Merseyside Mingle - 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 Merseyside in June 2022. The article mentions various places, but it is important to note that some of them may have changed since the visit. The article highlights the disconnect between large institutions and artist-led spaces in Liverpool and how this can affect the sector. The article also notes that underpaid artists are encouraged to grab as many opportunities as they can, which can knock other artists out of the running, among other challenges faced by artist-led spaces.
Goin Places Doin Bits tries to balance a number of wants and needs, whether it's the needs of the artists we meet or the people that run the spaces we visit, everyone needs support of some kind. New graduates will always be new graduates and although the landscape they emerge into may change, the problems they face stay the same; they need time, space and money.
Outside of Greater Manchester, Merseyside (for our trip this included Liverpool City Centre, St. Helens and Birkenhead) has the highest number of art spaces in the North West. This is largely within Liverpool City Region, housing both large institutions like Tate Liverpool and Walker Art Gallery, as well as artist-led spaces like The Royal Standard (TRS) and CBS Gallery & Studios. Unlike other regions we’ve visited, Liverpool has most of its galleries within walking distance of each other. We love an art trail. If there was going to be a busy day during this Merseyside trip, it was going to be Liverpool.
Merseyside is quite inward looking, whereas everywhere else [in the North West] can maybe be pulled into Manchester, Liverpool can't because of cultural differences and football teams and there's a lot of money there, like Manchester, but they're spending it differently.
The city is in apposition to Manchester, big enough and far away enough that it fosters its own art identity and escapes Manchester’s creative gravitational pull. This hasn’t always been the case during our trip, in other North West towns you can see Manchester’s footprint and feel the pull of the city. The North West is in a tug-of-war with the two behemoths and as Greater Manchester expands, a disparity in spaces means a smaller pool of artists to draw from, fewer resources to be shared and less funding to be secured. The art sector is directly affected by the region's geographical lines being redrawn and postcodes re-shuffled. Suddenly finding your town as part of Greater Manchester can mean less funding, or that you have a whole new pot to draw from but with a lot more competition.
The split is palpable as we've been traveling around. When we ask for examples of places that artists look to as examples of good art places Manchester and Liverpool are often the first mentioned, and are rarely mentioned alongside each other.
Unlike the rest of Merseyside, we’ve given Liverpool City Center two days to explore (though it still doesn’t give us much time with each space). The first day in Liverpool is devoted to touring large galleries alongside our visiting artist Woo, joining us from Good Things Collective after meeting on the previous Lancashire trip. What can you say about these big institutions? From Short Supply’s perspective these institutions rarely sync-up with artist-led spaces, making any crossover unlikely.
We've done the big shows and now we'll do the artist-led. Why are they so separate? We've been to The Bluecoat, The Walker and FACT and there's not been any mention of The Royal Standard, CBS or Open Eye. We make that assumption, of seeing the big stuff and now we see the artist-led stuff. There's two layers to the city and never the twain shall meet.
When these two worlds do meet, it’s artists who work within these institutions taking up freelance roles, volunteer positions and low paid work. A Social Media Coordinator for one art gallery in the morning will show up as a Director of another artist-led space in the afternoon. It’s the strange effect caused by artists being underpaid and encouraged to grab as many marbles as they can (it’s better to be overworked than pass up a chance to have a studio at TRS, a volunteer position at Open Eye Gallery and a cafe job at Tate). This has a direct consequence on the sector, knocking other artists out of the running for the same opportunities. There are only so many marbles to grab and, while you’re working at Tate, an artist desperately in need of studio space can’t access one left unused.
Like many DIY spaces TRS has an awkward entrance (unless you know to walk through the cafe entrance next door). Visitors are met with a blank white door with no signage, and while it’s definitely not the first space to have such poor public access, I think it’s always worth mentioning how much of a barrier this can be. The art world can be closed off, inaccessible and feel out of reach to even the most clued up of artists. How is the experience for people who aren’t artists? There's barriers and accessibility issues that face art organisations which artists familiar with a space won’t experience. It's like trying to find Smurf Village, invisible to anyone who doesn’t already know where it is. Maybe this suits some artists. Inside TRS has an impressive studio size as well as a gallery space regularly exhibiting studio holders' work, programmed by TRS’ artist leads (a programme set up for studio artists and outside producers). The programme has a turnover of 1-2 years, giving artists the reins to run the space.
A quick turnover of organisers can mean a lack of institutional memory or institutional change, as no one is around long enough to get things done (by the time these artist leads are trained, they need to pass the baton on). Spaces need strategic decision making that are best for its longevity, and TRS faces a potential iceberg in the few years. This trip comes at a particularly worrying time as TRS’ rental agreement will not be renewed in 4 years.
In many ways it's really good for artist development to give control of spaces to the artists or studio holders, but I feel like something we’ve seen over and over through our travels is an overall lack of professionalism and strategy that the arts could really benefit from. A lot of that is because everyone is desperately underpaid, but work smarter not harder!
Are these artist leads being taught how to run a space or being left to their own devices to figure it out for themselves? Perhaps there is more support that just isn't evident in the programme. Without the proper support and guidance this will be damaging.
Even the most established art spaces are temporary.
From the outside, Open Eye looks like a semi-commercial photography gallery. I’d wrongly assumed the gallery had no ties to the community and no interest in working with emerging creatives. Not the case. Its work has been both hyper-local and international, allowing artists to experiment on a large scale. It helps artists progress with slick, professional looking exhibitions, collaborations and research
projects (not too dissimilar to Short Supply’s CV). It also invites its volunteers (unfortunate, but this is the state of the sector) to lead on projects as well as develop their skills - a far fairer exchange than other galleries. An artist looking to develop their publishing skills is helped to produce a zine which is later stocked in the gallery shop, a coder looking to develop their skills is positioned to build the galleries website. It also benefits from a small team of paid staff who are able to commit the time and resources needed to pursue these projects, which is perhaps why somewhere like TRS struggles.
