Britain's artists' studio scene is booming. Only Birmingham is going backwards, writes Terry Grimley.
This year has marked contrasting milestones in the fortunes of artists' groups in Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham.
Manchester's MASA group has just published a book celebrating 25 years of running its studio complex while earlier this year Bristol unveiled Spike Island, a former factory housing studios plus a gallery in a conversion designed by award-winning architects Caruso St John, designers of Walsall's New Art Gallery.
Meanwhile the Birmingham Artists group has been forced out of its studios at Lee Bank Business Centre after the city council withdrew its support. After building itself up over 21 years, Birmingham Artists has made its two administrative staff members redundant and is abandoning its role in organising exhibitions and other projects.
"It will become a purely voluntary organisation, going back to where we were 20 years ago," says former administrator Pamina Stewart. "At the recent annual general meeting we decided to go back to core values, with no exhibitions, open studios, projects or education work.
"We have about 130 members, but I can't really see why people would join if we were not offering the exhibitions and opportunities we used to. It was always the projects that drew people in."
Following a six-month stay of execution the deadline for leaving the studios is now December 30, but most of the artists have already moved out. The handful remaining are hoping to find out today whether they have been successful in applying for small business grants which would give them another year in the building.
It's a far cry from five years ago, when Birmingham Artists were driven out of their previous home, the Old Union Mill, by imminent redevelopment. At that time the council took a pro-active role in rehousing them and invested £100,000 in dividing up spaces in the Grade II-listed late 1950s factory on Lee Bank. Ironically, the redevelopment of Old Union Mill has still not begun.
Among those who could be staying put for the time being are Mark Renn and Mick Thacker, a two-artist partnership specialising in public art works. Earlier this year they won a £300,000 contract to design a gateway feature for The Wirral.
"Our turnover last year was about £250,000, and it's actually bringing money into the local manufacturing economy," says Mark.
"Now Mick and I are seeking fabricators in other parts of the country. Where before we went to Hockley, now we're having some work done by a company in the Black Country. We're both living out that way now. In fact, we're even talking to a company in Liverpool. Whereas in the past we would have looked to source that work locally, now we can't guarantee we'll be based in the city any more."
Few artists can demonstrate such a direct contribution to the economy, but there is general acceptance nowadays that artists play an important role in regeneration - even if it means helping to put up property values before eventually pricing themselves out of newlyfashionable areas.
In an era when cities are competing for investment and footloose young professionals, the ability of resident artists' communities to project a "cool" image of bohemian creativity is a priceless asset.
Birmingham accepts the principle in its published creative strategies and ought, on the face of it, to be well placed to work with artists in helping to lift vast, run-down areas like Eastside. But for some reason it seems to have more difficulty in translating theory into practice than its rivals.
By an extraordinary irony, the first artist in residence at Bristol's showpiece, Spike Island, earlier this year was Ruth Claxton - a Birmingham, not Bristol, artist.
Ruth, a member of a small group of artists called Self Service, is one of Birmingham's high-fliers, represented by a commercial gallery in Geneva and with a one-person show coming up at Ikon next year. She is currently borrowing Ikon's disused exhibition space in Digbeth as a temporary workspace.
"I'm showing all over the place, people like Juneau Projects are showing all over the place. We have careers that make people think international artists are based in Birmingham," she says. "We are really helping to identify Birmingham as somewhere where interesting visual arts are happening, but everyone is doing that with no support from the council.
"The studio situation is really difficult. The council says it wants all this stuff but you have to create structures to support people. It's completely out of kilter with every other major city for the council not to be making empty buildings available."
David Drake, head of visual arts at Arts Council West Midlands, says: "We were disappointed that the one studio complex which did get a council subsidy was cut at a time when we were campaigning for more studio space.
"Artists are key cultural assets for any city. Whenever a trade delegation visits Bristol nowadays, they are always taken to Spike Island. Artists need places to make work, and we have to address the whole question of artists' workspaces. I feel it's a joint responsibility between the city and the Arts Council."
Last week Self Service mounted a public debate on studio provision at VIVID's Digbeth headquarters which drew an audience of about 45 people. The city council representatives who were invited didn't bother to reply, let alone turn up.
It came at a time when the artists' studio movement nationally seems to have reached a new maturity. A National Federation of Artists Studio Providers was set up this year and recently held its first annual meeting.
As well as Spike Island in Bristol there are well-established models in projects like London's ACME Studios and Scotland's Wasp, which is run in association with a number of local authorities including Edinburgh and Aberdeen city councils (though 85 per cent of Wasp's income is from artists' rents). Gates-head has also become a studio hotspot since the the regeneration of its waterfront and the opening of the Baltic art gallery.
These projects tend to have a mixed funding regime, often with some local authority input.
Spike Island, for example, is supported by the Arts Council and Bristol City Council, but three-quarters of its income comes from rents.
Unfortunately, Ruth Claxton thinks that Birmingham may have missed the opportunity to create a similar project because Bristol and other cities made their moves when substantial capital sums were available through the Arts Lottery.
Mark recalls: "At one stage we were looking to buy our own building in the Jewellery Quarter with money from the Foundation for Sport and the Arts, but it burned down before we could actually buy it."
For the moment the private sector has stepped into the breach with the Custard Factory making a building it recently acquired in Floodgate Street available to artists at modest rents.
In the long term, a number of possibilities could be explored, given the political will. David Drake thinks a three-way collaboration between the city council, Arts Council and the private sector, perhaps taking advantage of planning-gain opportunities, is the likeliest way forward.
"I don't think any one party holds the solution," he says. "There are artists coming off courses at City University and if they are not going to move to London or Bristol we have to address this issue of providing incentives for them to stay here.
"Different cities have different issues. Spike Island came about because a former Brooke-Bond tea-packing factory became available at a time when there was significant funding available, but that was after 20 years of artists inhabiting a fairly unsafe and unpleasant building.
"There are other models, like ACME studios in London which formed a partnership with Barratt Homes so that studios could be accommodated in a residential development. I think the solution has to be the right solution for Birmingham, rather than thinking you can just replicate a Spike Island."
A spokesperson for Birmingham City Council, said: "As part of the city's cultural strategy we are committed to supporting small scale companies and artists across Birmingham and are currently developing an action plan to further develop this support in the future.
"We are also in the fortunate position, unlike many other cities, of being home to a large number of world-class and internationally renowned arts venues, which the city council also plays a role in supporting.
"In total this support for the arts at all levels adds up to more than £9.3 million per year."