Illustration: John O’Loughlin / @jolworkshop

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There is a certain disposition that defines coastal towns, a familiarity with collision and change. Liverpool’s coastal identity is paralleled in its culture; a pulsing and varied ecosystem of artists and musicians, poets and creators exist among otherwise normality, clashing against each other and producing a swirling, bubbling creativity. However, a recent report from Art in Liverpool reveals one component of the city’s creative ecosystem is slowly dying.

In the early months of the new decade, as the pandemic intensified, arts organisations across Liverpool found themselves “watching the world fall apart around us”. In this context, Patrick Kirk-Smith, director of Art in Liverpool, and arts PR consultant Laura Brown undertook a report into the state of artist studios across the Liverpool City Region.

Liverpool is home to 35 artist studios, providing workspaces, studios, exhibition space and storage to over 500 artists. These studios form an integral part of the artistic community and the wider communities they exist within. However, the ‘State of the Studios’ report, produced in collaboration with a collection of Liverpool’s artist studios, reveals the entropy they’re facing: without immediate support, 31 of Liverpool’s 35 studios face extinction.

A combination of unaffordable rents, demand for development and insecurity in building provision has gradually marginalised artist studios, forcing them out of city centre spaces. The ‘Livelihood of Visual Artist’ (2019) report by Arts Council England indicates that, on average, artists earn £16,150 each year, ensuring studio rent cannot be in parallel with other industries. In a competitive property market, this leaves studios extremely vulnerable to rising property prices and landlords seeking to gain from more profitable ventures in attractive city centre locations. The pandemic has revealed and exacerbated these existing vulnerabilities, decimating studio funding and creating chasms where cracks once existed. Studios, therefore, inhabit a precarious existence, forced to move further out of the city or close entirely, hollowing out the city’s creative culture.

This is a familiar story among creative organisations in Liverpool. A story of regeneration, exploitation, profit and marginalisation. In its intricacies, the story reveals truths about the role of cultural regeneration in Liverpool and the particular values which define the use of urban space in the city. It also presents an alternative utopian future. This is the story of Liverpool’s artist studios. “It feels as though Liverpool does not understand what they’ve lost,” says Tony Knox of Road Studios.

Often, the role of artist studios appears mysterious and ambiguous, defined by an existence seemingly both inside and outside of conventional society. This obscurity partly results from the fact that “it’s very difficult to define what a studio does”, as Patrick Kirk-Smith indicates. Liverpool’s studios encompass a vast array of art forms: pottery, graffiti, sculpture, textiles and visual arts more generally. “No one studio does the same thing. Most studios have a specialism, and they support artists within that specialism… there isn’t one definition.”

Despite this variation, artist studios are united as vital components of the city’s arts scene. They operate as creative laboratories, offering artists a dedicated space to experiment and develop their craft. Critically, studios enable networking and creative collaboration between artists, providing a stimulating environment “surrounded by people who can’t help themselves but make stuff”, as Max Mallender, artist lead at The Royal Standard, explains. Studios also offer a vital transitionary space for graduate artists to receive mentoring and support. In this way, artist studios provide the foundations for the city’s art scene, operating as the “bloodline to the rest of the sector” as Faye Hamblett-Jones, artistic director at The Royal Standard, explains.

The forced closure or relocation of artist studios severs this vital limb of the artistic community. In a previous article for Bido Lito!, Charly Reed persuasively outlined the case for small music venues in the city, highlighting their importance for the wider music scene. Perhaps due to the dominancy of Liverpool’s musical identity, or the more insular, quieter nature of artist studios, their importance is often underappreciated. However, the two spaces perform a similar function in Liverpool’s diverse cultural infrastructure – offering a dedicated space for embryonic talent to grow. “Every time there has been a studio within Liverpool’s city centre, they have been systematically moved to the outskirts,” Tony Knox indicates. Without this cultural infrastructure, “where do [we] expect talent to grow?”

Knox’s question encapsulates the necessity of affordable, accessible and secure studio spaces. Without investment and consolidated support, the talent will end up going and they won’t look back. “They won’t say, ‘That was a great city’, they’ll say, ‘You done fuck all for me’,” Knox warns. Liverpool risks suffocating the grassroots artistic community and the evolution of the city’s arts scene, creating a façade of culture with no underlying structure. Artificial flowers with dead soil.

STATE OF THE STUDIOS, STATE OF THE CITY Image 2

This story of underappreciation and perpetual marginalisation reflects an underlying flaw in Liverpool’s cultural landscape. Artists and artist studios are perceived primarily as a mechanism for cultural regeneration, rather than for their inherent non-commercial value. In Liverpool’s current cultural landscape, this flaw manifests itself in the dominance of property developers. “At the moment, property developers dictate the art scene, and therefore they stagnate the art scene,” Knox explains, restricting affordability, accessibility and creative freedom. Artists need space, either for temporary exhibitions and performances, or as studio space and “the more central spaces can be, the more visible independent artists can be”, Patrick Kirk-Smith emphasises, allowing them to be seen and heard. However, as Liverpool has developed and become more attractive, artists are increasingly unable to access affordable city centre spaces, or are exploited as temporary solutions to reviving vacant or disused buildings before being “systematically forced out”. “Everything is monetised now,” Knox laments. “Buildings are bought and they’re sat on… A lot of the buildings that were potentially useful and could have been for artists to go into are no longer available, because people see them as potential to make money. They can’t see the bigger picture.”

