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Andrea Phillips


— Interview with Joe Scotland

Over the last year Dr Andrea Phillips has been working on a research project for How to work together on the ways in which art’s organisational structures shape its politics. Published here are a series of interviews  with Polly Staple (director, Chisenhale Gallery), Emily Pethick (director, The Showroom) and Joe Scotland (director, Studio Voltaire). Read the introductory essay by Andrea Phillips here.

About Studio Voltaire

 

Studio Voltaire opened in 1994 as a complex of 12 artists’ studios. The studios moved in 1999 to their current location in Clapham, London, providing the organisation with increased studio provision and dedicated exhibition spaces.  Studio Voltaire had worked on a cooperative basis where holders of studios participated in the administration of the organisation. Joe Scotland, who trained as an artist, has been working there since 2003 and was appointed Director in 2010.

Studio Voltaire has a current annual budget of £375,000. The organisation is going through staff changes over the next couple of months and will soon employ four full-time and two part-time staff . The gallery produces between five and six exhibitions per year as well as numerous events, performances, workshops and offsite projects. Since Autumn 2011 this has included Not Our Class, a programme of education and participatory projects that through research and practice take the work of Jo Spence as a starting point for investigating the legacy and potentials of her work in relation to contemporary culture and life.

www.studiovoltaire.org

Andrea Phillips

Joe, you’ve worked in various capacities at Studio Voltaire for over ten years. Did this start from you being an artist with a studio here, and taking your turn at organising things?

Joe Scotland

Yes, I used to be one of the studio artists here, and was first brought into the office doing half a day fundraising, and that was partly because they didn’t have a dedicated fundraiser, but I’d actually had no previous experience of fundraising.

Andrea

How did you learn?

Joe

At the time I was also working at the Serpentine as a Gallery Assistant, and was starting to get interested in the structure of the organisation and the administration side of things. Working in an environment like the Serpentine Gallery, you quickly pick up certain management structures. Initially my idea was to try and emulate that structure, however inappropriate that was for Studio Voltaire.

Andrea

At that time the Serpentine was beginning to be an ambitious organisation in terms of fundraising.

Joe

Yes. I was there for a total of five years working part-time. It went through quite significant changes. Just seeing that kind of beast in action was…

Andrea

So you were working at Serpentine then coming back here and doing your half-day a week fundraising and trying out some of the strategies you were learning at the Serpentine?

Joe

Yes, I would look at their funding applications and pick up the language they would use in applications.  Basically just mimicking their approach.

Andrea

And did it work?

Joe

Yes, partly because we hadn’t really done any fundraising here before, it was quite easy to make a difference; particularly at that time, as there was quite a lot of funding available from different sources.

Andrea

The money that was running the organisation up to that point would be the studio rents?

Joe

Yes, so there would just be studio rents. I think the overall turnover was around £50,000 a year, and the rent was around £10,000 at that point. Also they raised income from hiring out the gallery for exhibitions, it wasn’t a curated programme as such.

Andrea

And what’s your turnover now?

Joe

It averages around £375,000

Andrea

And what’s your rent?

Joe

Our rent is now £55,000.  As soon as you start fundraising or trying to do funding applications, then it automatically leads on to wider strategies. Just by looking at how you can function better and reach the aims of, for example, charitable status. In those early days it was very straightforward: how do we get an audience here? How do we support artists? Or how to even put on good exhibitions? Really quite basic – but important – things.

Andrea

You emerged as the person who was going to head up this cultural change?

Joe

There were a few people in the office who had started just before me and had similar ambitions for the space, so we were doing it together. Some people left and wanted to pursue their own work, and I wanted to drive it forward.

Andrea

You’d started paying yourselves?

Joe

Yes, we’d get a very basic salary, and that has slowly increased over the last few years.

Andrea

I’m aware that in many organisations of the scale of Studio Voltaire there’s often a long history of people not paying themselves at all.

Joe

Yes, or it’s like a full-time job, but you’re only paid two days a week at a very low rate for a number of years.

Andrea

At what point did you begin to do things like formalise the structure?

Joe

In some ways it happened quite organically. As well as the office becoming more professionalised, the board of trustees was made external and we invited people with specialist skills (rather than it being made up of artists who had studios). But that happened over time, and for a long period there was a legacy from the system before: so we had a flat management structure up until about four years ago.

Andrea

What you mean by a ‘flat management structure’?

Joe

On paper, it meant that everyone had equal say. Even though we had our own job descriptions, we didn’t have a director. We had an arts programmer, fundraiser, education officer and an administrator: everyone was supposedly equal, but in reality that didn’t really happen. I think naturally within organisations there are some hierarchies, for example, the programme is central because it’s more public facing – there’s a perceived hierarchy, whether that’s right or wrong.

