Cheshire Conflab - Goin Places Doin Bits
The following article contains the personal reflections of James McColl, Short Supply's writer in residence for our Goin Places Doin Bits visit to Cheshire in July 2022. The article mentions various places, but it is important to note that some of them may have changed since the visit.
Cheshire (which includes Chester, Frodsham, Warrington and Runcorn) marks the third and final
hometown stop during Goin Places Doin Bits. Warrington is Bek’s hometown and both Mollie and Bek currently live there. We’ve tried to be balanced with our time but these hometown visits have inevitably spurred more conversation and critique in us. Some chats are over coffee, others with overworked artists in-between jobs, and even the occasional one in the back of Bek's car as she storms down the M6. Wherever we can find a minute for reflection and discussion. There’s a lot to digest.
As these trips continue our conversations with artists reveal the scale of the problem artists face. The creeping reality of untangling these issues and taking any form of action looms over every trip. With each conversation, each artist we meet and each new problem we’re told about, this pressure intensifies. Has Short Supply bitten off more than it can chew? Along the way they’ve changed the main question from what do you need? to what do you desire? This question helps them reposition themselves to uncover what artists are working towards, rather than what artists need (in the moment).
Continuing with tradition, we’re joined by Bea Albanese, a theatre maker, writer, and artist we met through the Artists Together group in St. Helens. It’s been really useful to have a fresh pair of eyes on these trips. The artists who’ve joined us have all given a unique perspective and brought valuable regional information to conversations with other artists and organisations. It’s a baby step in the right direction. We’re constantly told that regions don’t work with each other, so Short Supply paying artists to come along on trips starts the ball rolling for change. Cheshire artists get an insight into what’s happening in Merseyside, and Bea gets to have face time with an array of Cheshire artists, spaces and organisations which she can take back and share with other Merseyside artists.
Though you can broadly categorise artists' needs by time, space and money, why artists need time, space and money in Liverpool as opposed to in Cheshire, is very different. Rural artists with studios (either private spaces or at home) aren’t in the same position as artists in a city centre, there isn’t a homogeneous singular lived experience of North West artists. Who lives in the rural towns of Cheshire and do they need Short Supply’s help?
Where are the artists? I’m yet to get a straight answer. Is there a secret studio or is there an off-grid Facebook group or do they have a whatsapp chat, where are they?
Whereas other regions lack space, Chester lacks a network. What networking opportunities there are (to gather, connect and exchange), are provided by commercial galleries, the recently built deluxe cinema complex and a repurposed shopfront in Chester mall. Unlike other regions, this off campus shop space is used for the graduate show by the University. Does this mean the university lacks these basic utilities to exhibit? During our summer visit CASC (Contemporary Art Space Chester) was curatorially chopped in two - divided by an invisible line. One half exhibiting the Sculpture Prize while the other half AA2A (Artists Access to Art Colleges) work. I hope the university isn’t using this space instead of their own gallery space - students need to have access to purpose built galleries to show their work (for reasons beyond just the ‘prestige of the white cube’).
There's no social media handles, there's no website. Nothing. I guess I notice it more now because we’re actually in the position to commission. Artists going on about how hard it is to get a job and all your tutors being like you know 80% of you are never going to make it in the arts, and it’s like well put their contact details up then, maybe then we could give them a job or atleast follow them on instagram.
As the name suggests, the AA2A scheme provides artists access to university and college resources, workshops and equipment (with a focus on designers and makers who need access to facilities). It’s remit, bridging the gap between studying and building a creative career fits hand in glove with Short Supply. Starting in the 90’s, It’s now a social enterprise company (as of 2010) and an Arts Council England Investment Principle Support Organisation (IPSO) for the Visual Arts. There are three participating colleges In the North West, Blackpool School of Arts, University of Central Lancashire and University of Chester. The programme is free for the participating artists, also offering career advice and guidance (rather than being a student, you're an independent artist). This scheme should be more well known than it seems to be. My only thought is that the AA2A programme should be available in more universities (considering the number of campuses in the North West). Too often, universities cut themselves off from the cities they’re in. A programme like this helps bridge the gap between city and campus.
The town centre has mostly small commercial galleries aimed at private collectors, Chester Arts Centre (a confusing name for a private gallery) is a prime example. If CAC does fill the needs of a local arts scene, it’s a happy accident. The small gallery space shows collections of high quality prints of international artists and works with larger collectors and collections across the country. Where it has tried to expand its remit, it’s been unsuccessful in obtaining funding. I don’t think private galleries are a problem in and of themselves unless you’re young, poor and/or looking for something experimental. If you have an interest in performance for example, you’re sorely underserved. How would you become an artist without having to travel to other towns or leave all together?
When people say oh, I don't really get art, is this their experience of it? Going into the little private galleries and being shot down by people in a very commercial setting. It would ruin my confidence if that was my introduction to the arts and that was what was available in my town. I don't think I'd like art.
