Manchester: A city for artists?
Manchester’s largest studio group Rogue Artists’ Studios is facing a crisis. In this essay, which is an expanded version of my contribution to the book Higher Education and the Creative Economy (Routledge 2016), I look back on the history of studio groups in Manchester, and forward to an uncertain future.
Visual arts production in Manchester is facing a crisis of unprecedented proportions. The rapid expansion of the studio network during the 1980s and 90s has been thrown into reverse, with many studios facing closure or uncertain prospects as a result of a new wave of land acquisition and redevelopment. Ironically, whilst property developers recognise the ‘buzz’ that thriving creative communities give to a city and ‘sex up’ their portfolios on that basis, local authorities have been slow to integrate resident artists into their vision of the city as a cultural destination. Whilst eleventh hour efforts are being made to avert disaster, it’s worth looking back at how the studio network took root and flourished in Manchester, in order to gain a clearer idea of what the city stands to lose.
The core factors in the development of Greater Manchester as a centre for production in the visual arts since the early 1980s are the high volume of fine art graduates emerging from universities and colleges in the region combined with the availability of low-cost studio space, particularly in and around Manchester and Salford city centres. The growth of the studio network in Manchester during the 1980s and 1990s has not however, been matched by a comparable growth in infrastructure, despite abundant artist-led activity and the presence of major public-funded institutions such as Manchester University’s Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery, Home (formerly Cornerhouse) and The Lowry in Salford.
The absence of a significant market for contemporary art in the North West has restricted the expansion of the commercial gallery sector, and the lack of critical endorsement and advocacy continue to impede the career prospects of art graduates and postgraduates choosing to base themselves in the region. As a result of a programming bias in favour of international artists amongst public subsidised institutions and the Manchester International Festival (Slater et al, 2012:28 Chavez-Dawson, 2005), the prospect of further capital investment in new-build public arts venues in Manchester as part of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ initiative does not appear likely to substantially improve this state of affairs. Since 2000, the increasing numbers of graduates, and emerging and unrepresented mid-career artists choosing to settle in the area has resulted in the growth of a horizontal ‘peer-to-peer’ based creative ecology, but the number of artists achieving higher career goals at the national or international level is limited. This has resulted in perceptions of a ‘glass ceiling’ effect within the region and is encouraging the migration of artists towards the South East. It will be seen that the pattern of growth within the visual arts community in Manchester since 1982 manifests the tension between the attraction of affordable production space and the necessity of generating infrastructure from the grass roots upwards, with all the precariousness that this entails.
Rogue Artists’ Studios was set up in 1995 by a former member of Manchester Artists Studios Association (MASA) and is the largest studios in the North West. MASA itself had opened in 1982, providing a model for other studios in the city, including Sculptors in Greater Manchester Association (SIGMA), Cultural Utility Building Ancoats (CUBA) and Bankley Studios and Gallery in Levenshulme. Whilst MASA is constituted as a Limited Company and has charitable status, and Bankley Studios became a co-operative in 1998, since 2000 Rogue has been run by a small team of studio administrators on a ‘payment in kind’ basis, together with voluntary steering and selection committees, and as of 2016, is constituted as a ‘Community Interest Company’.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the surplus of underused light-industrial building stock in both outlying and city centre locations meant that genuinely affordable studio space was not difficult to find in Manchester. Membership of all these studios had principally been drawn from the fine art programme at Manchester School of Art (MMU), but by the time Rogue opened, the North West was beginning to draw graduate and postgraduate artists from other parts of the UK, attracted by the availability of space and the lower cost of living. At its inception, Rogue absorbed members from a number of smaller studio groups that had either proved difficult to sustain (Studio 3 in Collyhurst) or had lost their premises to fire (CUBA) or termination of lease due to redevelopment, a long-term threat to the longevity of Manchester studio groups. Between 1995 and 2000, Rogue and MASA occupied separate floors of Hanover Mill adjacent to Piccadilly Railway Station, creating a critical mass of artists and a city centre production hub for Manchester’s rapidly growing visual arts community.