During its history, Road Studios has faced two evictions, a High Court ruling and constant uncertainty in the fight to retain its city centre location on Victoria Street. “[The property owners] systematically moved the goal posts by taking away access to the building, it was literally a building site… It got to the point where they actually smashed the toilets as tenants were still in the building.” Sadly, in 2019, Road was evicted and forced out of the city centre, securing a space in the Baltic’s Northern Lights building. Knox believes that property developers “play the white knight”, purporting to support artist studios and provide them with space, only to abandon them once a more profitable option surfaces. The experience of Road Studios encapsulates the situation facing artist studios across the city and the hostile environment they face.

Artists recognise and champion their ability to “add value to space” and “enrich communities”, as Faye Hamblett-Jones explains, reviving the communities they exist within. “Artist studios anchor creative people, art and cultural activity in their neighbourhood,” as a report from the National Federation of Artists’ Studios Providers from 2014 indicates. In addition to providing local amenities in the forms of cafés, workspaces and events or workshops, the presence of artist studios creates a sense of ‘something happening’, piercing through the stagnancy that often dominates forgotten communities. “Artists have [always] been used as a catalyst for regeneration,” Knox acknowledges; however, artist studios want to be seen as a permanent part of the city’s infrastructure, not simply used to develop an area before being outpriced, abandoned and marginalised.

Liverpool is a city that understands more than most the power of culture to stimulate regeneration and transform city landscapes. In recent years, invigorated by the success of 2008, Liverpool has positioned culture as a primary driver of revival and growth, defining itself as a ‘creative city’. This has transformed external perceptions, reflected in the development of the tourism and leisure industry, which was worth £4.9 billion in 2018. The continuing relevance of this approach is epitomised today in Liverpool City Region’s ‘Cultural Compact Strategic Action Plan 2021-2026’ released earlier this year, which positions culture as a dominant force in the city’s recovery from the pandemic and in the economy over the next five years. During an era in which many local authorities have cut cultural provision and funding, Liverpool City Council’s commitment to culture is commendable and the report does emphasise the need for “inclusive growth”.

“Property developers dictate the art scene, and therefore they stagnate the arts scene” Tony Knox, Road Studios

However, there is a sense among Liverpool’s artistic community that they are continually exploited for economic gain in the name of regeneration. “[Artists] are always exploited,” Patrick Kirk-Smith states flatly. Liverpool’s narrative of a creative city is potentially damaging if culture is valued disproportionately for its economic or regenerative potential, rather than for its inherent non-commercial value.

This potential damage is reflected in the recent revelations of the Caller Report, which revealed the City Council’s “dysfunctional management”, particularly within its Regeneration, Planning and Property Management Departments, and resulted in the deployment of government commissioners to oversee these departments for the next three years. For Liverpool’s artist studios, it is proof of the “systemic” methods through which they have been exploited for regeneration projects and the profit motive which has dictated the city’s development, granting lucrative development contracts and failing to prioritise communities.

Only time will tell whether the arrival of the commissioners will limit the Council’s ambitions or agency over Liverpool’s cultural strategy. However, one thing remains clear: if Liverpool is to avoid the continuing marginalisation and depletion of its artistic communities, it must re-evaluate its use of urban space. Thankfully, artists already have the solution – a utopian vision of a different kind of city.

Max Mallender laughs when asked how he would solve the problems facing Liverpool’s artist studios. It is a resigned, knowing laugh, acknowledging the simplicity of the solution but the difficult of actually enacting it. It encapsulates the situation facing artist studios in Liverpool. They are tired. Tired of explaining themselves continuously, tired of the same resurfaced issues, tired of asking for support. Tired of knowing exactly how to solve problems but lacking the power to achieve solutions. “If I could solve the problems,” Max says, “I’d use all the empty commercial space and all the empty retail space in the city and I’d give it to [artists] to do stuff with.”

High streets are dying; empty façades stare out like glazed eyes onto deserted pavements. Rather than this apocalyptic scene, imagine if artists inhabited these empty spaces. “Imagine if the high street changed, imagine if every couple of months there was something different in X space or Y space. There would be a constant draw for people to come into the city,” Max enthuses. Patrick Kirk-Smith agrees that “one day the experience of a high street needs to change – it needs to not be about ‘big culture’. It needs to be local, and community-led, and artists are ideally placed to do that”. Faye Hamblett-Jones imagines “open spaces where the public can come and engage with art and artists”. Commercial spaces are inherently exclusive, dictating access based on economic status. Artistic spaces are democratic and inclusive, inviting people in for no other purpose than presence and participation. These are the kind of spaces that should define Liverpool – those that facilitate conversation and creation, that compel and entice interactions between disparate people and ideas.

This utopian image of a dynamic and responsive Liverpool city space is enticing, interspersing art and creativity with other aspects of urban life. A diverse ecology of art, retail, work and leisure where ordinariness clashes against artistry – a buzzing metropolis which is inclusive and inviting. This is what creates a fertile and explosive culture. A tidal wave of creativity in the city centre, honouring Liverpool’s coastal identity; an ebbing, flowing, evolving city which keeps everyone afloat. This is what is at stake. This is what can be saved.

To read the full State Of The Studios report follow the link below.

studio-network-merseyside.co.uk

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