Tara Cranswick

Artist & Director of V22

Tara Cranswick is changing contemporary art by modelling an arts organisation that differently distributes value. Taking ‘artist-led culture’ to the next level, V22 is ‘artist-owned,’ too. Traded on the stock exchange, anyone can, in fact, buy shares. But as Tara explained in her interview for Pangaea, the V22 art collection was created as a resource to be owned in common by artists. Over the last eight years, Tara has grown V22 into a support network offering infrastructure in the form of studios and opportunities, including events, exhibitions and educational initiatives. These are proving viable alternatives to the tried and tested systems of funding and patronage that prioritise an elite few benefactors and beneficiaries. As a foundation, art collection and studio provider, V22 is democratising art practice by supporting artists in general who are committed to pushing the boundaries of contemporary cultural production.

The following is based on an interview with Tara that took place in an East London studio.

‘I think there is so much need for infrastructure, and I know that can be a dirty word but what infrastructure has been put into art? The gallery system? 300 years ago? That’s all we have? What about the museum system? What is the new museum system really about? It’s still really about the state and showing off in some way. Even something like Tate Modern that is supposed to be more supportive of contemporary art, isn’t in itself very contemporary.’

As both an artist and the director of V22, you’re well placed to comment on studio facilities in London. Could you talk us through some of the characteristics that make for provision?

It’s interesting to comment on the studio situation from the perspective of V22 because we are not a well-established organisation like Space or Acme. These charities have had a lot of help and they secured long leaseholds or freeholds ten or 15 years ago, before the property boom. But nor are we like the young startups that are fine in temporary spaces because they can move around, with this transience being very much part of the excitement of being in the city. It’s so difficult because you’re taking on buildings that you know are short term. We have a couple of different models for how we do this because three to five years is the typical timeframe for redeveloping properties. So we’re talking old buildings that you have to repurpose or build in. The reality is that you’re going to spend six months to a year doing up the building because that’s the only kind of structure that you can afford. And then there are knock-on effects. If you’re keeping rates affordable, you’re never going to have all the money upfront and be able to do everything in advance. So you’re building and letting and building and letting building and letting. For V22, we have to let so that we can build.

Given the choice, we’d rather wait to fill our buildings with artists because our rates are subsidised but we can’t always do that. To ensure our buildings are let, with this rent paying for the next round of upgrades, we let to both artists and businesses. We insist that they’re creative businesses and, ideally, they’re complimentary, which is to say that they support their artist neighbours by being framers, mould-makers, photographers and so on. And actually, these kinds of businesses are really useful to have in studio buildings. So when it comes to the ‘studio situation’ there are these three interlocking issues: the financial pressure of filling buildings, the short-term of leases fated for redevelopment and the expense of upgrades. These things together mean that buildings kind of form themselves. The communities that happen there are forged through these circumstances.

Ideally, though, the building can host tenants who are mutually supportive. Our Bermondsey building was like this. The front was ideal for workshops. We had metal workshops, wood workshops, mould-making, framers. And I would watch young artists move down the block and by the time they’d got to the end, they’d have had all the help they needed to make their whole project or artwork. Imagine if you had the time and money to plan something like this. You’d have all these specialist service providers who could work with artists to do really exciting things.

So you’re saying there’s big value in being able to plan these hybrid communities, cultivate interdependence among the tenants and then benefit from the richness that slow-growth culture enabled by stable conditions can yield.

Yes, but the reality is that most of the time, you just get something working and then you’re moved on because your three to five years are up. And moving on is hugely expensive! Everyone has to take at least a month off work to pack up, relocate and set up somewhere else. Often you have to hire help, too. So not only does your work stop but you’re also paying out. We determined the real cost of moving from our Bermondsey building was hundreds of thousands of pounds for all those involved. All the money we lost because the landlord extended the lease and then they broke it. And the problem is that the three to five-year leases are completely without rights. They’re outside the Landlord and Tenant Act with no security of tenure. They’re vulnerable to being broken with short notice. You can, of course, get buildings with longer leases. But then you’re starting at £13 per sq ft for rent and you’ve got rates on top of that.

How, then, can you make being a studio provider work financially?

The businesses tenants do subsidise the artist tenants but the rents are still low because what we provide is very basic. Artists are used to making do, so, for example, having someone call them from the gate when deliveries arrive and the artist has to walk down to let them in. Artists don’t want a reception. They want the basics. They want as much space as they can afford and light and air, if their practice needs it.

