The Highs and Lows of Art Practice Outside the Capital: ARTIQ’s Vic Burroughes talks Art and the Regions in Art & Museum magazine

It’s no great surprise that the UK’s capital boasts the most comprehensive, evolving and diverse selection of creative people, projects and venues in the country. The banner is proudly held, and, whilst the efforts of London’s local councils, arts professionals, private collectors and public institutions are nothing but a good thing, London’s dominance does create a problematic myopia when it comes to recognising pioneering talent and artistic endeavour outside ‘The Big Smoke’.

The arts are a massive wealth-generator for the UK. Up to half of all tourists will engage with arts and cultural activities on their visit, contributing to the £12.4 billion UK businesses in the arts and culture industry contribute to the economy each year. The wealth knock-on certainly looks to be becoming more geographically-democratic; two of the cities most positively impacted by recent investments in arts and culture are outside London, for example, with Kent’s economy boosted by £13.9 million after the opening of the Turner Contemporary in Margate and the extra income generated for Liverpool, once named Capital of Culture, reaching £753.8 million.

Artists themselves are driving change too, particularly in response to rising rents and property prizes in the south-east. Countrywide, artists are reclaiming property for use as art venues and creative spaces, from converted shoe factories and former stables to ex-garden centres, as well as re-appropriating defunct retail spaces and regenerating high streets, providing a much-needed contribution to the overall built environment. Arts resource Artquest now provides resources to help artist to access empty spaces, whilst Popupspace has introduced a bespoke insurance product to cover temporary and transient projects in public spaces – a sure sign of the value they bring.

But what’s it really like to practice outside of the capital? 2017 Turner Prize winner Lubaina Himid recently told The Observer that ‘not enough conversation goes on about artists working outside London. It was the same with me. I was always showing my work, but it took a Turner Prize for the wider public to understand that it existed.’ For all that we’re moving to a much greater and truer inclusivity in terms of age, race and gender in art, is the narrow focus on the capital one of the last barriers to fall?

One of the overwhelming benefits of working outside London is certainly the question of space. Painter and print-maker Sam Pullen lived and worked in south-east London for 15 years prior to moving to Hastings – ‘Moving to a much cheaper area meant we could afford a large house, instead of a tiny flat. My studio is a large room at the very top of our house. I have young children and being based at home is great, so I can maximise time with them. My studios in London were usually quite cramped and were sometimes a commute away from where I lived.’

The city can also still be a theme, even when no longer a base. ‘My current practice investigates dystopian themes and ideas associated with British housing estates,’ says Steve Burden, a painter who was born in Greenwich and whose work explores the roots and the inherently urban context in which he grew up. ‘I am very much interested in the notion of a city and how it affects our relationships with each other, and the environment in which we live.’ Steve is now based in a purpose-built studio in his garden in Somerset, which he also designed himself. ‘I’m totally spoilt. Previously I painted in a spare room or the dining room table, anywhere I could find space!’ Counterintuitively, removing himself from the environment which inspired his practice has actually been a boon. ‘Now I am removed from it I find it easier to create the work and tell my story. The studio has become a place of reflection and I am now in the process of charting my memory, my chronology and attempting to document it. These are my chapters and I don’t need to be in the city to chart them – the thinking takes more time than the painting.’

Some artists even find that a first move leads to a second. Sculptor Ben Russell, who creates nature-inspired stone sculptures and exhibits regularly, wasn’t completely happy with his initial re-location. ‘It can be a little bit of a closed book at times and people can be quite cold towards people they don’t know. It has been good at times but is not the relaxing out of the way workshop environment I dreamt of, so I am in the process of packing up and relocating to a lovely farm tucked away in the rolling Dorset Hills. Here I will have two units with a yard that joins them. One unit for heavy roughing out and dusty work and another for finer finishing work and polishing along with an office. This will also offer me the chance to work outside more, something I have barely been able to do over the last 18 months. I can’t wait to get started.’

All the artists we spoke to caution against completely turning one’s back on London. ‘It’s important to maintain contacts and keep operating in London, even though you’ve taken yourself and your practice out of it’, Sam warns. ‘It is still the main hub in the UK for exhibiting, selling, networking.’ He adds that being able to visit art material shops easily is something he misses, particularly in one of the industries where the physicality of materials is so fundamental.

Having access to mentors and the people from whom artists learnt their craft is also vital. ‘My previous workspace in south east London was shared with an old college tutor, some other ex- students from my art school and a stonemason I worked with on occasion,’ Ben says, talking of an aspect of London he now misses. Steve agrees. ‘The isolation can be a thing and lack of a big peer network. I have an umbilical cord back to the city – most of my family still lives there – and that is important because the city is my subject and also the majority of shows are still in London.’

The power of the capital will never diminish, but just as these artists are maintaining their links to it, so we should all, arts media, institutions and industry alike, ensure that we continue to seek out, reach out and include artists from the whole country to make sure we all see the bigger picture.

Read the article in Art & Museum magazine here

Article by Victoria Burroughes, Project Co-ordinator, ARTIQ