Visit to Stroud Valleys Artspace (SVA)

Rebecca Spooner, Arts Development Manager, reflects on a visit to Stroud Valleys Artspace (SVA) and Site Festival – a festival of artist-led projects in Stroud and Open Studios across Stroud Valleys.

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Sunday 11th May 2014

Artist, Penny Hallas and Poet, Lyndon Davies were my travelling companions for the day. We set out cross-country via Ross-on-Wye and Gloucester through rolling Cotswold villages toward Stroud, only one and a half hours from the Black Mountains.

We stumbled upon our first gallery of the day in an empty retail space in a generic shopping arcade. Painter, Peter Stiles presented a large solo show, Ourselves We Find At Sea, containing uniquely shaped, hand-made canvases, depicting beautiful forms and compositions in a Bloomsbury palette, of familiar motifs of west country landscape – waterfalls, shady lanes and rolling hills.

Peter explained about the relative ease of acquiring an empty shop, assisted by a lease template produced by SVA, who act as a go between for artists, the council and retail landlords. Landlords benefit from rate relief while the empty shop is occupied and artists gain access to a large, neutral space with good footfall. We picked up our Site festival programmes and headed for the next stop.

Alice Fox’s exhibition, Tide Marks, in Lansdown Hall & Gallery presented works on paper and cloth responding to coastline. Thin, skin-like shrouds hung from the walls, stitched, dyed and printed with rust and tealeaves. The show was part of the Select Trail – a showcase of Stroud International Textiles. We were getting a feel for the quality of the artists involved in Site and started to get excited about potential for exchange with artists and makers in the Black Mountains.

We headed for SVA, which “provides studio space for professional artists and presents a year round artistic and educational programme with the Site Festival as an annual highlight.” The festival orbits round this central hub of creative energy. Writer Keith Mitchell, who has a long association with the venue, told us more about the history of Stroud and its prosperous textiles industry (the town produced red coats for the military) and the derelict warehouses it offered up to artists, ripe for renovation.

I spoke to Neil Walker, a founder member and Co-Artistic Director (alongside Jo Leahy), who explained how SVA gradually developed over the past 18 years from a maggot infested shell to a site of over 20 studios, offices, café bar and brand new gallery space. SVA is one of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisations and receives around £70k annually towards core costs, as well as support from Stroud District Council. Local press reported that Site Festival contributes an estimated two million pounds to the local economy.

SVA Studios are offered at a subsidised rate from £108 per month. The standard of artists in the studio was high and I assumed there was a tough selection process. Neil put me straight – the only condition for artists applying for a studio is that they get involved. Artists proactively organise events, talks, open studios and gigs. Spending time working alongside good artists breeds more good artists.

A successful organisation like SVA doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Neil tells me there is a well-regarded Art Foundation course in Stroud College, which primes students for GoldsmithsCentral St Martins and the Slade. A proportion of these post grads gravitate back to Stroud for its close proximity to Bristol and London, and for employment opportunities. Damien Hirst’s Science Ltd studios once-upon-a-time employed up to 200 artists and Pangolin Editions, specializing in casting bronze sculpture, is a regular employer for artists.

I tried to relate the SVA model to the Black Mountains. I’ve met creative practitioners (writers, musicians, artists and makers) who’ve located here to deliberately work in solitude. That suits some practitioners but not all. Again, art is not created in a vacuum and whether we actively get involved or not we all benefit from being connected to other creative people.

Clearly there are differences between the arts scene in the Black Mountains and Stroud. For me it’s about recognising and making use of the distinct resources we have available; the incredible landscape, the excellence of our creative practitioners, the community spirit of our towns and villages, large festival audiences and a strong tourism infrastructure.

One of the most exciting aspects of SVA is the artist-led activity it encourages. This way of working, a more DIY approach, could be embraced in the Black Mountains. Artist-led projects have the potential to create a freshness, playfulness and a sense of artistic ownership in a way that activity generated by organisations – and particularly local authorities – find difficult to achieve.

Penny and I considered the need to develop studio space that is sustainable and based on demand. Is there a need for creative studio space in the Black Mountains? Do practitioners have adequate studios in their spare rooms and sheds at the bottom of the garden? Comments welcome. The empty shop model is certainly intriguing. In a town centre location (Talgarth, Abergavenny or Brecon for example) a retail space could provide an opportunity to experiment with a temporary studio and a related series of public workshops, events, exhibitions, screenings, etc.

We continued ticking off venues from our Site festival guides. After being led a merry dance by the programme’s dodgy map, we finally discovered SVA’s Goods Shed – a large, old warehouse near the railway station (similar in scale to g39, Cardiff). We enjoyed five billboard size film screenings of work by John Wood and Paul Harrison. We chuckled as we stood detachedly watching a model car plunge, slow motion, into a constructed woodland lake; and smirked as a perfect scale, pier building was consumed by flames. We were hopeless to intervene in these pathetic disasters. “Isn’t it fun being an artist!” said Penny.

– Rebecca Spooner

Stroud Valleys Artspace (SVA) www.sva.org.uk

With thanks to Grace Davies, Regional Development Co-ordinator, Visual Arts South West

Information about setting up artist studios can be found at the National Federation of Artists’ Studio Providers

During summer 2014, PEAK visited rurally based arts organisations across the UK as part of a research and development project funded by the Arts Council of Wales.

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