Dr Arantxa Echarte

Artist and Researcher; Senior Research and Development Officer at Acme Studios

Affordable and secure workspace! This is the the rallying cry of Acme Studios. For some 42 years, this London-based charity has distinguished itself as a space provider that cares. Acme’s mission is to support artists pursuing non-commercial practice. While this has always been vital to the Capital’s creative diversity, today it’s critical. Rampant cuts in public funding for the arts are making those working in this field more reliant than ever on other systems of support. Acme’s operations service over 650 artists in 570 studios in 15 buildings in Greater London. And the vacancy rate? Less than 1%. Some practitioners wait years for a space. But there’s good news: Acme has built studio facilities and there might be more to come.

Pangaea visited the newly established High House Artists’ Studios with Jonathan Harvey (one of Acme’s Founders) and Senior Research and Development Officer, Dr Arantxa Echarte. The purpose-built complex is part of the flourishing High House Production Park, which also features the Royal Opera House’s scene-making facility and the Backstage Centre. It provides practical skills and training in theatre operations.

After touring High House, Pangaea sat down with Arantxa to talk studio provision as the hearth and home for creative practice. This Spanish artist is also a researcher who specialises in research methods and the transfer of knowledge in contemporary art and its discourses. In this rich interview, we explore why studios are so much more than bricks and mortar. The following exchange is based on that interview.

‘Artists are normally pretty structured in the way they work and use the studios in very specific ways. They have the dirty space, the clean space, the thinking space, the office space, the tea space, the digital space! It really depends on the artists and the environments they need to develop their practice! This spaces can change from one week to the next. The studio is an organic space, as we saw when we documented the studios for the 18 months.’

You’re an artist who has her own studio practice, specialising in painting, drawing and performance, and you work as a Research and Development Officer for Acme Studios. These positions provide an interesting basis for your recent body of research, which contributed to the book Studios for Artists: Concepts and Concrete. A collaboration between Acme Studios and Central Saint Martins. We’d like to begin by asking about your enquiry: how did it unfold and what kind of thinking propels it?

I believe that what happens in the studio is an important part of the multidimensional creative ecology and this cannot be separated from the social and the political. These ideas, in conjunction with the knowledge acquired at Acme and through visiting other studio providers around the country, provided the backdrop for the research on studio provision.

The research we did for the Knowledge Transfer Partnership project is based on the existing Acme models and focused on the design of the studio, the bricks and mortar; the ways in which these spaces are occupied; and the studio as a ‘concept’, hence the title of the book Concepts and Concrete.

Can we turn to the organisation of studio space and could you say something about how artists structure their places of practice?

Gathering empirical evidence about how artists use their spaces was central to the overall project. Apart from the data gathering, studio visits, student debates and a study of relevant literature, we carried out 31 oral interviews, with artists, covering each artists’ life and the development of their practice in relation to the studios they had occupied along their career. We also asked Hugo Glendinning to photographically document these 31 Acme tenants in their studios.

By doing this we learned a lot about how artists use the spaces. There is for example a beautiful observation that Dryden Goodwin makes during his interview. He elaborated on the various uses of space in his studio explaining that he requires a ‘studio-like’ space where he might be able to produce, compare and contrast works with a clear sense of timeline an development, but at times seeks out to move into a more virtual and abstract space – his editing suite which sits as a continuation of his ‘studio like’ space. Depending on the practice he is developing he will sit in one space or the other.

Additionally we photographed 16 quasi-identical studios, from fixed points, at four-month intervals over 18 months. The systematic documentation of the studios created an illuminating photography-based investigation that brought to light different ways in which artists organise their space, use the studio and how that changes over time. From looking at these photographs we concluded that artists’ spaces took approximately a year to shape and it takes each tenant approximately two years to fully settle in. This observation strengthens advocacy for long-term tenancies that provides stability and time for a practice to develop in situ.

So zones of spatio-temporality. So it’s not about time or space but how they come together.

Exactly! And that changes from artist to artist. Artists are normally pretty structured in the way they work and use the studios in very specific ways. They have the dirty space, the clean space, the thinking space, the office space, the tea space, the digital space! It really depends on the artists and the environments they need to develop their practice! These spaces can change from one week to the next. The studio is an organic space, as we saw when we documented the studios for the 18 months.

It is also interesting to think about different ways of occupying spaces. For example, a model that we are observing more and more in the occupation of our studios is a tendency to occupy a large space by several artists – instead of artists wanting individual smaller spaces. In this case artists occupy the space they need depending on the type of work they are doing at any moment, by negotiation with their studio sharers. It seems that artists prefer to adjust to the use of space than to adjust their practices to fit smaller spaces. However, it is again difficult to generalise. This is just one of the trends we observed.

