Lancashire Lollygag - Goin Places Doin Bits
Disclaimer: - The following article contains the personal reflections of James McColl, Short Supply's writer in residence for our Goin Places Doin Bits visit to Lancashire in May 2022. Please note that the places mentioned in the article may have changed since our visit. Short Supply has asked artists about their needs in the area, and many have responded with requests for space, time, and money. The article discusses the challenges faced by artist-led spaces, including difficulties with public access and competition for resources during funding month. The article also reflects on the scarcity mindset affecting the arts in Lancashire, among other challenges to artist-led spaces.
Before the end of Goin Places Doin Bits we’ll be visiting each of Short Supply’s home towns. It’s worth saying that I have a vested interest in this leg, as does Grace, who also lives in Preston while Mollie is from Blackburn. Artist Molly Hughes joined us for Lancashire, having met Short Supply during The Manchester Contemporary which prompted a follow up meeting in Carlisle during the Cumbria stint of the trip. She’s the first of an artist relay race that Short Supply has arranged for each trip; passing the baton from town to town, artist to artist. We’ve picked a busy time for this trip, May means overworked directors burrowed away in backrooms, writing NPO (National Portfolio Organisations: the ones with all the money) and
funding bids which can really stifle conversation.
Unfortunately, this does dramatically impact what we can see and who we speak to, not everyone has time to shepherd around a group of nosy artists having a gander at art. Across Lancashire (Blackpool, Preston, Morecambe, Blackburn and Rosendale) Short Supply have asked artists what are your needs? and are these needs unique to your area? More often than not, this has been: space, time and money.
The question that I’ve been asking since I’ve lived in Lancashire has been, Where are all the artists? It’s a question Short Supply shared when we knocked on doors, peeped through letterboxes and awkwardly waved at people through institutional windows. ‘Hi! We’re Short Supply, can we come in please?’ Though it’s a lot easier to be invited into spaces when Short Supply is holding the door open for you. A lot of these spaces open during hours that don’t best suit the public. These artist-led spaces operate largely by artists with multiple jobs and when these artists are free, which means late night studio visits and weekends - turning up to a space at what we consider a reasonable time, seemed to be a hindrance.
The relatively new Art B&B in Blackpool* were extremely welcoming (we think they thought we were influencers!) and showed us some of the rooms available to stay in - designed by artists. Unlike a lot of spaces we plan to see, the Art B&B is not an art space in the strictest of terms, but it promotes a promising model and ecology for the town. Elsewhere in Blackpool, Abingdon Studios (who Short Supply partnered with for their 2021 programme), like most art spaces of its kind, is a repurposed space squashed between old shops and sitting on top of what is now their window gallery. Public access is tricky in these types of spaces; a never ending staircase leading up to a small studio floor and gallery floor above. This is nothing new to artist spaces, more like moss growing over brick than bricks laid down with purpose. They pop up where they can and thrive/survive in these conditions. I think of these Lancashire art spaces like forts and outposts in a zombie infested apocalyptic future, each one cut off from the others, but in many ways doing the exact same thing. A converted prison with electrified fences, a small town with walls surrounding it, a tower block with padlocked doors. The walls are up and everyone is fighting for the same resources - in the apocalypse supermarket, we are told, there’s only so many tins of food. Art workers are overworked, underpaid, under pressure to deliver and isolated from a united art community. Instead, during ~funding month~ a space like Abingdon Studios becomes competition for other spaces that usually would align with one another. There are only so many tins of food and someone has to starve.
I refuse to believe that it's anyone's fault. I'd say it's the soil that we're in. What I see is a scarcity mindset, competition, massively affecting the arts and artist-led spaces that I don't think anyone wants to admit is there. Artist-led spaces often have to be the only thing that's doing what it's doing, otherwise there will be competition. In a place that doesn't get much funding and a place that’s already competing with larger institutions, these are the conditions artist-led spaces work within.
On the flip side, considering the size of Preston and the fact that it’s a University town (UCLAN - University of Central Lancashire), it’s surprising and frustrating how sparse art is here, and how quiet it is. With Preston’s NPO space, The Harris, closed (though only a small part of the gallery was dedicated to contemporary art) The Birley has become the main place for contemporary art. Unlike other artist-led spaces, The Birley’s issues are not the building itself - a repurposed council building with more than adequate space in the heart of the city. UCLAN has a small public space in PR1 Gallery, one that puts on a marathon of student lead shows, but it is The Birley that is the artist-led space and main studio space. However, as Mollie said throughout our trip, I need to speak to the manager.
Whatever long term plans The Birley has, they’re being kept close to the chest. That, or it doesn’t have any. It’s meandering. It’s disjointed. Really, there’s a lack of vision for what this space is and what it can be. Across Lancashire, they (the directors and space runners) seem ethereal. Are these people running these spaces? You can't hold them down, they seem to have multiple jobs but simultaneously nothing seems to be happening. When it comes to space, The Birley has real capital. It’s gorgeous, but looking after the building like it's a house and not a place of creativity is dangerous - you can end up painting doors that no one is walking through.
