobs to smaller groups and make decisions that way.

So we’ve got three committees. The SMC, Studio Management Committee. They look after the building, look after the members, recruit new members when someone leaves, things like that. There’s the Operations Committee, they’re everything to do with money. So money for public programs, money for the building, the bills, the utilities, repairs, fundraising, everything really. And the Public Programs committee, which has been unified under the leadership of a Director of Public Programs. It’s a role which didn’t exist before, we had the gallery arm and education arm and it wasn’t working very well. But now the DPP makes decisions about direction and organises things, the Public Program committee chip in where they’re needed — they sit on bursary interview panels and things like that. But mostly we’ve professionalised the Public Program stuff.

I think that’s been something we’ve had to strike a balance with, the blend of amateurism and professionalism. It’s really hard to run something well if you’re relying on voluntary work, especially if its time sensitive or important or public facing — you actually can’t ask people for too much. So we don’t use volunteers or members for invigilation, we pay invigilators. We also have the Director of Public Programs, as I mentioned, and a few other paid programming roles. So we have this mix of employed staff who work for the co-op, and members who are members of the co-op. They all have skin in the game, but in different ways. Members are volunteering their time as part of the obligations that come with their membership. Employees have stakes when it comes to not just obligations or expectations but like, they have employment rights. It could be hard to balance that, I don’t know. I’m not sure how many artist co-ops there are out there with a similar set up where they’re blending the professional, the non-professional, volunteering members, flat management co-operative ethos. We’ve resisted having a single director as the organisation’s figurehead, over the years it’s been a choice we’ve consistently made. At times it’s felt almost obstinant. There’s been a culture of funding, at least for NPOs, that kind of implies a director as figurehead is very very preferable. I think that obstinance is part of the balance we’re striking too.

But yeah. All thirty two artists members are on one of those three committees and therefore have an obligation to attend meetings, around six times a year. That can be a bit difficult to manage and balance too. There can be an uneven level of contribution from members. Some people take on real managerial organisational responsibility, some people clean the fridge. We rotate through that cycle of heavy lifting and menial jobs, every three or four years or so. Realistically, it’s difficult to police that and we are sensistive to the way people have periods of their lives where they have more or less time to give. It’s a tricky one. But I think that flexibility’s one of the things that makes us resilient.

I think the entire reason we’ve survived this long as an organisation, it really is a sort of a pragmatism or resilience. It’s like a part of the co-op’s character. When you’re a small group, the energy can run out, people want to do other things that are a bit more their own or in a different direction. But we can accomodate people stepping away for a while because others step up. It can be more cyclical or regenerative and sustainable in that way. I know we ask for people to actively use their studios, and it can be hard to formally nail down what that means. But in practice, it’s just about getting to know people and figuring it out organically. We’re welcoming and friendly and — cheesy, but it’s a community. We understand that circumstances change and you start new jobs or you have babies or you get sick or someone else gets sick and you need to care for them. If you can’t give anything back to the community for a bit because of that, we’re not going to give you a hard time. We understand that being accomodating makes us more resilient.

It’s something that feels hard won. Surviving in a capital city, under all the neoliberalism and capitalism and money. You have to fight your corner and find ways of solving problems and either making money, generating money, or doing things incredibly cheaply that would otherwise cost lots of money. So you just find ways of being self reliant and making do, DIY and all that. It’s a way of working that lends itself to taking risks, it rewards risk. We say we take risks, which, in an immediate sense, it means being responsive. We’re small enough to be responsive and adapt to crises. But I think through the years we’ve seen both the crises and our response to it kick off a kind of cycle of dynamism and that transfers across into the gallery program in some way. That conceptual stuff is less tangible, the momentum of twentieth century avant garde culture as a framework of ideas, a paradigm that’s probably coming to an end anyway, but the idea of challenging the frontrunner or subverting received wisdoms and ways of doing things. There are a number of artists over the years, who’ve come from our studios or who’ve shown in the gallery, that have gone on to do really well, Turner Prize shortlists or even winning, international careers. Our curatorial bursary holders have gone on to other jobs in important influential places. That conceptual or curatorial risk-taking is something we’re really proud of — I think rightly so. But for us, it’s really a case of: necessity is the mother of invention. When we take creative risks, it’s usually in order to survive. It’s not out of nowhere, it’s a question of pragmatism, resilience.

But I think that resilience is getting harder to build in. Capital city, neoliberalism, capitalism, London is such a highly financialised entity. How do you set up shop anywhere when there’s that whole business about artists and regeneration, you know. The artists move into a derelict area and have their studios and little cafes and make nice little environments where people are buying cappuccinos and pot plants and it’s all trendy and vibey. And then ordinary middle class professionals who can afford to buy homes want to live there because they want to be near the cool trendy vibe. Developers have made a lot of profit out of that cycle, it’s rarely artists that make the money. Throughout out thirty year history, that’s gone from being something that artists knew but no one else acknowledged, to it now being built into town planning and council strategies. They’re taking the onus to create affordable workspaces, not to be nice to artists, but to convince developers that they’ll make money. I think there has to be a way artists can leverage that to get what they need, some kind of symbiotic pragmatism. I know — it doesn’t look good. Prices are crazy, rents are higher, there aren’t as many empty warehouses. There is — I don’t know, you might’ve heard of this — the donut ring phenomenon? Like London as a donut shape with a series of rings. The centre or like, the hole in the middle of the donut, that’s always the most prosperous bit. The artists and their studios were always in the actual donut itself, the next ring out, but even that bit’s getting too expensive isn’t it? And you can’t go any further out because that’s the Shires, the home counties, and prices go back up because of the commuter belt. So the donut ring itself has been exhausted. Like Stratford as an example, it was full of warehouses and artists for decades, and it’s now the Olympic Park. So things have changed, I think artists maybe might have to move out of London entirely. So if there’s any young peer group out in the audience, if you want to do something similar, that’d be my advice. Little artistic communities are forming outside of London where it’s much, much, much more affordable. And I think that’ll be how it can work somewhere still, in whatever makeshift way. I’ll also say, it only stays makeshift for a while. You can get more stable and more professional or more proper as you go. But you’ve got to get going.

I think I’m runing out of time, am I? Yeah, cool I’ll wrap up. That’s about it. My parting words are that — it’s hard out there. But my best advice would be that pragmatism, it might not be politically perfect, but it’s a way to actually realistically survive. You can use capitalism as a means to an end — which, lemme explain! If you want to live in a place like London and not be a victim of it you have to work with the flow of the tide. Capitalism is bigger than us, use it for your own purposes. Learn how to think like a capitalist, it doesn’t mean you have to believe in it all or love it, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with artists being more business savy. Use the system to help you get to your objective rather than trying to fight it, because it always wins. Political perfection is nice as an idea, but for the most part, London just doesn’t accommodate it. Ok, that’s me. I think we’re taking questions now, yeah? Yeah. Ok, thank you for having me!