AirSpace Gallery Independent Creative Evaluation
For the period September 2013 – July 2015
by Nicola Winstanley
AirSpace's mission statement cites 'collaboration and partnership working' as both a practice and a current research interest. It is little wonder then, that successful collaboration (and its effects) are evident in almost every aspect of its operation.
A notable example includes The Artist and the City .
“AirSpace showed extraordinary commitment to the exhibition, they were easy to work with and through a series of visits and conversations developed an understanding of the collections. Without their technical support and their relationships with local Contemporary Artists the exhibition would not have happened in the way it did. It was a collaboration in the true sense of the word
- Jean Milton, Collections Officer at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery (hereafter: PMaG.)
The exhibition received approximately 7000 visitors; an unusually high number for a Contemporary Art exhibition at the museum. Visitors were of a much wider demographic than usual, including many more young people. Traditional PMaG audiences felt safe with the museum collections and so were able to engage more confidently with Contemporary work, whereas younger people and students were accessing the museum collection, perhaps for the first time, in an engaging Contemporary context. The relationship AirSpace has developed with Jean left her keen to collaborate again, with them and with other practitioners and galleries in the city. Opening up this channel for partnership working with the museum is in itself a huge contribution to its cultural potential, and a major asset to the wider creative community in the city. The discrepancy between audience numbers at the museum and those at the gallery, however, points to a lack of cross promotion by the museum and potentially to other barriers to audience engagement to be discussed later in the report.
Another aspect of AirSpace's collaborative practice its outreach programme . The Bee Friendly Garden project demonstrates AirSpace's catalytic effects outside of the traditional gallery space.
“We came to Anna with the idea of scattering some seeds of bee friendly plants somewhere, and this is what it turned into. AirSpace's vision, skills, ambition and contacts in the community were so valuable, we would never have imagined it could be anything like this. That's what Artists have; the vision to take an idea and bring it to life
”. - Rebecca Brown, W.I. Lets Make Jam
Aside from the successful establishment of the garden itself, the collaboration led to further engagement with the W.I. including their involvement in The Workshops Exhibition alongside PIGDOGANDMONKEYFESTOS, which in turn inspired continued links with The Cultural Sisters (who delivered the workshops). The impact of the garden extended to visitors, lead organisations, workshop leaders and volunteers who connected with each other, with new skills and information and in some cases with the park itself for the first time .
By facilitating these interactions across cultural contexts, AirSpace collaborations demonstrate the role that Contemporary Artists can play in binding and energising communities, as well as introducing new audiences to Contemporary Art practices. In addition to these socio-cultural benefits, connecting opportunities and the collaborative atmosphere at AirSpace gives the gallery added value for Studio Artists, visiting Artists and associate practitioners alike, who report tangible effects on their own practice. More work could be done, however, to convert public/outreach audiences into gallery visitors, as many of the people I spoke to at the Bee Friendly Garden launch (collaborators aside) did not associate the project with the gallery, or with Contemporary Art in general. If it is the intention for AirSpace to convert outreach audiences to gallery visitors, perhaps talks, flyers or promotional materials could be distributed at public openings. This will help increase awareness of the gallery's involvement and clearly signpost people to relevant upcoming events.
Volunteers, graduates and established Artists alike describe the support they received from AirSpace as a valuable part of their experience.
AirSpace Graduate resident Bob Catterall said of 'conquering creative inhibitions':
“The Artists, directors and technicians all help you past this. They inspire and question you towards removing those barriers; whether it's finances or demographic, or composition or curation, techniques, whatever you need someone on the team has the know how or ideas to help
This ubiquitous level of support is also acknowledged by collaborators as an asset to the relationship; Where technical and practical skills, contacts and information are shared willingly. Exhibiting Artist/Curators Campbell Works commented on the open and welcoming atmosphere they experienced while working on their exhibition Coming Up For Air .
“What we were doing was challenging, we were delving into every aspect of the gallery, but everyone had complete and utter trust and respect for our process
An additional level of support for exhibiting Artists at AirSpace is financial.
“Getting paid to exhibit your work is rare” says Artist Emily Speed “but the support at AirSpace also extended to the relationship I developed with the directors. We have had a longer-term relationship than is my usual experience and therefore more meaningful conversations. I think this also sets AirSpace apart from other galleries
The support afforded to established Artists Doyle & Mallinson in developing and curating their exhibition PIGDOGANDMONKEYFESTOS extended also to participants in the fringe events that surrounded it. The Workshop Exhibition which ran alongside the main show creatively engaged participants from diverse backgrounds in the concept of the show and the fringe events supported audience understanding and engagement with the themes. The Impact map produced to accompany this report shows the impact of this part of the programme, which I think, demonstrates exemplary practice in Contemporary Art engagement.