The businesses tend to be more demanding. But we’re able to say them, ‘Look, you’re in an artists’ studio block. You’re benefiting from the low rent’. And you find that the businesses you’re supporting are startups. And that’s nice as well. Once they get bigger they leave anyway because they want a receptionist or a nicely designed space. I don’t believe in the application process, though. I really like that you get shit artists next to good ones. I think this mix does something really great for the building.

If not by application, how are the tenants chosen?

You’re trusting your studio manager. They’ll look for artists, particular people, who can live with a good amount of freedom and the responsibility that comes with this. They need to be responsible for themselves within a wider community and not take the piss. And they’ll respect the fact that everyone is working together in an informal way. In the beginning I ran the studios myself and I used to joke that I never took hippies or trust-fund girls. Hippies were too selfish. Trust-fund girls just wanted to start committees and they can’t change a lightbulb.

[Laughs] Informal and fragile ways of working seem to be both the blessing and the curse of cultural production. So much comes down to the people involved.

Yes, but in the case of studio lets you learn a lot from how people first enter and engage with the space. Some walk in and look around and shoot you a glance as if to say, ‘What’s going on here?’ Other people get really excited. Their eyes light up and the look on their face tells you they’re happy to be in an environment where they can actually make stuff. These are very different attitudes.

Could you share with others lessons you’ve learned from working on the coalface of studio provision in London?

Well there are the terms of your lease. You really want the security of being in there, but you have to be able to get out. And if you can get out, the landlord can also always get out, too. That’s the compromise.

This connects to trust. It’s just human nature. You want to trust the person you’re negotiating with. Things are left; they’re not written down. It’s good practice to imagine the worst person that you have to deal with at the end of your lease and negotiate with them, to project this on the front end. So write everything down and negotiate with this fictional character and not the nice landlord who you’re sitting across from when discussing the lease before it’s signed.

Short notice periods tend to be good for everyone—though of course artists like it more when they’re giving notice than when you are. Many will want less than a month and this doesn’t work. We’ve always done a month because this corresponds with the deposit they pay at the beginning. So if they don’t pay their last month’s rent, it’s still covered.

On the whole, artists are really great tenants. Their studio is top priority and so they don’t want to jeopardise it.

It would be good to hear more about V22’s organisational structure, which seems to have several different moving parts.

There are three companies in the V22 Group: V22 plc – a public company listed on the smallest of the three London Stock exchanges and on the Social Stock Exchange; its subsidiary – V22 London – which runs all our studio buildings; and a not-for-profit – V22 Foundation – which runs our exhibitions, events and community projects.

We set up a public company to be traded on the stock exchange as a way to do shared ownership. We decided the stock market was the best way to do this because it’s open and transparent. There are lots of rules and regulations; it’s a structure you can fit into. People trust it. And we wanted to have different kinds of people involved. But we wanted artists to be shareholders so that ultimately they would control the company. Looking back, I wouldn’t have done it right away, as I did. I would have started a private company with shared ownership and then probably taken it to market later. It was expensive to set up even though we got onto the market very cheaply (this was because we managed to piggyback on another company). I think ideologically being on the market is a great thing but for a long time it has felt like ideology was the main reason. Although saying that, we raised £550,00 in our first two years and that was really from people outside the art market. Our shareholders – we have a really high percentage of retired ladies and gentlemen in the country and they’re so nice – and they come up for our exhibitions and consider us to be on the risky side of their stock portfolios. And shareholders are fabulous because it’s not a culture of breathing down somebody’s neck which is the case with so much patronage and funding: constantly checking outcomes and outputs. Whereas shareholders take the view that as long as you’re running the company, you’re running the company. If there’s a problem we will band together and get you fired but otherwise, go ahead. So that is great, especially in art because we’re not that used to it.

So in the beginning it was very shareholder top-heavy. Artists become shareholders because we buy art from them for a mixture of cash and shares. The ratio of shares to cash always changes. There are some artists who are very successful and they like the idea of what V22 is doing and so they don’t need that much money and would rather more shares. And then there are other artists, especially young ones, who are desperate for cash. So they say they really like the shares idea but they really need the cash. So it’s weighted the other way. Artists now own about 38% of V22. Over the years it has built up to that and I want to get that over 50%. It is now over 50% with artists and management and staff because everyone who works for V22 gets shares too.

But one of the problems is that nobody gets us in the city. If we were much bigger, they probably would, but for now they just think we’re kind of cute, or different.

And what about collectors?