It was fascinating to hear one of your artists at High House in Purfleet talk about there being an awkward bit in their studio. It’s an ‘L’ shape that can’t quite accommodate the artist’s making but it works well as an office. Could you say a bit more about that?

We noticed a trend in artists having an office—even the makers. Everyone has something that happens on a computer and as a result, they need a clean space. It often functions as a thinking space that is sectioned off. And we realised this was probably a solution to a common architectural problem. When you’re designing and building spaces and trying to maximise them, it’s extremely difficult to come up with a perfect square, and there is often an awkward corner or a pillar. But these awkward spaces can become a solution! We can think of studios as hosting different spaces where different kinds of activity can take place.

It’s been fascinating to see how artists make use of spaces that are difficult but they transform them into something useful. We don’t design for specific use, as it is impossible to predetermine how someone will use a space, but we do try and for example guess where the artists will have their office (if they need one) so that we put enough sockets and the Internet connection there.

In your research, including your interviews with artists, did you get a sense of work cycles? Time and duration? Did they work in short bursts or do they prefer to have an entire day?

All artists are different so it is difficult to get a sense of work cycles. Our studios give 24-hour access so artists can go to their studios and work at any time of the day or night. From the interviews we gathered that this was key for the artists. Artists often work towards deadlines and like spending as much time as possible in the studio. Additionally, most artists have another job hence if the studio was not 24-hour access they would find themselves in the conundrum of paying for a space that they couldn’t really use as much as they would like to due to their working hours.

However, this brings up a series of other issues as, for example, artists’ safety. It is important that artists feel safe within the spaces they occupy and when they access these spaces–no matter what time of the day. For example there are advantages in working within mixed-use buildings, which accommodate residential as well as studio space. In her interview Yukako Shibata, from Harrow Road, explained how she works till late in the evening and how she feels safe knowing that there are people living above her studio. It is a great arrangement that benefits all!

There are, of course, many types of artists and they have different needs. What about the makers who have studios in your blocks and their specific requirements?

We have a lot of makers. These include fabricators and many have been with us for years. We are aware of these artists’ needs. They are normally in ground-floor studios, with easy access to loading bays and external spaces. They normally use machinery so have access to different sources of power, which were retrofitted depending on the needs of the artist. They also have retrofitted systems of ventilation and we make sure that all studios comply with health and safety regulations.

However, High House Artists Studios was also an opportunity to design spaces for makers. The ground floor of the building is comprised of seven large units with direct access to a yard where materials and work can easily be loaded and unloaded. The studios have three-phase power with plugs located on the floor and there is provision for other possible sources of power (i.e. from above). Some of the spaces have a separate cleaning area with access to water. The ceiling of the studios are 4m high and the walls and floors have been designed to support heavy loads and insulate the space to a high standard. We developed these design specifications in consultation with makers and from the feedback we receive, we think that the result is really positive.

We know your provision aims to support non-commercialised practice so could you dig into this a bit with reference to the fabricators?

Well, we see fabricators as key elements of the production process for some of the makers in our studios and by extension supporters of an artists’ non-commercial practice. When we say non-commercial we don’t mean that there is no transaction—otherwise this would imply that our artists would not sell any work or work by commission! What we mean by non-commercial fine art practice is the activity of artists who make art for its creative, cultural, intellectual or philosophical value, as much as, and even in preference to, its commodity value. With this in mind, we are very happy to continue to support the fabricators in our buildings.

Could you speak about other studio trends that you’ve observed? What about, for instance, the gender balance?

In the process of gathering data on the artists and the kind of work being made across our sites some interesting facts emerged. For example, in December 2010 60% of Acme tenants were working with painting, drawing and printmaking, 20% were makers and 20% worked with other media. In 2010 the average Acme tenant was 45 years old and the gender balance was 50/50.

However to select the artists for the interviews (31 out of approximately 600) we specifically looked at certain aspects of an artist’s practice and context: objective factors including age, the number of years an artist had spent out of college, the size and location of the studio and its distance from home; practice-related factors including the nature of the work and the processes, materials and technologies employed; and a range of personal factors and lifestyles such as number of days per week in the studio where studio time might be set against commitments to family and/or work elsewhere. The gender balance for the interviews was of course 50/50 again.

This criteria shows the number of factors that can have an impact on how an artist experiences and uses a studio.

Could we talk further about patterns of use? Specifically, what are your impressions of studios being locked up for extended periods of time, either because the artist occupier is off-site working on a project or because they’re elsewhere, needing to earn money so that they can get back into the studio?

Acme Studios lets long-term studios and these are offered to artists as they become available, either through ‘turnover’ (when an artist leaves a space) or through the development of new buildings. Acme’s occupancy rates are 99.21% and the turnover of artists is minimal. We visit our studio buildings often and we are confident that most of our studios are used and actively occupied. However, when necessary we also help artists sublet their studio if they can foresee they won’t be using the studio for a period of time. Sublets become a short-term solution from which artists benefit. We also do short-term sublets if there are gaps between occupation of studios.

