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City as Resource: Artist Led Spaces

As part of the current RESOURCE exhibition, Bluecoat is running a series of City as Resource knowledge-sharing events. The first saw representatives from a number of Liverpool’s artist-led spaces discussing their experiences of initiating and running projects.  Sharing their thoughts were:

Small Cinema Liverpool (represented by Sam Meech) – a Re-Dock creative project, this volunteer-run community cinema opened earlier this year. It was built entirely from donated materials, including seating from the Stockport Plaza theatre.

Crown Building Studios (represented by Liam Peacock, Joseph Hulme, Dan Mahony) – occupying the top floor of the same building as Small Cinema on Victoria Street, these open plan artists’ studios offer opportunities for collaborative working and a space for exhibitions.

The Royal Standard (represented by Louis Palliser-Ames) – originated in a pub in Toxteth in 2006. The Royal Standard now occupies two sizable buildings on Vauxhall Road where it houses artist studios, galleries and project spaces.

Cactus (represented by Joe Fletcher Orr) – part of The Royal Standard complex, Cactus was set up in 2014 by Manchester School of Art graduate Orr as a new space in the city to show work by emerging and mid-career artists.

Model (represented by Kevin Hunt) – set up by former Royal Standard directors Fran Disley, Dave Evans and Kevin Hunt, Model occupied a site on Wood Street during the Liverpool Biennial 2014, where it packed 12 exhibitions into a four-month stay. Now it is seeking to showcase Liverpool artists outside the city, starting with Scouse House in Nottingham.


So why set up an artist-led space? A recurring theme throughout the evening was a perceived gap in a city that we’re told has more galleries and museums than anywhere outside London, but a lack of activity outside these big institutions. Cactus and Model in particular were borne recently from these frustrations, by artists living and working in Liverpool keen to stimulate fresh ideas and activity.


Renting a space is an important practicality for most artist-led endeavours and a sympathetic landlord helps. Small Cinema and Crown Building Studios both have good relationships with the landlord of their building, who previously hosted Red Wire studios and has an understanding of artistic projects. Similarly, the landlord of The Royal Standard realises the benefits of hosting an arts organisation. The Royal Standard also holds charitable status, which means crucial relief from business rates.

Model’s temporary home in Wood Street was secured rent-free after much negotiation (‘pestering’). Model’s links to The Royal Standard helped it to benefit from rates relief, yet its central location meant this still cost a hefty £900 for four months – as well as the costs of public liability, buildings insurance and an alcohol licence. These expenses were funded by a modest Arts Council grant, income from the bar and sales of artwork editions.


An organisational structure means that once an artist-led space is set up, it can continue to run effectively. A relatively recent set-up, Crown Building Studios’ activities are currently overseen by a group of four founders and studio holders, though it is considering moving to a cooperative structure. Small Cinema is already putting these cooperative systems in place; using Google groups for information sharing, reporting on events and ensuring everyone involved is trained across all areas of the cinema’s operations, from box office to running the projector.

The Royal Standard has a changing directorship, with three new directors appointed annually for a two-year run, and six or seven directors in post at any one time. The high turnover means a constant flow of new ideas, but can mean much training of new people; it is currently appointing a Board of Trustees to provide more long-term governance.


Who is it for – the artists or the audience? Small Cinema was clear that it doesn’t function as a cinema without an audience. Its current challenge is letting people know that it’s there in order to build its audiences. Cactus, on the other hand, is primarily a platform for artists, although visitor numbers are growing. Interestingly, most of its on-line visitors are from outside Liverpool, and there was some consensus that Liverpool has a finite arts audience in terms of people through the door. Despite Model’s city centre venue in 2014, the vast majority of visits were pre-planned rather than from curious passers-by. Combining forces – as with a triple-bill opening of new exhibitions at The Royal Standard, Cactus and White Wizard earlier this year – was identified as a useful way to maximise audiences.

What else, and what next?

A number of other artists present spoke about their projects. Tristan Brady-Jacobs introduced WARPliverpool, set up to provide post-industrial spaces for creative projects.  James Worley is part of 6GINS, a group of Liverpool John Moores University Fine Art graduates who have recently been awarded a six-month residency at The Royal Standard to programme and run an artist-led project space; following on from this, MUESLI will take up residence in January 2016.

There was some discussion about what else is needed in Liverpool’s arts scene.  Orr identified a gap that many agreed with, for an organisation to bridge the gap between artist-led spaces like The Royal Standard and larger institutions like Bluecoat. Castlefield Gallery in Manchester was cited as a great example of an organisation that supports artists, and has the resources – crucially, a small paid staff – to realise large-scale projects such as New Art Spaces at Federation House. The evening concluded with a conversation about how Liverpool’s existing institutions, such as Bluecoat, might support artist-led activity, such as by helping to broker relationships with landlords and underwriting projects.


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Bluecoat is Liverpool’s centre for the contemporary arts, the oldest in the UK. Our landmark building, located in the ...

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