I’d also been here the longest, and stuff would fall to me, so in some ways I was acting like a director, but at the same time, there’d be issues around certain staff members, which were difficult for me to resolve, because we didn’t have a clear hierarchy.  Also in terms of organisational strategy, it’s a lot easier to be responsive and take a longer term view if there is someone who is responsible for this.

At that point we weren’t funded by the Arts Council – only occasional project funding. The majority of the board members were quite happy with the structure and had a rather romanticised idea of this artist-led space. There was a natural changeover with the board, and then it became quite evident that this change needed to happen. We’ve been a quietly ambitious organisation, and as we’ve grown and professionalised, it’s become easier. There’s not a massive hierarchical structure, but to have some level of responsibility for overall decision-making and strategy has been really important, and by having that we’ve been able to progress even further.

Andrea

When you say that you’ve always been a quietly ambitious organisation, how would you describe those ambitions?

Joe

I think we just get on with it. In a practical sense, we are able to offer support for artists: both financial support and development, or time to develop projects. And also in terms of impact: I want to get projects seen by a wide audience, but at the same time, we’re not particularly audience focused.

Andrea

Would you describe yourself as artist focused, primarily?

Joe

Yes.  Although, in a really selfish way, I think I’m the primary audience. It still comes from the organisation, but I am inviting all the artists I would like to see, and as a result I think it’s quite an idiosyncratic programme. That doesn’t appeal to everyone, but that’s also its strength.

Andrea

So you’re the first public, but you also said something about wanting to develop audiences. How does that fit, and what’s your ambition in terms of audience development?

Joe

It’s not an objective programme, for example it’s not trying to give an overview of emerging practice by giving artists their first London show, or supporting a particular approach. It’s more subjective than that.  I want an appropriate audience – not super large – but enough to make some form of impact on both audience and artist.

Andrea

Is there a particular audience at Studio Voltaire?

Joe

Our immediate audience tends to be artists and art workers. Interestingly, we have more people visiting from Southwark than from Lambeth, which is the borough we’re in. I think it’s because our audience is quite specialised: we currently only have a small Clapham audience.

Andrea

How have the increased financial resources of Studio Voltaire changed the culture of what you do?

Joe

Massively. Practically, I have to spend the majority of my time fundraising and there is a pressure to always maintain – and increase – levels of income.

Andrea

What percentage of your time?

Joe

Around seventy percent. We were made a National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) in the last round of Arts Council grants, and get £35,000 per year, so that covers only about eight percent of our total income.  The ideal situation would be that revenue funding covers your core costs and you fundraise mainly for programming etc. Currently, we have to fundraise for our entire programming costs as well as a significant amount for core costs.

Andrea

Do you resent giving that amount of your time over to fundraising? Do you want to be doing other things?

Joe

Sometimes, but I like the entrepreneurial aspect of raising money, it does enable things, when you can see the results… to deliver better projects and be more effective with what you do.

Andrea

Do you spend a lot of time developing private supporters?

Joe

Yes, increasingly. That’s been a real shift for me personally; not coming from that social background and suddenly hanging out in someone’s home in Kensington.

Andrea

It’s a huge cultural curve.

Joe

I do find the class mix in the arts interesting – you get to meet everyone, which I’m not sure you do in other industries as much.

Andrea

There are many people that really resent the entrepreneurial culture that is being demanded of previously well-funded public galleries. How do you feel about those kinds of attitudes in the art world?

Joe

It’s difficult, because a lot of the time I get their point. A close friend of mine is always quite negative about certain things we have done. He runs a commercial gallery and was previously in the public sector, and at Studio Voltaire, partly out of necessity, sometimes we’ve had to act rather like a commercial gallery, in that we are selling work, which is quite unusual, but we’ve had to take on that model.

Andrea

Like House of Voltaire? 1 

Joe

Yes, but even before that — sometimes the works in exhibitions have been for sale. We also participate in art fairs. My friend’s criticism was that the Arts Council was encouraging galleries to be entrepreneurial via different schemes, but you actually end up screwing yourself if you follow them because you’re just paving the way for the Arts Council/Government to withdraw their funding and say it’s not needed, because you’re self sufficient.

Andrea

The funding for How to Work Together comes from such a scheme. But you’re saying there is also a certain amount of enjoyment in running a small business, achieving and raising the money.

Joe

For me, the ideal situation is that you have a certain amount of Arts Council money, and that’s matched elsewhere. Because then, in terms of your relationship with the Arts Council, you’re not totally beholden to them. Wherever your income comes from, there are always going to be certain conditions or expectations attached. It’s much better to have a portfolio approach where you have equal responsibilities to each, and you’re not reliant on just one of them.