During the 1990s, Manchester’s studio network responded to the dearth of exhibiting opportunities by devising means to support its members in promoting and selling their work. To those ends, Rogue has hosted annual ‘Open Studios’ weekend events during which members can sell directly to the public on a commission-free basis, or curate displays of work by students or non-studio members. Artists at Rogue are generally either self-employed, working part-time in service and retail jobs, as attendants in public galleries or as lecturers in further or higher education. This spread of employment is reflective of Greater Manchester’s artist population as a whole (Slater et al, 2014:16). With the demolition of Hanover Mill in 2000, Rogue relocated to one floor of Crusader Mill, the rest of which was occupied by clothing manufacturers at that time. As cheaper supply sources started to drive these companies out of business, Rogue expanded in order to satisfy overwhelming demand, and currently provides studio space for 97 artists on 3 floors.
Prior to the setting up of Castlefield Gallery by members of MASA in 1984, opportunities for Manchester-based artists to exhibit in the city were scarce. In its first incarnation, the Castlefield alternated shows by high-profile established painters and sculptors with North West graduate and postgraduate artists. This programming model had the merit of endorsing artistic excellence regardless of art world status or artificial regional/metropolitan distinctions. Buoyed by an international revival of interest in painting in the 1980s and the modernist ethos of the painting department at MMU, MASA and Castlefield provided a platform for artists from Greater Manchester that extended creative horizons beyond the region. The opening of Cornerhouse in 1985 brought a wider range of contemporary practice to the city and meant that artists could start to build networks beyond the confines of the studio groups, and with sporadic survey shows such as City Life (1986), exhibit in a professionally curated context.
If the fine art department at MMU had driven the growth of the studio network in Manchester in the 1980s, the introduction of the interactive arts course in 1993 produced a second wave of graduates exploring research-driven, collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches. Enterprising collectives such as The Annual Programme (1995-2000), some of whom were MMU graduates, began to attract critical attention, and as visiting lecturers, helped to evolve a cultural theoretical discourse at MMU notably missing from the creative ecology of the city (Simpson: 2001). The professional networks they mobilised set a precedent for the improvisation of arts infrastructure at a regional level and crucially, written contextualisation was seen to be as important as production. The use of their own homes as temporary venues extended the DIY spirit of Manchester’s music scene into the visual arts. By contrast, independent commercial galleries Comme Ça Art and Philips Art Gallery, added an entrepreneurial flair to the promotion of both younger emergent, and unrepresented mid-career artists. By the end of the 1990s, some of these factions began to work together with curators and artists from other cities in the North to organise large-scale group shows taking advantage of the continued availability of disused shops, offices and mills for multi-venue projects such as artranspennine98, MART 1999 and LMN in 2000 (Shillingford et al, 2001).
The opening of The Lowry in Salford in 2000 initially provided dramatic career- boosting exposure in the form of solo and group exhibitions culminating in Thermo 03, which alongside Castlefield’s Artist Run (2003), provided an overview of activity in both neighbouring cities. The Comme Ça Art Prize (2003) and Comme Ça New York (2003-4) briefly broadened the reach of Manchester artists and attracted much needed media attention. A new wave of independent dealers such as Tmesis, Richard Goodall Gallery, Wendy J. Levy Fine Art and later Bureau and Untitled Gallery (now Object / A) offered exhibiting and selling opportunities for represented artists and by 2006, Manchester appeared to be developing a fully functioning creative economy. Salford and Manchester Artists Link (SMALLpond) promoted the studios via a website and free map and Flux magazine had opened out what might have seemed a hermetic and incoherent scene by combining regional and international arts coverage with fashion features and the broader reach of national distribution. However, other than local coverage in listings magazine City Life (Birch et al, 2001)), and occasional features in Art Review (Simpson, 2001) and Flash Art (Mulholland, 2001), the city still lacked a range of outlets for serious critical writing.
Alongside the increase in the number of galleries after 2000, a rapid diversification of artist-led activity took advantage of the proliferation of new clubs, bars and cafés in Manchester’s regenerated Northern Quarter to mount one-off themed projects and exhibitions. At the same time, artists were opening their own self-funded galleries in short-lived alternative spaces including a living room (Bert and Ganddie Gallery), a porch (Porch Gallery), a plan chest (Floating ip) and a coat pocket (La Galerie Dans Ma Poche). Apartment, the most durable of these ad hoc spaces, combined international guest exhibitors with artists drawn from MMU’s postgraduate programme and the studio network. Based in a council flat, Apartment brokered international exposure for its artists and like many other artist-led projects subsisted on occasional support from the Arts Council England (ACE) Grants for the Arts scheme. An increased focus on professional development in university fine art courses led to the growth of a wider constellation of artist-led studio and gallery associations throughout the Greater Manchester conurbation, notably in Bolton where neo: provide studios and print facilities, and host an ambitious annual open exhibition and art prize.
