“Artists can’t be expected to act as cultural leaders for free”
– Interview: Garth Gratrix

Elbows at Dawn, Matt Antoniak and Matt Wilkinson, curated by MILK, Abingdon Studios Project Space (2018)

Many artists and independent spaces have suffered as a result of lockdown, and a lack of support centrally. Mike Pinnington caught up with Abingdon Studios’ Garth Gratrix, who is looking to buck the trend… 

Founded in 2014 by artist Garth Gratrix, Abingdon Studios is one of Blackpool’s foremost independent spaces. In 2016, its Work/Leisure programme supported five artists to undertake residencies at the studios. Working alongside artists based there full-time, the quintet developed new work in response to Blackpool as an historically and culturally unique location. Now, Abingdon Studios has secured funding for a new pair of residencies, due to take place in this precarious post-lockdown period. We spoke to Gratrix about the opportunity and what successful applicants might expect.

The Double Negative: When and why did Work/Leisure come about?

Garth Gratrix: Work/Leisure originated at a time when Abingdon Studios was moving from a local authority supported project to establish itself as an independent organisation. It formed part of our vision for dynamic, contemporary studios in Blackpool, and was intended to explore ways of providing rewarding experiences for artists, without necessarily forcing a predetermined outcome.

[A curator at the Grundy Art Gallery] Tom Ireland was appointed to the role of Residency Coordinator. Tom became a director of Abingdon Studios and we consider Work/Leisure to be a key strand of our work in connecting with artists nationally to promote Blackpool as a unique destination for artists to engage with and respond to, through periods of residency. It was important for us to frame Blackpool as a ‘destination’, to support an outward looking programme like Work/Leisure and to give artists time and space to breath and evolve.

“Blackpool works hard so you don’t have to”

TDN: The first iteration pointed to the traditional overlap of work and leisure in a town like Blackpool. How did that manifest itself?

GG: Both Tom & I come from Blackpool, but our respective practices exist inside and outside of the town boundary. Blackpool is a hardworking place – the notion of leisure time is underpinned by work: Blackpool works hard so you don’t have to. The boundaries of work and leisure are often blurred, especially within the arts, where leisure time is often undermined by work through those unacknowledged practices like free admin and/or fundraising time. Both of us work multiple jobs and are paid and taxed in multiple ways. We are aware, as artists, of the needs for artists; especially the need for space outside of admin to focus on practice.

We wanted to deal with the dichotomy of ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ by affording artists the time and space to evolve what it means to them. We’re trying to understand the balance through the artists, maybe. A great irony of W/L is that we spend time working to ensure funded opportunities which allow artists time to think and deliver, bench-marking against their own objectives, rather than simply delivering for us as an artist-led organisation or funder. We work hard, so you don’t have to.

The first Work/Leisure artists embarked on a wide range of responses during their residencies; Benjamin Orlow [below] progressed a collection of digital works that manifested into a physical exhibition following the documentation of interviews with Blackpool residents, including tourist information staff and the homeless; Ralph Dorey used their time more intimately within the studios to develop a PhD application and a video work; John Lawrence developed a collection of text and image collage pieces available as a digital series online made in direct response to walking through a new space; Katharina Ludwig continued to use time in residence to explore objects and writing/text for the main components of her installations, and Nina Koennemann broadcast 37 live video streams from various locations across Blackpool that offer free WiFi. Some of the streams included comments by local artists and friends from other cities.

The Body as a Domestic Animal, Benjamin Orlow, Work/Leisure (2016), Abingdon Studios Project Space. Image by Tom Ireland

TDN: In the current Covid-19 context, will you seek to address concerns that many more people now probably have about work/life boundaries?

GG: The beauty of Work/Leisure is that we are already living with the concerns, so are able to approach it from a position of empathy. This enables us to find ways of supporting other artists, providing space, time and money. As much as we see Blackpool as a unique and rich cultural location, where the division between work and leisure is pronounced, the 2020 iteration of Work/Leisure feels more universal in how it can be ‘worked with’. Covid is a mess – many people have lost work and income; many others have sustained income through furlough. There’s privilege and poverty, there: work and leisure.

W/L isn’t a cure, but we have tried to offer an opportunity which strikes a balance in supporting artists in both financial and reputational terms. There was lots of smaller hardship-type funding for artists as a result of Covid, which was vital but existed in the moment. We talked a lot about how best to structure the funding for W/L and decided that it was important to think about artists ‘beyond’ Covid. The result is fewer, better paid opportunities, which arrive later – to keep the support for artists going into the autumn/winter.

Our first iteration supported five artists, whereas this iteration can only support two; however, this opp has come out of a wider ACE Emergency Fund application, which also provided six months’ rent-free for studio members, small bursaries for Blackpool-based artists and a budget to enable studio members a chance to nominate/award artists in their wider networks a fee to collaborate in some way. We hope the learning from this second iteration continues to build a positive relationship with our existing partners and new partners to secure W/L as a reliable and annual opportunity in the North West.

