A brief history of artist projects in Bristol – John O’Connor

John O’Connor, a trustee of Bricks, has been an artist in Bristol since the 1970’s, and has seen the creative landscape change drastically. Here, John reflects on that history and what it mean for today’s artists, residents and visitors of Bristol.

In 1975, a small group of artists came together to establish Bristol’s first studio collective. The notion that, by co-operating, artists could secure industrial warehouse space for sub-division into studios was relatively new. The precedent had been set in London with the establishing of ‘Space’ studios at St. Catherine’s Warf in the docklands, but outside of that, there was a general perception that artists were solitary operators; ‘lone wolves’ and collectivism was still a strangely alien concept to many.

Space acted as a mentor to fledgling studio initiatives both in London and elsewhere in the country. Bristol Artspace, as it became known, was one of the first to take up their offer of support. Space provided legal and funding advice through it’s subsidiary, Art Services Grants and they helped Artspace to establish a ‘not for profit’ company.

It is hard to imagine now, but Bristol then was not the kind of city that appealed to artists. Yes, there was the Arnolfini and sometimes the RWA and City Museum would put on contemporary art exhibitions, but the overwhelming urge from young artists or post- graduates was ‘to get the hell out’ and relocate to London.

There was simply little or no infrastructure to support contemporary art production, there was nowhere to make large-scale art, to show art or see the work of other local artists. Audiences were thin and there was little in the way of a critical forum in which to talk about artistic concepts or explore new ideas.

So, initially, Artspace had it’s work cut out to address these issues and find ways to persuade young artists to remain in Bristol and commit to building a contemporary ‘milieu’.

By 1976, Artspace had acquired the top floor of a dilapidated dockland warehouse. The ground rent was cheap and it was in a good location. Dockland districts throughout the country were suffering decline after the advent of shipping containers and so it was, that empty dock warehouses in Portsmouth, Glasgow, Cardiff and Liverpool were also being colonised by artists.

However, the rent was cheap for a reason, these were inhospitable working environments; leaky roofs, vermin infested, fridges in winter, ovens in summer. But for artists, strongly influenced by the large-scale work of the New York art scene, floor space was a premium. The economies of scale for space, materials and equipment that a collective approach delivered proved irresistible and so, the ‘Studio Group’ had arrived.

For the first 5 years, it was a slow slog for Artspace. Hitting the minimum dozen artists to pay the ground rent was proving difficult and surplus space was being sub-let to other small arts groups.

Then the 80s arrived and a seismic shift took hold. The political culture became hostile to all things that were unable to justify their existence in crude economic terms and there was no place for ‘unviable’ contemporary art in this new world of commercial accountability.

Artists were now having to devise strategies that could react to external threat. Opportunity may mean different things to different artists but here threat was mutual and so, under this new regime, a renewed and galvanised commitment to the collective emerged. The virtues of unity and ‘voice’ were quickly recognised and, practically overnight, Artspace’s membership grew from 12 to 50, then to 80 and finally 100. Momentum gathered as artists coalesced into larger and larger groups.

These groups now began to realise that the missing pieces required to create a rich and thriving contemporary art sector in the city could now be made up, in a ‘DIY’ fashion, by the artists themselves. Committees were established and, through organised division of labour, specialist skills acquired. And so, throughout the 80s, the term, ‘artist- led’ became a buzzword up and down the country.

Artspace opened a number of gallery venues and other short-term project spaces. Public art initiatives, residency studios and international exchange programmes were also developed. Open studio events, artist in schools and other education projects helped to cultivate new audiences and challenge conventions.

Studio projects were opening up all over Bristol as demand exploded, artists were now, not only staying, but many were relocating to the city. Minto Studios, Mivart Street, Jamaica Street, Redcliffe Studios, Hullar House, the Cheese Factory and at the McArthur Building; the Sculpture Shed, Gas Ferry Studios, Top Floor Studios, Sublime Studios, Transflex, the Bristol Printmakers Co-op all serving the huge mass of visual artists now living and working in Bristol.