PIGDOGANDMONKEYFESTOS had a polarising effect on audiences, with the highest proportion surveyed citing it as their most and least favourite exhibition of the programme. This is perhaps to be expected of such a bold exhibition, however it could also highlight a section of the AirSpace audience that prefers more ambiguous and challenging themes:
“Prefer Less/no political tub thumping, more open but provoking questions
.”- PDaMF Visitor
and another section that requires more interpretation and guidance.
“I often feel cold and alienated by Contemporary Art. Some AirSpace exhibitions leave me like this but events are always engaging & thought provoking
.” - AirSpace Visitor.
These audiences preferred the events that included more personal experiences i.e.- performances, walks and group discussions. The fringe events around AirSpace's main exhibitions are therefore crucial to support these audiences, to develop tastes for Contemporary Art and to improve cultural literacy in the city. Continued inclusion and targeted promotion of these events to less confident audiences will help support and grow the local audience base.
A way to better support new audiences at the gallery itself is better signposting. When I conducted consultation outside the doors of the gallery and outside PMaG, over 70% didn't know AirSpace was a gallery and a further 15% thought it was closed, assuming the middle door was the access point to the building. Many of these people were not adverse to visiting a Contemporary Art gallery, with most saying that they do visit PMaG and like Art. Clearer, bolder street level advertising, opening information and gallery branding is therefore needed to capture passing foot traffic. Also better signposting to the correct door will help remove some of the barriers and get more people 'across the threshold' .
Those I spoke to who visited the exhibition (Icon) enjoy it, but there were some comments about accessibility.
“I did enjoy the exhibition, but if there was some video, perhaps, of the work being made and the Artist talking about their motivation and process it would have brought it all together and made it more relatable. It would have been good to have been offered some tea from the pot too!
- Gallery Visitor
I think this comment demonstrates how simple changes can be made to make gallery exhibitions more personal, interactive and accessible to the general public. I suggest that some informative audio or video content could be made part of each Artists Commission, to enrich each exhibition and improve accessibility during it's run. Some audience members who engage solely via the website also commented that they would like to see more Artists video content, interviews and tours.
Support in collaboration is a two way street, and I believe that AirSpace deserves more support from its collaborators. In the future collaborators and Artists must be made aware of how they can support AirSpace; This could be financially, with advocacy and promotion or with extra content surrounding exhibitions to increase accessibility to the general public. Whatever the need, to make the project better accessed and more sustainable AirSpace must not undervalue or underestimate it's own needs compared with the high level of support it offers others.
Along with financial and practical support from AirSpace, the gallery's national reputation for artistic and operational quality is a major draw for exhibiting Artists.
“Working at AirSpace confirmed what we'd long thought about the quality of the gallery. We found their operating system was organic and efficient. The directors' inspiring level of motivation meant that plans were made and quickly actioned
”- Neil Taylor and Harriet Murray
The Artists exhibiting at AirSpace spend time exploring the relational relevance of the gallery in their work, yet Stoke-on-Trent is a place they say they would not have visited under any other circumstances. The Artists I spoke to subsequently express a great deal of interest the area, not least because of its “huge potential for Artists” and its “multiple layers of histories and genuinely welcoming atmosphere”. In this way, AirSpace is a 'means of entry' to the city for national and internationally renowned Contemporary Artists, which in turn improves the wider cultural reputation and potential of the city as well as the gallery.
Another aspect to this relationship (between Artist and city) lies in AirSpace's local reputation. When Walking Artist Phil Smith visited the city for 'Walking Encyclopaedia', he found that he and his participants were able to access backstage areas at the Potteries Museum, Bethedsa Chapel and Regent Theatre in a way that would not have been possible in other cities. Phil equates this to the relationships AirSpace have with other cultural organisations in their locality and the trust they have built as advocates for creative expression and experimentation.
“For Artists, having 'exhibited in Stoke-on-Trent' on the CV is not necessarily valuable, but 'exhibited at AirSpace Gallery' is
.” - Emily Speed
Emily said she was not alone in her anxiety about AirSpace Gallery's availability for hire. Where exhibition quality is the main attraction to visiting Artists, there has to be total confidence that a certain standard is met. More reassurance is needed, perhaps on the website, about this process and the quality controls in place to reassure potential exhibitors that independent shows will be of similarly high quality to commissioned ones.