There’s only one large space in Chester city centre that would fall into the category of public art space, and that's the Chester Storyhouse Cinema. This relatively new complex marries contemporary art space, library, cafe, cinema and theatre under one roof - it’s the art centre most towns say they need and wish they had. A building like this ticks all the right boxes for the cultural remit of local councils. It’s a one stop shop for all ages to spend the day experiencing culture. However, For emerging artists, this space doesn't solve the issue of exhibiting, or provide career opportunities. This type of mega-art space cultivates national artists who are commissioned to bring their touring work to town, fulfilling the education remit of the space with headline worthy names. It’s no bad thing to have such accomplished artists and quality shows come to Chester, every town should be afforded this level of cultural richness (which sadly they aren’t), but it is an issue for emerging artists. There are no entry level opportunities. This kind of complex is built for local audiences to see art, not make it. For art lovers and artists with a taste for more experimental things, Chester has a huge gap in the market. When we do see more of this kind of work it’s tightly packed and part of groups shows with limited curation and limited wallspace. Castle Parks Art Centre had three simultaneous exhibitions fighting for attention. I don't think this really doesn’t do the artists or artwork justice.
There are three rooms in the art centre but there's not loads of experimental, conceptual art which I suppose is more of Short Supply's interests. There's just not loads of it, which is what I think we're finding in a lot of the places we've been.
Is there an art scene (cohesive or otherwise) that unifies Cheshire? It’s hard to say. From this trip I’d say no. More than other regions, Cheshire feels pulled in all directions. Like the other regions we’ve visited, there have been numerous border changes which means a population that doesn’t identify with their postal code. Some people will say it’s Lancashire, others Merseyside or Greater Manchester. Whatever the case, it serves to keep Cheshire divided. Chester and Warrington have less in common than Warrington and Manchester do. Even on a more local level, there are divisions in towns that stop artistic development and cooperation, and as we’ve seen in other North-West regions, this is key to progress.
What I find really interesting is that it's always Warrington, Runcorn and Widnes as three small towns, but Runcorn and Widnes are very hand in hand. They have a lot of cross pollination. Whereas Warrington seems to be very much on its own and I don't know why. As an artist from Warrington I can see that there are more opportunities in Warrington because we've got a cultural section of the council. It's nice to see that Runcorn and Widnes are working together but why isn't Warrington also part of that?
There’s a real issue with infrastructure too, Runcorn and Widnes are really hard to get to… you’ve got Runcorn Eastern, it's big and the train stations are kind of far away, whereas Warrington is so directly on a train line that I do wonder how much the trainlines and the motorways are affecting the places we're going.
Runcorn’s Hazlehurst Artist Studios is perhaps a more traditional artist-led space. It’s run by a small but dedicated team who have slowly worked over the last eight years to make this community art space viable. It started with Claire Pitt taking on a bit of wasteland and turning it into a garden for two weeks with the clear mission to make a garden that everybody can use that also creates an exhibition space to put stuff on. In many ways, this is the model that funders (both arts council, and local council) look to and aim to help - a grassroots, hyperlocal community based project that has progressively expanded its role.
Cheshire studios (either private complexes or artist-led) are few and far between. For artists who have a certain level of financial and career security, they can live in Cheshire (on a higher wage bracket) and commute into Greater Manchester. Artists with university jobs for example, can have their cake and eat it by having the best of Manchester and the best of Cheshire - leaving people that don't have the ability to travel into Greater Manchester (for a multitude of reasons) without. A Manchester studio holder living elsewhere means a Manchester studio not available for another Manchester artist. It also means resources are being pumped into Manchester and away from Cheshire. Unless you’ve reached retirement age or you’re able to dip in and out of the art world, your opportunities are limited. There are artist-led spaces that have the potential to correct some of this disparagement. Across the North West, Castlefield Gallery continues to play matchmaker for artists and spaces. In Warrington this is the Castlefield New Art Space (NAS), a repurposed M&S shop now gutted and filled with creatives.
Since moving back to Warrington, Castlefield having the old Marks and Spencers building, there’s a community within the NAS space now that’s quite thriving. There's not really a contemporary art space in Warrington other than the arts festival, the only art gallery we have is the museum and art gallery which is a museum and it's very small.
Castlefield is an organisation we keep coming across. NAS (New Art Spaces) Warrington is the biggest Castlefield art space I’m aware of and, at one time or another, a project space used by all three members of Short Supply. It’s a repurposed M&S building spanning multiple floors with an extraordinary amount of floor space. Artists travelling from Greater Manchester, Lanchasire and Cheshire flock here for this cheap and large space. It’s another shop left empty on the highstreet, now taken over by artists. By not charging studio rent, Castlefield draws a huge number of artists and creatives to their spaces with the caveat that their spaces aren’t studios, they are project spaces. The big trade off for Castlefield’s creative spaces is working conditions vs cheap floor space. If you can stand being in a dimly lit, inaccessible, freezing cold repurposed shop then this works fine. If for any reason this doesn’t work, say you have physical access needs, aren’t in good health or wouldn’t feel safe in this kind of open plan space, NAS isn’t for you. Are these artists you’d find in Warrington on any given day? Most likely not. Whatever your feelings about this kind of art space, it does bring artists, exhibitions and opportunities to the town.
I don’t know what the agreement between Castlefield and local councils is but so far it seems to have worked out for everybody involved. The feeling in the pit of my stomach (that all artists have when it comes to these types of temporary arrangements) is that this isn’t long term. When the landlords decide these spaces are valuable again, the creatives using it won’t be staying for very long. The wider issues facing art organisations in Cheshire are the same facing art organisations across the North West; geographical differences are superficial as the art ecology models used in each town are the same. It’s a model not designed for the long term prosperity of artists (which might also be said about large pockets of Cheshire).