Andrea

Did you ever decide to do some management training, or some financial training, or have you just learnt everything on the job?

Joe

It has been mainly on the job, although I did A-Level Business Studies! I didn’t even do very well in it, but somehow that aspect has really stuck with me. I even still have the textbook, which I occasionally refer to… some of it was really basic stuff about accounts and profit and loss.  Some of it was about managing staff, and how people work together; I was always really interested in those things.

Andrea

So are there types of business strategy that you’re interested in? Or are there management styles that you’re interested in?

Joe

In terms of management, the Serpentine ended up being very informative in that I wanted to do the opposite. Although there were positive aspects to the job – such as working with other recent graduates from different colleges and being able to observe how an organisation operates, I found it a difficult environment to work in.  It’s obviously a very hierarchical style of management, which you have to have a particular personality to be able to survive in. It’s partly why I really like small organisations, because there is always a bit of necessary hierarchy, but it’s relatively small.

Andrea

Is there a tension in running a small organisation between trying to develop an ethos of equality, or equality of voice, and the necessity to occasionally ask people not to do things? Or to need to control what is said about the place, which is of course what the Serpentine is extremely good at.

Joe

I used to find it very difficult, but now I find it’s become very easy for me to do. Hopefully I do it in a constructive way, and because it’s such a small team, I have a regular dialogue with everyone. There is a good dialogue – staff normally come to me when they are pissed off about something, and it gets resolved.

Andrea

It is a small organisation – the equivalent of three full-time staff. Would you want more employees here, would you want more space?

Joe

I think you need an appropriate scale. We are hoping to appoint two new members of staff and increase the days of current staff, but we wouldn’t really want to increase more than that. We need a full-time education curator and a marketing and communications person.

Andrea

Who does all of that at the moment?

Joe

With the PR stuff it’s mainly me, but some of the responsibilities are shared out.  And with the education curator, there is currently no one in that role.

Andrea

Are there other arts organisations you admire, that you learn from?

Joe

I have a lot of respect for peer organisations and organisations of a similar scale, like White Columns in New York, for example. I’m not that interested in larger organisations.

Andrea

What about other artist-focused organisations?

Joe

Organisations of a similar scale; I feel camaraderie and respect for them. There are some commercial galleries I look up to, such as the Modern Institute; because of the way in which they have supported artist’s careers beyond what one might expect of a commercial gallery, and the role they play within their local context. That level of support and ambition for the projects – it’s not just financially motivated.

Andrea

I’ve noticed over the past decade that much closer relations between public and commercial galleries have developed, not simply at the level of co-financing exhibitions and projects, but also at the level of developing and promoting aesthetic understanding. Yet these relationships are politically and socially complex.

Joe

We’ve experimented with commercial strategies. They can come at a price; it can really alter your relationship with artists in quite a negative way. For example, when we started working with Phyllida Barlow and asked her to do a show in 2010, we asked why she had never worked with a commercial gallery, and she said that no one had ever really asked her. So we said to her, why don’t we act in some way as your commercial gallery? We’ll sell your work, but we’ll also proactively help to find a commercial gallery for you. So as well as selling works that we commissioned, we were also selling stuff from the studio.  It was good for us and for her, in terms of income, but I think the relationship suffered as it became too much about money and dealing with sales.  Also, we were inexperienced with this kind of stuff and made some mistakes such as selling works to people who just flipped them at auction. Looking back, it is difficult to separate this stuff from the artistic stuff. Perhaps it was just an extreme example as there was so much interest around her. We have also had many positive experiences with acting commercially.

Andrea

Is this a viable model to develop in the future?

Joe

It can be, but there are issues with this model.  Why it works for commercial galleries is that they hopefully have a very long-term commitment to their artists, whereas for us with Phyllida, it was just for that moment.  When we do fairs we always say we are representing the programme and not the artists, as a way of making it clear to people.  Although beneficial things have happened for artists – both in terms of income and new opportunities, it’s equally about audience development and increasing the platform we provide.

Andrea

What is important about doing what you do?

Joe

I think in terms of having a belief in culture — I want to contribute to culture and make a difference, however small it might be.  I believe in the inherent power that culture plays in shaping our everyday lives and understanding our existence. I’m certainly left-leaning – however much Third Way/ New Labour I might be with all the entrepreneurial/engaging in commercial aspects – I’m in it for social good. And importantly I identify as queer and feminist – this comes out in the programming, which again relates to wanting to add something to our culture – providing a platform for women and homosexuals.