“Artists can’t continue to be expected to act as cultural leaders for free”

TDN: What kind of impact have the last few months had on you – as an artist, director of Abingdon and more broadly?

GG: We have had differing experiences of Covid-19 and different practices as artists. We continue to explore ways in which Abingdon Studios can stay trusted as an artist-led space which pays artists. We don’t normally profit as directors from our work and delivery, which remains problematic. What Covid-19 has put back on the table, for those in positions of power, is that artists can’t continue to be expected to act as cultural leaders for free when their work is integral to supporting the infrastructural, social and cultural identity of a place. Projects have to reflect fair pay and we feel positive about stating this and reflecting on this when applying for future funding that rewards those that we support.

As a self-employed artist, Covid-19 presented a removal of over £15k project-based commissions and development of my own practice. However, thanks to ACE Emergency Fund, I was able to sustain a period of research for my own work as well as secure Emergency Funding for Abingdon Studios to run a second iteration of Work/Leisure. Swings and roundabouts (a good metaphor for a seaside resort and an artists practice). We aspire to continue to build a transparent and supportive asset in Blackpool that engages with national and international partners and artists. These friendships, which build over time, is something we trust to manifest into fruitful working relationships in the future.

As a business, Abingdon Studios is reliant on temporary lease agreements and we exist on the upper two floors of a historic indoor market complex. Blackpool has secured funding to support the development of this building through the local authority and so we hope to be able to maintain our position in the heart of Blackpool town centre longer-term. Isolation is strangely familiar for studio based artists. However, it’s important to ensure that studio time is spent focused on work rather than the stress and anxiety of not having work. It is also important to not limit our belief in ourselves in these times and explore ways to connect with other artists and wider networks such as CVAN, a-n and as members of GUILD – a national cohort of artist led spaces/projects.

The Fortnight with Cheeky Felicia, collaboration, Harry Clayton-Wright & Garth Gratrix, Abingdon Studios Project Space (2019). Image by Matt Wilkinson

TDN: Who can apply for Work/Leisure?

GG: Applications are welcomed from contemporary visual artists working in all disciplines and is not restricted: this opportunity is inclusive and open to all. The successful applicants should be willing and to engage with the environment and context of Abingdon Studios and the wider artistic and unique cultural context of Blackpool to develop resonant work. Successful applicants will be provided with an overall budget of £1500 and administrative and curatorial support from the W/L team, Abingdon Studios, and residency partners. We are aware of the differing nature of individual artists’ practices and the balance between labour and material so, rather than providing a prescriptive budget breakdown, we are asking that artists provide a realistic budget breakdown that works for them; it does not have to be exhaustive – just a guide.

TDN: Will the residency take place online or in real life?

GG: Work/Leisure 2 will take place between September and November 2020. As with the first iteration, and in respect of the current global situation, the detailing of the delivery is bespoke and the structure of the activity shall be determined through dialogue with the successful resident artists. We anticipate, given the current situation, that artists might present submissions that include working in isolation, make use of digital platforms, and/or act as periods of development, leading to future physical exhibitions or presentations to evolve in dialogue with Abingdon Studios. What we trust in, is artists’ ability to think beyond restriction in order to liberate ideas and share their work with us.

TDN: What can the successful applicants expect?

GG: To be honest, who knows! We think being open to an evolving dialogue is the best first step. It begins at the point the selection panel make decisions on who is to be awarded the residencies this year. At that point it is about evolving an agreed and useful way of working together during the residency. Previous ways in which we have worked is through weekly or fortnightly catch-up sessions to evolve thinking and add a critical voice and outside perspectives from new peers associated to Abingdon Studios.

As an accredited coach in relational dynamics and with curatorial experience within Abingdon Studios, we can assist artists in helping progress thinking and offer support to developing ideas for physical exhibitions and/or digital and web platforms. We have online spaces that can be inhabited by resident artists, if any physical visits or uses of space prove difficult.

As told to Mike Pinnington

For full information and how to apply, visit the Work/Leisure website

Further Reading: Blackpool – Anything but Monocultural

Images, from top: Elbows at Dawn, Matt Antoniak and Matt Wilkinson, curated by MILK, Abingdon Studios Project Space (2018). Image by Matt Wilkinson; The Body as a Domestic Animal, Benjamin Orlow, Work/Leisure (2016), Abingdon Studios Project Space. Image by Tom Ireland; The Fortnight with Cheeky Felicia, collaboration, Harry Clayton-Wright & Garth Gratrix, Abingdon Studios Project Space (2019). Image by Matt Wilkinson

Posted on 14/08/2020 by thedoublenegative