My earlier question, where are all the artists? comes largely from my frustration with Preston. We are told there is a long waiting list for studio space, yet it is dead. If you as an artist are all set, with a studio space, connections with UCLAN and the occasional exhibition, what else is there to fight for? The Birley has the resources but doesn’t seem to have the people in place to make things happen. Between the artists on their waiting list, the thirty studio artists and the connection with UCLAN, surely in that deck of people, there's the right cards for a vibrant art scene.
It's always worth asking where are all the artists? Where am I? I'm on my computer for 12 hours a day and then I fall asleep. I do a workshop and then I have to work on the train with my headphones in, and then I get home and I work for another five hours. If we're going to talk about responsibility, what the fuck am I doing? just working back to back for people that are paying me for work that won't be here in six months so I've got to grab it while I can. Is everyone else actually just doing the same thing?
Like other artist-led spaces, The Birley plans to apply for funding, but what would it do with it? The need to expand and grow infects so much of the art world that it has become the default solution to all problems. If you are a CIC, you need to apply for NPO status. If you are having trouble getting space, you need to apply for more funding. No audience? Funding. Get bigger. I wonder what The Birley can’t already do that it could with a large cash injection, apart from expanding. This speaks to the larger issue for the north west art scene, too much depends on too few people. Preston is massively underfunded when it comes to the arts but pumping money into The Birley, to me, doesn’t fix this issue (though what The Birley, Short Supply and I think is the issue don’t necessarily align). Compare that with Blackburn, a town we were told has too many spaces they can’t be filled, or Morecambe, a town in desperate need of a bigger art space.
The people we spoke to said they love to live where they're living, as artists. Yet in the same breath, they say there's nothing going on. Something must be keeping them there if it's not their career in the arts, something's keeping them there and I want to know what it is. If it's the case that there's nothing going on in that area but it's cheap housing, why aren't you fighting for something to happen?
This seems left to community art spaces, so often left out of the contemporary art conversation. In Morecambe, Good Things Collective, a community-run art space, has over 150 artists associates in a town far less connected than Preston or Blackpool, with far less resources and cultural capital. We were invited into two spaces both in the Arndale mall, less than 200ft away from each other, yet worlds apart. Good Things and GAP (or the space formerly known as GAP), an artist-led studio space and occasional contemporary art gallery. Both spaces benefit from the local council’s willingness to repurpose decaying high street shops. In recent years, more and more of these empty spaces have been temporarily given over to artists, largely by way of schemes like New Art Spaces from Castlefield Gallery and Placemaking from East Street Arts, who act as the go-between for artists and landlords. I’ve started to associate the cladding on the inside of shop walls more with artist studios than any shop. It’s a win-win situation, artists are offered cheap rent for spaces that need filling and the spaces don’t get left to rot. The downside is that artists can be kicked out at the drop of a hat, studios are only in name as project spaces don’t require the same standards. These art spaces and studios belong to private landlords and shopping centers. What does this mean for the arts ecology, as more and more art spaces are forced into this model? As much as it is frustrating, it is also worth remembering that artist-led spaces are being pushed more and more into becoming a hybrid space, part artist studio part gallery. When all you want is your own corner to experiment, the responsibility to be a public facing venue is not entirely fair.
Although the artists at this community art space might not describe it as such, Morecambe has been able to create an art ecology and enact change around the town. I consider Good Things to be a breath of fresh air. It’s for everybody and anybody, ‘when we work together, we can do anything’. Now they plan to grow, moving to a bigger building through their own fundraising efforts and Arts Council funding. Despite its achievements, there is a sense that Good Things doesn’t get the stamp of approval from the art world who dismiss it as a makerspace, or craft space. The big question mark over Morecambe is the new Eden Project, set to land in the not too distant future. It has the power to suck up all opportunity, and while it will bring new funding it could hike up rent in a poor area but bring in new tourism to ‘regenerate’ it.
I think in Blackburn especially, you've got that presence of Manchester breathing over your shoulder. Oh, we need to be arguing with Manchester, we need to be seen to be as good as Manchester. If you all just work together maybe you'd stop caring about Manchester, maybe you could make your own thing.
These towns breed a cult of personality. With only a few key people propping up the art ecology in each, if one pillar falls there aren’t enough left to carry the load. An area's resources of funding and space are siphoned through these key artists, art middle managers that hold the keys, keep the gates and take receipts. This is a dangerous model for any art scene to work on and can lead to exploitation among other things. Who would you go to in Blackburn if you weren’t in good favour with its leading artist-led space? Can you afford to say no to work that is so poorly paid and you are so easily replaceable?
This is a trip only Short Supply can do, where the strong social media presence and strong online community of a vast network of people are ready to suggest, meet up and chat at the drop of a hat. The places we’ve seen are the spaces that have been recommended to us by the people with the loudest voices. There will be places we haven’t been told about, places that will be doing incredible things that we just haven’t seen or don’t have time to go and see, it’s unrealistic to think we could see everything these areas have to offer in 4 days. These trips aren’t necessarily about seeing all these spaces, more Short Supply taking the time to visit its audience outside of Manchester. What’s clear from these visits is that more often than not, artists are commuting into the larger towns and cities, leaving an empty art footprint in these areas. These artist spaces stand still, quiet with the absence of any local thriving art scene.