Andrea

How does the idea of social good work within the organisation?

Joe

The staffing structure is important. I think we’re all quite respectful to each other. I think we’re quite lucky in that at the moment we all get on, and there aren’t too many difficulties in terms of working together. It feels like it’s a nice place to be and be doing stuff together. It’s also an enjoyable thing, which is really important. An idea of fun in life is a good thing. It’s a really privileged thing. Even with the fundraising, you try to make it enjoyable. It’s quite social, for example we do House of Voltaire instead of having an auction-type structure and actually have some fun with it. It’s more work, but we enjoy doing it. It’s another way of working with artists, and playing shop in the middle of Mayfair is very entertaining.

Andrea

Do you all do that: go there and sell?

Joe

Yes, and that’s another good thing about small galleries, that you do almost everything. You might be cleaning the toilets, but then you’re doing a funding application, installing a show with an artist, talking to a patron. It’s really varied.

Andrea

Is there something important about that for you?

Joe

It’s not quite a retort to Marx’s division of labour, but it kind of nods towards it in some ways.

Andrea

A kind of socialism?

Joe

A kind of sharing out of labour, different types of labour.

Andrea

Presumably that would influence the kind of people you would employ here?

Joe

Yes, you have to be able to muck in. It’s been quite interesting, in that we’ve had interns from certain backgrounds who just haven’t been able to cope with certain things. And it’s not because we’re horrible, and give them all of the rubbish jobs!

Andrea

One could surmise from what you’re saying that Studio Voltaire is programmed on the particularities of the director’s vision of what’s important in culture. That’s quite an autonomous position, isn’t it? It’s quite unusual within the publicly funded arts perhaps. Do you think it’s important?

Joe

Yes, I think it’s vital. I think at the moment we’re in an interesting period — particularly in London — where you have all these different organisations within what you might define as the small gallery sector, and I think that its real strength is that you have this diversity of voices and approaches.

Andrea

You said it was vital, what exactly?

Joe

It’s in some ways an opposition to more mainstream culture, or certainly, hopefully, an opposition to more corporate or commercial production, which I think the art world is increasingly moving towards. And not just the straightforward commercial market – it’s also a kind of professionalisation of the industry, which in some ways is good, that people are working better, but I feel it’s also slightly killing it. It’s becoming standardised production.

Andrea

But you have professionalised Studio Voltaire. Who do you rely on to help you keep a balance between professionalisation and non-standardisation?

Joe

The board are very supportive, and there are a few individuals who I have a really supportive relationship with, I guess sometimes in a kind of mentoring way. Also the team – I think we work well together and I think increasingly I’m sharing more stuff with them; we discuss things and decisions are made collectively a lot more. Then there is Common Practice. I don’t know how many years I’ve been a part of it — maybe three of four years — and the real value of it is talking with other Directors2. Sometimes it feels like you’re having a bit of a group therapy session, but it’s been incredibly helpful.  It is difficult to keep this balanced.  I don’t think I am personally ever going to be totally professional – it is just not in my character.

Andrea

Do you have time to think about what you’re doing in a broader artistic and social context?

Joe

It’s really limited. Even just general research for the programme or thinking around ideas is really limited.

Andrea

So ideally, you’d want to spend more time reading and thinking?

Joe

Yes. It feels a lot of the time that you have to do your thinking via a business plan, which you are doing because you have to do it for the Arts Council, rather than naturally considering what your role is, or why you are even doing it. And in some ways it’s useful, but it’s not necessarily the best way of working, and I think just to have more time to consider things, just in a very general sense, would be really helpful. One of the strongest projects I think we’ve done is probably the Jo Spence retrospective which we did in 2012 with Space Studios, and I think it’s because it was the first kind of historical show we’ve done – we had to really research the work to make it happen – which you don’t have to do when you commission new work.

Andrea

Was it the first time you worked with an artist who is no longer living?

Joe

Yes, we normally produce a commissioned exhibition by a living artist, so it was quite a shift for us, and it felt very different anyway, because you suddenly feel very responsible, and it actually made me realise how easy commissioning is: you’re basically just giving the space and resources over to an artist, even though this involves discussion and dialogue.

Andrea

You said that you identify as queer and feminist. How does that affect what you do?

Joe

I think, in terms of the programme, we show a lot of women. It’s not a strategy as such, it’s just naturally happened, and maybe on a personal level, I like working with women. And then there’s still the fact that even now in the art world there’s under-representation and inequality, both within museums and the commercial sector. The programme is not always overtly feminist; Phyllida Barlow doesn’t describe her practice as feminist, but in terms of how she deals with and occupies space with the work, I see a feminist position. So it’s not necessarily a heavy-handed programme, but there are certain things running through it as a whole.

