“Our artists and friends are heartbroken.”
The Florence Trust was founded as an educational charity by painter Patrick Hamilton. With support from English Heritage and the Council for the Care of Churches they managed to secure a grade one listed church in Highbury.
The building had been empty for 30 years, so Patrick and his team secured financing to renovate the eves, floor and re-electrify the building in exchange for a peppercorn rent covering insurance and costs. The Florence Trust opened its doors to artists in 1990.
Patrick wanted to create a residency in London that mirrored his experience in Florence, and so the Trust created a year long residency program, offering mentoring, practical advice, and gallery space to 12 artists.
After thirty years the Trust fell into financial difficulty, the lease was coming to an end and the Trustees were ready to walk away, but ex-artist resident Steven Albutt saw an opportunity to turn the business around. He persuaded some Trustees to stay, renegotiate the lease, repair the finances, and see where they could take the business: and that is what they did over the next two years.
Until their success became their downfall and the studios, open for 30 years, were served notice.
Steve, I’m so sorry to hear about the closure of Florence Trust. You’ve has such a successful couple of years, despite the pandemic. Can you explain how you transformed the business?
The Florence Trust had never looked outside itself, at engaging with the local community or opening the grounds, it did two shows a year and then closed the doors. I could see the company could be profitable if it were run more effectively, so we partnered with Andy Wicks, of Castor Gallery, to turn the studios around.
Initially Covid happened so we had to put the international residency on hold and stick to static, affordable studios. We then focused on clearing the grounds to run the outside natural Nomadic Dye Garden workshops. We also pushed the gallery space, putting on fifteen shows in two years, working with international galleries, and local artists with ideas on how to use the space.
So together you managed to turn the business around but then what happened?
Having extended the lease for three years with a rolling notice period of six months we were surprised to find we were being evicted in just the second year, but the work of Trust meant the owners realised the asset they were sitting on.
We were becoming too successful, we turned it around in just 2 years, in a way no one thought possible. We turned the building into an educational resource, had resident artists and a program of gallery shows, suddenly it was becoming an important public space. This frightened the owners as, if you demonstrate a building is a public space, it must be replaced in the borough if sold. They needed to sell it before we were too embedded in the community, before we became too established.
So bizarrely your own success became your downfall. What has been the response within the immediate and local community?
Yes, unfortunately it has. The Trust sits on a street surrounded by wealthy individuals, in the main. They have been happier recently because we have cleaned up the grounds, so their view has become a lot nicer. They’ve also been able to come into the church and engage with its resources. We sit down with the community and they are delighted with the work we have done, but not so delighted that we are being pushed out. In fact they are horrified.
Our artists and friends are heartbroken. The Florence Trust has always had a reputation within the creative community, but it’s been at the periphery of people’s understanding. But since we’ve opened and been very egalitarian about offering the gallery space to people, students, local artists and international galleries, we’ve developed a nice rolling program and people are returning, expecting things to be on, and all of a sudden, we’ve got a following.
People are annoyed that we’re not doing more to save it, which is kind of ironic, but some things just can’t be done. Property is a funny thing; I often find it runs contrary to logic. I’m always looking at buildings and empty spaces to see what can be done and for years falling into certain traps.
With the closure of the studios have you managed to re-house many of your tenants?
We managed to re-house six artists, three more will remain until January and hope to come wherever we go next. It is making a lot of people think about leaving London though. It’s become something that artists and creatives are used to and it’s another disappointment. We were expecting to have another twelve months.
It’s one of those things where you build up a sense of community and energy, then it gets taken away from you just as you’re getting going. We received an Arts Council grant in January, had diggers in the grounds, built walkways, the dye garden, we’ve run loads of classes for the public, it’s a beautiful space now and that’s going to go. The artists involved in that are particularly heartbroken, it’s become transformational to their careers, they suddenly built these revenue streams. They became self-sustaining and had opportunities to show around the UK as a result. It just makes no sense.
So, tell us about the opportunities round the corner for the Trust?
We’re looking to move to a development in Archway next, but this is meanwhile space, it will be demolished in fifteen months. Hopefully, that fifteen-month window will give us time to build a successful outreach program like we did at Florence Trust, reactivating the 12-month residency, having affordable studio space, a gallery program, free workshops and events for the community. This gives us an opportunity to make some money for the Trust, but also to build a relationship with the developers and community and perhaps they’ll give us some space within the development when it arises.
It’s a lot of work for a ‘perhaps’.
It’s a lot of effort that could be wasted if we are again kicked out and have to start again, but the other aspect is we can achieve a lot in 15 months for the community. We can create a lot of narratives, a lot of happenings, and events where we can help people create stuff and you don’t know where that goes.
From a creative point of view, it’s just another project, a chance to do something creative on a more abstract scale. It’s not just a piece of studio work, it’s a socially engaged project, which is why I started in the studio business in the first place. It was an extension of my practice, where I got involved in a socially engaged art group called Black Dogs in Leeds, and then went on to set up CIC studios.
I do know is that there is a big empty space in Archway that could be filled with lots of creative people doing great things, and if we hold them to account and make them justify their position and existence to the local community then more great things can happen.
We don’t want to facilitate a closed building full of people doing their thing, it has to be accessible, it has to be on show, and there must be that back-and-forth discourse between the community. I’m a great believer that creative practices, whether it is thinking, writing, or doing, should be common tools for all of us. I’ve found that the education system distances ordinary people from creative practices, I mean mainly working-class people, at least that’s my experience.
You have a lot of experience in the creative sector and provision of affordable studio space. How do you see the sector evolving in the future?
The thing I’ve been trying to push since the first studio I started is this organisational model that I keep calling the creative community incubator.
Artist studios are all too often these spear tips of gentrification or spaceships that land on poor neighbourhoods and then change them without engaging in any real or helpful way. I think the role of the artist studio in the future has to be about landing in these neighbourhoods and then opening the doors.
Studios become a necessity, because they become the creative community, centre hubs, where kids can go and learn and study things they wouldn’t otherwise get at school now. Adults can meet and do things they’ve always wanted to and just generally be around each other. And the artists also get to be responsible and have a bit more of a connection to the real world rather than just being spewed through the educational system and ending up very much removed from reality.
This is not just good for the communities but also good for the artists’ studios because they can start to justify their position more in society. They can then start to question narratives, particularly about government funding and backing. I believe artist studios can change a neighbourhood in a positive ad creative way, by bringing everyone in and sharing skills freely.