Peckham Arts - an AirSpace Gallery Research Visit, Day 1

On the surface, it might seem an odd choice of location for a research visit by an arts organisation in the regions in to how to make the arts and arts organisations pay for its/themselves. We often think of that London as an alien enclave, with invisible insurmountable fortifications and all of the crucial and necessary conditions and opportunities an artist/organisation needs in order to thrive - tellingly at the perceived expense of those of us operating outside.

Yet, on another level, London has its drawbacks. There is the small fish-big pond issue, a surfeit of practitioners and venues, chasing an ever dwindling public pot, and the fact that, when boiled down to its geographical basics, it can be seen as a conglomeration of small, self-governing towns nwhich add together to make a sum as great as its constituent parts. Maybe a gargantuan version of Stoke-on-Trent?

My visit centred on the borough of Southwark and particularly the "town" of Peckham as a case study and initially looked at talking to a variety of practitioners and venues - starting with a fledgling artist run space, a community-facing and previously publicly funded gallery, and an artist - entrepreneur who has operated in Peckham pre and post arts-led gentrification.


The Annual Open at Cafe Gallery

On my way to  visit Vulpes Vulpes (VV), walking through Soutwark Park I happened across 2 of the park's very own gallery - Cafe Gallery and Dilston Grove -  I entered the Cafe Gallery expecting twee
hobby art, but what I found was a professional gallery, undoubtedly community focussed, showing the well respected and renowned Bermondsey Artists Group's (BAG) annual Open.

BAG is an artist-led initiative supporting CGP London and creating opportunities for artists who live, work or study in Southwark.
For £20 you get
Invitations to exhibit in Bermondsey Artists’ Group shows, Participation in an active artist group, The right to vote at the Annual General Meeting, Discounted submission rate at the Annual Open Exhibition, Greatly valued support to CGP London.

Exhibition at Dilston Grove
CGP is an artist led initiative providing exhibitions of contemporary art, at two venues in Southwark Park. Cafe Gallery is a modern purpose- built space comprising three interlinked 'white room' spaces and a patio garden. Dilston Grove is a Grade II Listed building providing a cavernous raw space for large scale installations and performance, a reception area and learning space. Southwark Park is London's oldest Metropolitan park and boasts a lake, bandstand, tennis courts, wildlife walk, bowling green, children's playground and cafe.

Since their foundation by the Bermondsey Artists' Group in 1984, community integration and inclusiveness has been central to the values of CGP London. We believe in the benefit of creative expression and positive contact with the arts. During this time, a fully evolved learning programme has developed, to encompass shifting demographics, the interests of local people and the changing ways that artists work with audiences. The Bermondsey Artists' Group is a registered educational charity (No.1073851).

Learning - 
 - there is a way to self support through well run and attractive membership schemes
 - an open exhibition is a good, but time consuming way, to make money/finance exhibitions
 - both of these offer a way of developing an audience, which may then lead to future private funding possibilities.
- becoming a charity offers specific funding opportunities - particularly , they are often able to raise funds from the public, grant-making trusts and local government more easily than non-charitable bodies;

From Southwark Park I made the short walk to Southwark Park Road and Blue Anchor Lane, the home of Vulpes Vulpes' brand new gallery space. Now safely secured following a successful crowdfunding campaign, the premises offer a street facing traditional, almost corporate gallery space, with the added wonder and awe of a huge railway archway accessed through the rear of the front gallery space - really the best of both worlds.

Vulpes Vulpes started in 2009, by four artists, Carla Wright, Anna Chrystal Stephens, Laurie Storie and Hadiru Mahdi, as an artist collective, studios and project space in East London – hosting exhibitions, performances and educational workshops, after a series of initial varied incarnations, which included squatting a series of different buildings in an attempt to find ways of living and working as artists in London. At this point they were individually renting studio spaces.

In 2009 they pooled their studio rents and rented a warehouse together, offering enough room to live and have a gallery and studios. The 7000 square metres victorian tramshed was rented on a short term lease from a property developer and divided the space into 10 sculpture studios, which covered their rents.

From the initial point of being solely studio providers, they progressed to offering Gallery and exhibition opportunities - looking to produce these shows in a self-sufficient way - lots of recycling materials. A show would often only cost £50 to produce. Artists weren't paid, as the opportunity to exhibit was so attractive.

Learning - exhibitions can happen very cheaply with creative and strategic thinking.

Moving from these premises into slightly smaller, more expensive space, they continued to explore the efficacy of the live/work model, but without the option now of Gallery space, started to work on off-site projects, which would be self-funded through activities such as Open Exhibitions. These would typically see around 250 submissions and charging £7 per submission.

As well as some funds, the opens provided a good training ground through looking at and discussing works, whilst raising their awareness of other artists' works and prevalent trends. It was thought that this might help with future shows in enhancing their network.

Learning - Holding an open can raise funds, and be a fruitful self-sufficient way to operate. It also helps enhance networks and increase visibility and a sense of relevance in an organisation's situation and location.

For a variety of reasons which included, tiring of the caretaking and administering involved in being studio providers, and no longer being able to provide good quality reasonably-priced studios, and not making an art living for themselves, they moved to their present gallery only location. 

Their plans around funding remain focussed on self sufficiency and innovation. They want the space to pay for itself, like the old live-work spaces, so a plan to rent it out, for photoshoots,  film location and music videos. Also, a series of fundraising events, and maybe a shop - but there is an understanding that this won't be straightforward and will have to happen alongside either a series of individual project Arts Council funding bids or a larger program based funding bid. They also wanted to create a situation where each of the four members shares the running of the space equally, and gets paid for their share - at least 1 paid day each per week.

Learning - 
Overall, it seems that through being providers of studios and arts opportunities over a number of years, in a non-funded environment, has created a sort of innovation training, and an expectation that arts activity can happen to a certain extent, in a non centrally funded way. However, it is instructive to understand that ultimately, despite this collective's outstanding abilities and innovative thinking, along with the vast majority of non-commercial arts organisations, it has been necessary to turn to Arts Council bids and crowd-funding as the main income sources.

From here it was on to Peckham High street and Peckham Space, which since the time of my visit has now become Peckham Platform.


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