Across the water is Convenience Gallery (an artist studios and exhibition space) and Future Yard (Convenience is actually a part of Future Yard but programs its own shows and activities). We didn’t get to see much of either while in Birkenhead as art workers and our schedule don’t always sync-up. Where Liverpool has an abundance of inward looking spaces, Birkenhead has a limited number of community spaces that actively reach out and share resources. The problem might be the amount of work any space with a limited number of paid staff (often on part-time contracts) can take on. Liverpool audiences travel to and from these spaces, leaving the Birkenhead art scene sparse when they leave. One of the more encouraging conversations we had while in Birkenhead was the possibility of Future Yard organising a night bus to ferry people back into the city, as part of a larger plan to develop transport and infrastructure in support of live events. Is it that these spaces only have limited operating capacity or that they have adjusted their opening days to match audiences' needs?
There are things going on here between certain hours on certain days and you have to know when that is, it’s not a place that you can just drop into and there is art stuff going on like Manchester or Liverpool City Centre.
The last leg of the trip is spent in St. Helens. Like Mollie from Blackburn and Bek from Warrington, Grace is local to St. Helens and has connections with many of the artists working and living here. Despite its size, St. Helens has a strong arts and artist presence.
You've been taught that an art space looks like the Tate when actually, maybe it looks like your local library and maybe you need to adjust your expectations about what arts programming looks like.
Whether it’s Lucem House (the local independent cinema space), Artists Together (a group of artists from across Merseyside), Culture Hubs (the Council Libraries), Heart of Glass (a social arts agency) or the fine art degree course at St. Helens college, there is a wealth of talent in this town. The St. Helens model (if there is such a thing) is different to similar sized towns, it’s also different to any other towns we’ve visited. This starts with the Creative People and Places initiative that has shaped the arts scene here in the last 5 years. Creative People and Places (CPP) organisations were created to deal with the huge inequality of arts outside of town centres. The dream was for each of these underfunded towns to finally get the financial recognition they deserved, the income that would support everyone to see art and to have the proper backing to be sustainable. As of 2018, St. Helens has become the home of two Arts Council England funded National Portfolio Organisations (NPO). Heart of Glass (initially awarded £1.4 million) and St. Helens Council Library Service (initially awarded £440 thousand) have brought arts funding to the borough on a scale not previously seen. Yet, the artists living and working in St. Helen’s struggle to access any funding or support. Despite this hefty cash injection, these artists are in the process of losing the only artist-led studio space in the town centre; Platform Studios, located in the now half empty St Mary's Market.
They can only get into those studios between 9 and 5 O'clock. So it's kind of a restricted studio space. There was a painter up there who said it's really annoying when you get yourself into a creative flow and you realise it's 5 minutes to 5 and the security guard is shoving you out the door… they can only be creative between certain hours.
Who can you talk to in this situation? Like Liverpool before it, artists are in the unfair position of fighting for a building when most simply want to have access to a studio. Is this the failing of the artists or is it a far more widespread problem - one that we have already come across multiple times on this North West trip. The threat of eviction hangs over all studio spaces no matter how well established they are. No studio space lasts forever and tenancies have grown increasingly shorter. You might expect the St. Helens NPO’s to fill this gap but they don’t. More accurately, it’s not what an NPO does. For Platform, the best option is too look for external funding or find a new space - one that will no doubt be just as temporary. When you rely on the same organisations that are failing you to also hire you in freelance roles, how can you possibly criticise them? They hold all the cards. If you want to access the funding allocated to your town, you will have to work with these organisations, run by producers not living in St. Helens but working there to access that money. If you’re not a good fit for the projects that these NPO’s are producing, what are you supposed to do?
How do you make things better when you can't discuss with the people that you need to discuss it with, how to make things better? Nothing's going to change, you're just going to stay stuck.
Merseyside doesn’t seem to have a cohort of artists working together. Instead, we find pockets of artists working towards their own goals and doing their best to keep their heads above water. There are islands of studios, of galleries, of individuals who are prospering but the larger landscape of Merseyside (much like the Lancashire landscape) is fragmented. Where this is most surprising is Liverpool City Centre as it projects an image of strength and independence. While the larger institutions continue to put on exhibitions that rival any around the country, like the Liverpool Biennial, there is a sudden drop off for emerging artists.
I think or I hope we're [Short Supply] in a process of modelling the changes we want to see of organisations, namely operating in a non-selfish way. Maybe we're not at a point in our culture yet to point out that just because organisations work as big collectives doesn't mean they're non-selfish, this doesn't make artist-led groups exempt either, they shouldn't be off the hook just because they have less funding.
Although the community-led spaces are able to support artists, these spaces are asked to do the job of well funded art bodies (as are freelance artists doing the work of full-time staff). What is the incentive for individual artists to work with others or to take an interest in what other artists are doing? While this might be fine for individuals, when you look at the wider ecology of the region it doesn't work.
Being seen as successful hinges on having worked with these bigger sought after projects. If you're an emerging artist in Liverpool, you probably want to get a gig at The Biennial or you probably want a job at Tate. The sapping up of people into organisations is depressing. It's always been a problem in larger cities but it's now being replicated everywhere.