This letter was published in Art Monthly 437: June 2020.
The evictions are still happening. As a non-profit art organisation, Spike Island is funded using public money, and we need to question its governance structures and interests. I urge funders, trustees, artists and the public to pressure the management against these evictions.
I often visit the Open Studios at Spike Island in Bristol. Each time I have had the pleasure of seeing artist Howard Silverman’s latest works in his studio and of talking with him about contemporary art and practice. I have come away warmed by his curiosity, gently educating nature, and generous and informed intellect.
Silverman is prolific and his often-radical output goes back half a century. He maintains an active and engaged practice in 2020, sharing his back catalogue and new experimental works direct from his studio on social media. We have kept in touch through Instagram, which is how I learnt of his impending eviction, which he was notified of on 24 October 2019. He was further notified, 29 January 2020, that his appeal was turned down.
There is a fundamental shift underway at Spike Island in the way that the studios are run, a shift reflecting the ambitions of new director, Robert Leckie. Previously curator and head of programmes at Gasworks in London, on his appointment Leckie said: ‘I look forward to working strategically with colleagues and partners in Bristol and beyond to further Spike Island’s impact on a local, national, and international scale.’ But at what cost? What is his strategy?
Under Helen Legg, Leckie’s predecessor, the organisation’s programming took a strong international slant. It is an approach which has continued under Leckie, with over half of forthcoming exhibitions lined up coming from outside the UK. The latest annual report reveals a plan to expand its international residency programme and to provide studio and living space for visiting artists.
Previous directors have also sought to review the system with discussions dating back ten years or so, but for valid reasons these have been rejected by studio tenants as unworkable. These consultations have been continuing with no agreement being finalised, however Leckie has simply drawn a line under these negotiations and implemented a new system without formally putting it to the studio artists. An online poll was circulated by studio-holders in early March revealing that 61.5% agree in principle with a five-year review, although 82.5% are not satisfied with how the current five-year review process is being conducted.
Artists up for review can complete a series of forms or be interviewed in their studios. Each artist is expected to demonstrate ‘an engagement with the wider contemporary art context’ – an assessment criterion which is both unclear and highly subjective. So far, half the artists vetted have been asked to leave and will not have their five-year leases renewed. Only after Silverman’s threat of legal action and a concerted #noevictions campaign did Spike Island back track revising and publishing its policy statements on its website in mid April.
Artists are not allowed to appeal against the decision, only against the process and, until the institution’s hand was recently forced by protests from studio artists on social media and Silverman’s threats of legal action, the artists were not given feedback. After the further threat of legal action, Andrew Cooper, chair of Spike Island Artspace Limited, in an email dated 26 March 2020 to Silverman, confirms that the panel had sought specialist legal advice and would now, also, provide artists ‘a brief outline of the reasons for the decision taken in each case’. Silverman has seen emails from two Trustees suggesting that Leckie stand firm – so not so independent. Meetings are not minuted.
When Silverman appealed the termination of his lease, the board declined to comment. Only on threat of legal action did Leckie finally concede, revealing that the reasons for Silverman’s eviction included such bureaucratic pedantry as ‘you failed to caption your images clearly or stick to the word counts’. Silverman was also told that his letters in support would be taken into account had in fact been ‘procedurally excluded’ – ie ignored. To date, he has been denied the right to challenge the decision itself and his appeals against the procedure have been turned down.
Why has it not been made clear who is driving this cull and what their motivations are? No one is opposed to promoting diversity and equal opportunities and there is good turnover in the studio. Other than the Arts Council England or the Charity Commission, who is driving this? And why? When asked, the administration vaguely refers to the ‘funders’, who are these and do they have a say or agenda?
At stake is the freedom to practice without distinct or quantifiable outcomes. Globally, socioeconomic and cultural forces are knocking hard at the studio door. There is enormous pressure on art institutions to adopt profit-led mainstream business models. What metrics are at play here? What is the business model? The director and trustees have repeatedly refused to meet studio holders to discuss their future vision.
The most shocking aspect of this sorry situation is the fact that it is partly through Silverman’s hard physical and administrative labour and commitment that the local creative economy, which supports hundreds of artists, technicians, fabricators and creative industries such as Aardmam Animations, came into being: Silverman co-founded Artspace Bristol in 1974 and was part of the group which oversaw the organisation rebrand as Spike Island in 1998. Before the intervention of Silverman and his colleagues, artists migrated to London. Now the flow is the other way.
I urge Spike Island to reconsider these evictions and to safeguard the sanctity of the artist studio. A studio is an essential place for an artist, being both refuge and battleground. Eviction will be catastrophic for Silverman and the Spike Island community.