“Where does AirSpace fit into the cultural landscape of the city? AirSpace IS the cultural landscape of the city
”- Battle Lines opening night visitor
AirSpace Gallery's reputation is also important for its Studio Artists, who place great value in the kudos that comes with having a studio at AirSpace. For many regular visitors to the gallery, AirSpace provides the only cultural events and opportunities they enjoy, regarding its quality far and above any other cultural offer. Other audiences include people who happily engage solely via the website. These audiences are testament to the quality of the website as well as its content.
AirSpace has a strong reputation for quality at Staffordshire University thanks to its connections and opportunities for students and graduates. AirSpace residences and shows provide a venue for recent Contemporary Art graduates to connect and develop their practice locally. This could help with graduate retention and creating a more embedded Contemporary Art culture in the city. To attract larger student audiences, it has been suggested that a document could be provided to lecturers at Staffordshire University in advance of exhibitions, detailing the main themes so that they can recommend/advertise relevant exhibitions to their students that will enrich their learning.
Historically there has been a tendency for people to generally assume that cultural activity in Stoke-on-Trent is not as high quality as it is elsewhere. Opinions are beginning to shift thanks to the work AirSpace and other creative projects are doing in the city. In my opinion, now is a good time to better promote AirSpace Gallery's national reputation inside the city, both to potential audiences and at street level. Being more explicit about its national profile may help attract audiences outside of established Contemporary Art circles.
In conclusion, The way AirSpace develops its projects that support, develop and engage a diverse range of people is exemplary. The network it has continued to establish over the past two years, from local people through to Internationally renowned Artists, is an incredibly valuable asset to the city and the wider cultural landscape. My advice to AirSpace based on the information I have gathered, would be to work on the weaker links in this network; between the gallery and the passing public, by extracting more from collaborators and helping potential audiences better understand Contemporary Art.
1 - The Artist and the City at The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery 4th October, 2014 - 22nd February. 2015
A collaborative exhibition curated by AirSpace Gallery director Anna Francis and Potteries Museum and Art Gallery (PMaG) Collections officer Jean Milton. This exhibition demonstrates that Artists have lived and worked in Stoke-on-Trent for hundreds of years, and setting out the particular experience of ‘The Artist and The City’ through an examination of the works of 4 well known Artists, originally living or working in Stoke- on-Trent - George Cartlidge, John Currie, Grete Marks and Terry Shave- Artists with strong connections to the city, who are well represented within the Museum’s collection, and whose work is also identified as being world class.
2 - As part of AirSpace's programme of events, projects and exhibitions, they work with community members and organisations to create work in or for the public realm. Recent examples of this include the Bee Friendly Garden at Hanley Park and the Spode China Rose Garden, which was developed with the ex pottery factory, Spode.
3 - Created in collaboration with The Women's Institute: Let's Make Jam, The Friends of Hanley Park and a number of community volunteers,
4 - Recently self employed Artists Nikki Johnson connected with the gallery through volunteering at the garden. Visitors to the garden connected with The North Staffs Beekeepers association for tips and advice. Visitors also connected with the friends of Hanley park, who began talking about volunteering opportunities around renovating the pavilion.
5 - COMING UP FOR AIR - Campbell Works Exhibition : September 12th - October 18th 2014
Coming Up For Air is a new project by Campbell Works, an in-depth exploration of AirSpace, from the directors and the studio Artists to the intricate fabric of the building and the surrounding locality. It poses the possibility that collectively they can become both the subject matter and material for a new gallery installation.
6 - Artists Soup Kitchen, The Workshops Exhibition, Artists tour of the exhibition and Yardenfest (explained in more detail on the accompanying poster
7 - Examples of accessibility issues:
Graduating from Hereford College of Art & Design in 2006 with a degree in Illustration, Nicola returned to her home town of Stoke-on-Trent to develop her practice. Taking the ethos of her illustration training: To create readable, conceptual art from an original perspective, Nicola diverged into public art alongside fellow visual artist Sarah Nadin. In 2010 after two successful projects in Stoke-on-Trent this partnership became Dashyline.
Dashyline went on to create public art nationally and internationally, initially producing conceptual, collage style 2D work and later graduating into 3D work and sculpture. It is with Dashyline that Nicola discovered that original, concept lead projects with intrinsic public engagement can have a transformative effect on their audience. Dashyline continue to win projects across the country, currently working with Transport for Greater Manchester and conducting research into new methods of public engagement.
After 5 years working in public art, a month long residency in a living museum the US and several personal exploratory projects, Nicola is developing her practice to focus on public perception of art. She is exploring interactivity, collaboration and sociological ideas to move the borders of art closer to the man on the street. As of May 2014 you can follow her progress on her blog Action:Art