And yes, you are right, most of the artists commented on the difficulties of juggling paid work and studio work, however, the fundamental necessity of a studio is such that not having a studio was unimaginable.

To change tack a little, we’ve read online about the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) that you led. This was a two-year programme, a partnership between Central Saint Martins and Acme. It was government-funded in part and the programme is designed to enrich businesses through better use of knowledge, technology and skills. What’s for us really interesting about this project is it generated several briefs, including those for users and managers of Acme studios. It would be good to hear more about this unfolding as well as how you’re now putting this into practice through initiatives, such as High House, Acme’s custom-build studio facility out at Purfleet.

Yes, the KTP initiated by Acme Studios and Central Saint Martins opened up a detailed discussion about the form and purpose of artists’ studios. This was an exciting opportunity to work with two collaborating organisations that on the one hand held the accumulative knowledge of 40 years of studio provision, and on the other is a leading art school preparing artists and potential studio users of the future.

The main aim of the project was to develop new briefs for the design and management of Acme’s studios with the underlying imperative to sustain and, where possible, increase the affordability and quality of studios. After two years and a half of research, in January 2013, the KTP team delivered, among many other outcomes, revised design and performance specifications that covered a number of different studio types and development models. These directly contributed to the design of High House Studios – a stand-alone purpose built studio building.

On Acme’s website it says that the project aimed to ‘ensure that [the studio provider] continues to provide and manage studios which meet the changing needs of artists’ practice’s’ so presumably this was the focus?

Yes, the research showed that artists’ needs are always changing as they are intertwined with other factors such as the social, the political, their own practice and their own lives. Hence, we concluded that meeting those needs was a continuous activity and therefore we needed to think of ways to monitor artists’ activity. For example we created a comprehensive tenant survey which is a valuable means through which Acme tenants can tell us about their needs. The first survey was launched in 2013 and we are now in the process of responding to the collated data. Additionally, we continue to document artists’ studios and continue to think about possible ways of improving what we do.

Do you think that there are perceptions of how studios work but they don’t necessarily jive with how practitioners engage with their studios—in practice.

Well, as I mentioned before there are many factors that shape how an artist uses the studio. However, I strongly believe that it is mainly by talking to the artists about how they use their spaces that we can get a better understanding of their needs. We did not only do this through the interviews and other activities, but we also ran a series of seminars with Central Saint Martin’s BA and MA Fine Art students, so we could understand the needs and expectations of our future tenants. In these seminars we discussed questions such as: What are you planning on doing – in terms of studio practice – once you finish your degree? What are your main priorities when looking for a studio? How would you define your perfect studio?

We, for example, discovered that the students didn’t have much of an understanding of the studio provision sector, and the majority of students wanted a communal space and the support of their peers. To some extent they were describing an extension of the art college, hence, what they already knew. With this in mind we took a commitment to supporting more artists at the beginning of their career by creating an experimental scheme that helps graduates address the difficulties they might face when trying to start to work within the professional art world. This is what we call the Associate Studio Programme and you can read a lot more about it in Studios for artists: Concepts and Concrete.

Additionally, the ever changing nature of artists’ needs implies that our buildings might resemble this possibility for change. For example High House Artists’ Studios is designed so spaces can be both subdivided or joined. Facilities and even external design were decided accordingly.

An lastly affordability!!! This is the most important thing when designing studios! As HAT Projects [the architects that Acme worked with on High House] state in the book, High House Artists’ Studios is a ‘robust, flexible and inexpensive’ building. The detailed brief and knowledge we acquired helped us create a building that cost £78/ft2, which allowed Acme to continue to rent spaces at an affordable rate – which is key at a time of economic instability.

We were struck, on our tour of High House, by your cost-saving measures, which aren’t immediately obvious. There’s a lot to say about this. Could you, by way of conclusion, offer a few reflections on how Acme has created an appropriate and affordable facility?

Yes! The building, as the architects say, is unashamed in its use of low-cost and robust materials, but the process of their selection was not made without thought. The architects chose common fletton bricks, which are not only low-cost but also have an appealing visual irregularity that recalls industrial brick buildings. The use of standard materials, like for example standard fenestration, and the undecorative nature of the building also helped with keeping the costs low. There is an utilitarian look to the building that resembles the nature of the building and the thinking behind its design.

Visit Acme’s website to find our more about their studio provisions; the KTP collaboration between Acme Studios and Central Saint Martins; High House Artists Studios; and the Associate Studio Programme in Studios for Artists: Concepts and Concrete, a collaboration between Acme Studios and Central Saint Martins.

High House opened in 2013. It comprises 39 studios and 4 work/live units. In 2014 High House Artists’ Studios won a RIBA regional award.

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