Despite this upsurge of activity, front line poverty for individuals was still never far away and the unpaid workload by committed artists, phenomenal though it was, took its toll. So, monies were sought to fund paid staff, boards were established to attract professional expertise and systems of delegation were devised to spread work evenly among the artists.

The late 80s saw property booms and ‘gentrification’ of the dockland districts that artists, among others, had helped to make fashionable. Studio projects were being priced out with artists evicted and once more pushed to the peripheries to make way for loft apartments, offices and more financially viable ‘cultural industries’.

Contemporary visual artists were once again being positioned as bottom of the food chain. However, this time things had evolved and artists had learnt how to organise and mobilise and so, the skills acquired in developing spaces and programmes were now redirected towards publicity, political lobbying and fundraising. The artists, themselves, were becoming campaigners and property developers.

In 1985, the warehouse, out of which, Artspace had been operating, was bought by a developer and eviction seemed immanent. This became the catalyst for a ten-year campaign to acquire and secure a permanent home – after processing over 20 buildings, the long journey was eventually concluded in 1996, with the acquisition of the Spike Island complex at the former Brooke Bond tea-packing factory on Cumberland Road.

The arrival of the National Lottery in the mid 90s heralded a new era, where the arts were now perceived as one of the ‘engines of post industrial urban renewal’. After all the hard work, artists around the country were now ‘feeling the love’ and able to return to their practices.

With the arrival of lottery funded low cost professional studio space and a thriving sector, there was an assumption that opportunity for contemporary artists was now in the ascendancy. So, artists ‘stood down’ and enabled paid professional executives to take over the management of buildings and the running of programmes.

This period of transition was perceived by some as a gain and by others as, maybe, a loss.

For those artists used to decades of deprivation, the lottery was viewed suspiciously as a short-term bonanza that would deliver large capital projects dependant on unsustainable revenue requirements. Changes in the political landscape would inevitably lead to different priorities and ultimately to a ‘post-funding’ crisis. So, in anticipation of that day, many former artist-led projects attempted to build business models that could withstand a retreat in public support. However, the collapse in arts funding proved not to be an overnight event, but rather, a long, slow, drawn out affair.

By the 2000s, Bristol had a comprehensive and thriving visual arts sector with a large community of artists supported by a wide and diverse range of informed audiences. There were still pieces missing, but the portfolio of established projects was impressive, BV Studios had arrived, artist commissioning agencies, Picture This and Situations were delivering quality new work locally, nationally and internationally, Spike Island had been refurbished to include spectacular new galleries, a café, an associates space and new sculpture and residency studios.

The recession brought on by the collapse of the Leymans Brothers Bank in 2008 marked the beginning of the end of large scale funding for the arts. New waves of young artists were now confronted with the same old issues of trying to pursue their practice in a hostile economic environment. Once again, a plethora of small initiatives were popping up around the city. Using ‘hit and run’ short-term occupancy of empty shops and disused industrial sheds, groups of artists were foraging for the kind of ‘secondary’ opportunities that a recession can often provide.

This austerity presented a serious test of resilience but, also, heralded a period of renewal. Out of the dozens of short term and temporary projects that came and went, a few managed to stick around, some serving specialist needs, others presenting differing approaches. So, a new generation of artist-led initiatives are now poised to assume a role in Bristol’s ever-evolving visual arts ecology, awaiting the pool of light that will encourage growth.

Bristol’s 45-year history of ‘artist led’ has bequeathed an extraordinary legacy, which continues onwards. The numerous precedents serve as a learning resource to the latest incarnations, both in terms of what to do but also, maybe, what not to do.

There are critical paths to follow in order to grow complex and layered projects that will ultimately develop into unique and innovative assets. Local authorities, funders and even the private sector are now more understanding of the dynamics at play.

However, it seems storm clouds are once again gathering, both within the arts and politics at large. We will wait to see what new strategies artists will adopt to cope with next wave of upheaval.

– John O’Connor

Kieron Gurner