When we were starting, I had this hilarious conversation. A big collector rang me up and was like, ‘Now Dear, I don’t understand this. I really don’t understand’. So I talked her through it and she eventually said, ‘Oh, do you mean you share the art?’ And so I said, ‘Yes, that’s it’ and she said, ‘Oh, no. That wouldn’t work for us. You know, we’ve just bought a Damien Hirst and we’ll put it in the house for a bit. And when we’re tired of it, we’ll put it into storage. But I wouldn’t want to share it.’ I was just desperate to get off the phone with her. I was like, you’re not going to get this—ever.

And the people who really do get us said, ‘Well great, how do we get shares?’ And we’re like, ‘Well, you need a stock broker. And to do that, there’s a whole lot of Know Your Client information and paperwork that they need…and, and, and…’. And on top of all that, it’s the bloody stock market which people always seem to have a mental block against or think it’s not for them or think it’s complicated. Ultimately it’s really simple. It’s just shares of something. But it seems complicated and there is lots of paperwork. So if crowd funding had been around when we started that would have definitely been the way to have gone instead. Because the people who get us, and what we do, get and use those systems.

So that’s V22’s public limited company. It was the first one we started and we put it on the smallest of the three London stock exchanges. It still holds the art collection. So there is this part of V22 and then there is the property side. The studio business is structured as a company limited by shares, which is a basic structure and it’s a really nice one. CICs and other social enterprises are becoming far more recognised now but that wasn’t the case when we started. A company limited by shares was just so simple. Everyone got it.

We also have a not-for-profit, which is a company limited by guarantee. It started for a number of reasons and part of that was intellectual property. We’ve survived one takeover attempt but who knows what the future will bring. So, the kind of intellectual property around it, what V22 is, could be at risk. So how do you keep that alive? And this begs the question: What structure can’t be bought? And the answer is, a not-for-profit. So this will develop more going forward as the heart of V22.

What you’re describing is an extremely ambitious enterprise. And much of this resonates with Pangaea. We’re committed to the practice of ambitious sculpture not only in terms of scale but also in terms of commitment. We’re wondering if you have any thoughts on realising ambitious projects and what this entails?

The related example would be the Young London exhibitions as they took place in a huge, huge space: The Biscuit Factory. So you would invite the artists to be part of the exhibition and then you’d invite them to come and see the space, which was ridiculously vast. The ceilings were more than ten meters high and each hall was 20,000 sq ft. So the artists would see it and immediately say, ‘We have to do something ambitious’. And for the vast majority this was about size. And then I’d watch the slow realisation that size wasn’t what made something ambitious.

In the third year that we did it in that space, everyone made work that was site specific. And we had great technicians who could accomplish incredible things. And once the artists started realising this, there was this sense of being part of a team—not just a team of technicians but we were there too and we knew the building and were willing to support them. Money is always tight; we did the whole thing on a shoestring. But especially for young artists there was a support system to do something bigger. And for the better artists, it was no problem. It was really great. But for less mature artists, artists who didn’t know their work as well, or what their work needed, these artists couldn’t handle it. Things just got bigger and more complicated and started to fail and the failures didn’t work. But maybe if there hadn’t been the public deadline of the exhibition at the end, then that pressure wouldn’t have collapsed something. But some artworks definitely did collapse under their freedom—under the possibility, the being ambitious. But then other things were just so easy. It was great and so nice to see that just happening. I’ve loved doing the Young London shows and working with younger artists and being part of something like that.

And what about the ambition of V22?

You know we started studios by mistake, really. We had extra space in Dalston. Then suddenly we realised there was this massive demand. Artists are great tenants. They pay their rent and they are really nice to have around. The demand was such that we thought, well, we could do another one. And now I’ve become a bloody landlady. I think there is so much need for infrastructure, and I know that can be a dirty word but what infrastructure has been put into art? The gallery system? 300 years ago? That’s all we have? What about the museum system? What is the new museum system really about? It’s still about the state or someone showing off in some way. Even something like Tate Modern, that is supposed to be more supportive of contemporary art, isn’t in itself very contemporary. Let’s face it, it’s only for artists at least years into their career and they have to have done really well. And Tate is very much state-driven or driven by private money—remember that Frieze Fair Art Fund? Basically bankers’ wives choosing stuff from Frieze for Tate Modern. That’s what passes for infrastructure these days? None of this glamour-acquisitioning actually helps artists or supports them. Colleges and art schools in England used to be fabulous. What now? £9K a year? You know £15K a year is the average that artists make according to Acme. Great salary as a basis for that level of debt. That’s a bit of a varied rant, but there’s just not enough meaningful support or infrastructure for art, and this needs to change.

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