The recession of 2008 and cuts to ACE budgets brought a rapid contraction of the visual arts ecology in Manchester, with venue closures and widespread gallery downsizing or relocation. The cohesion, plurality and enterprise of the early millennium yielded to the reinforcement of divisions between artist-led, commercial and public-funded sectors. Excepting Castlefield Gallery, which has regained its National Portfolio Organization status and remains active in facilitating grass roots curatorial and artistic activity (Clayton, 2015), the sense of an ecology capable of sustaining diversity and facilitating upward mobility has receded somewhat. The reduction of the commercial sector and at best sporadic permeability of public galleries to resident artists, perceived to be a problem throughout the UK (McGregor, 2014), gave rise in 2014 to the online publication of an Open Letter calling for increased support for artists working in the region.
Nevertheless, a nascent recognition of the economic benefits arising from the retention of the creative community on the part of the Arts Council and local authorities may yet result in new partnerships and infrastructural provision. The publication of the ROCC report in 2013 highlighted the need for investment in arts production outside London, a recommendation that Manchester is pre-eminently placed to answer. However, networking opportunities leading to exposure of work as a means of career progression (Air and a-n, 2011:3) (Slater et al, 2012:3) are restricted as a result of oversupply of graduates to the existing infrastructure. In the meantime, artist-led galleries, project spaces, and agencies such as neo:, Caustic Coastal, Paper, PsMirabel, Mark Devereux Projects and Toast in Manchester, have stepped into the breach, combining social media savvy and residency programmes to promote emerging talent.
In recent years, distinctions between traditional and expanded practice in Manchester (Williams, 2001) have become somewhat less divisive and the larger studios such as Rogue and Islington Mill in Salford accommodate and support both tendencies. Online journal Corridor8 has provided a much needed platform for critical writing and the coming together of curators and artists working with Contemporary Visual Arts Manchester (CVAM); part of an ACE funded national network of organisations intended to promote visual art in the regions, has made a modest but significant contribution to artists’ career development prospects. Whether this can be sustained and augmented by wider institutional participation remains to be seen. Whilst the Manchester Contemporary art fair continues to generate a market-facing profile for independent galleries, the closure of the Contemporary Arts Society North, a part public-funded organisation aimed at expanding the collector base for contemporary art, does not augur well. With 73.5% of artists in Greater Manchester who responded to a recent survey (Slater et al, 2014:20) not making a living from their work, and incomes in fine art stuck at half the UK national average (Spriggens, 2012), the situation is as urgent today as it has been for the past 30 years.
Despite the diversification of their practices, artists are still attracted to shared working environments for a number of reasons. At Rogue a recent internal questionnaire demonstrated that artists value studios for the fellowship and mutual support they offer, as well as networking and exhibiting opportunities. Now, in addition to the problems faced by artists in making a living in the North, the very basis of their activity is under severe threat. If the recession damaged the emergent ecology of the mid-noughties, the boom in investment in the city threatens to oust its artists altogether. The imminent termination of leases at Rogue and Third Floor Studios mean that more than a hundred of Manchester’s most active artists are facing an uncertain future.
Now is the time for Manchester to understand that artistic innovation is central to its identity going forward. It is simply unsustainable for the city to trade on its creative history forever. A recent study (Comunian and Gilmore, 2016) has illustrated the contribution of studio groups to the ongoing career development of emerging artists and to local economies. Artists at studios in Manchester exhibit internationally, acting as cultural ambassadors for the city. The time has come for Manchester to return the compliment and to advocate its homegrown talent to the world. If the studios close, artists emerging from the region’s flourishing graduate and postgraduate courses will inevitably drift away, impoverishing the North as a viable centre of production of international significance. Let’s hope that the voices calling for a public intervention in this emergency are heard and heeded.
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Chavez-Dawson, J. (2005) Manchester: Naturally Proactive and Curatorially Inquisitive. NYARTS (Online) (Accessed on 10th June 2015) http://www.nyartsmagazine.com/?p=3431
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