I quite like difficulty within art, when things don’t always work out and aren’t resolved, I think it’s in these difficult situations where there’s antagonism or things not fitting, that’s when interesting questions come up.

Andrea

Do you have a clear idea of who you are catering for?

Joe

I find this quite difficult. I was thinking about the art world before, because we were saying how it is very socially mixed, but in some ways, it’s still privileged, even just the percentage of people involved who had a comprehensive education — it’s predominantly private school. I felt, particularly in my twenties, not disadvantaged, but you’re aware of the fact that you’ve had a comprehensive education.

Andrea

I agree with you that the mainstream of the art sector is grammar school or privately educated, full of people who are wealthy enough to be able to maintain a position where their potential exploitation is not personally and financially significant.

Joe

I think that’s very true, that you can afford to have a position, and in a general sense it’s something that concerns me as to how things are going. I’ve mentioned before this idea of professionalisation, because I’ve been really fortunate in this position — I kind of fell into this job. I didn’t necessarily intend to do it. If we advertised this position, it’s people with MA Curating, you know, who have worked a certain way up, who would apply. I was lucky in that I was able to train on the job, which doesn’t really happen now, and I think with the professionalisation, you’re getting a certain type of person, you’re not getting figures like Robin Klassnik – these really wonderful, slightly wayward, passionate, cranky figures – you’re not going to get these people anymore.

Andrea

That’s true. This is related: can you make autonomous decisions? And is this an important part of your role?

Joe

Yes, very. I don’t think I could work in a larger organisation where I didn’t have that kind of power.

Andrea

But it’s interesting that autonomy has been criticised as a value. The problem with autonomy is that it individualises aspirations and doesn’t take into consideration social context. Could you defend your right to make autonomous decisions?

Joe

Autonomy allows for certain freedoms and different approaches — different approaches to working in a social context —which you wouldn’t get otherwise. I’ve always seen autonomy as a really positive thing. The figures I’ve always respected are people like Robin, who have their own particular way of thinking and working. I’m also drawn to artists who have their own thing going on.

Andrea

How do you think the way your organisation is run affects its workers, including yourself? You are taking on huge amounts of work in order to not have your team exploited.

Joe

Yes, I think that’s really true.

Andrea

We’ve already talked about how you don’t have time to think.

Joe

Because it comes down to autonomy: because it is your thing, it’s unfair then to make other people do the work. It’s part of the price you pay, I think.

Andrea

Why should you have to pay a price?

Joe

Because you’re in a really privileged position. I think most people don’t get those levels of freedom. Beyond the art world, I’m incredibly lucky with my job – I don’t get bored, which is a good thing.

Andrea

You spend seventy percent of your time fundraising…

Joe

But even then, you do it because you have to, and it’s a means to an end.

Andrea

So, to summarise, you’re saying that the self-exploitation feels like an ethical obligation on the basis that you’ve created for yourself a realm of freedom?

Joe

Partly. I think also it comes down very much to a personal thing. I find it really difficult to switch off, and I’m always on my emails when I’m at home, and I don’t really stop at the weekends. I don’t know if I’m necessarily working more smartly by doing it. It was really interesting when a few months ago I had a friend staying with me with her baby for a month, and I kind of got into this routine of getting up at 5 or 6 in the morning, helping with the baby, going to work at half 8 or 9, then coming back at 5, and then during the evening being with the baby and then, when the baby went to bed, having adult time. So I had to be really strict on when I was working, and maybe I was slightly more productive, so it’s maybe more a personal thing of not being able to balance my…or letting work be an excuse.

Andrea

Do you think your work colleagues would recognise your descriptions of yourself, the ways in which the organisation runs, and also for instance, your aspirations for change?

Joe

I’d say yes, broadly speaking. I don’t think we’d discuss some of the larger questions perhaps, but maybe it’s inherent values that are there. It’s going to be interesting to see how things change in terms of talking about things more, on a kind of wider level.

Andrea

Do you think that would be interesting, or do you think, oh God – that’s just another layer of stuff I have to do?

Joe

I think it’s an interesting thing, in terms of strategising… maybe that’s the wrong word, but just thinking about what we do, and why we do it.

 


1  House of Voltaire is a temporary shop selling unique works and special editions to benefit Studio Voltaire.  The first shop opened in 2010 and has been successful in raising significant amounts of income for the organisation.

2  Common Practice is an advocacy group working for the recognition and fostering of the small-scale contemporary visual arts sector in London. The group aims to promote the value of the sector and its activities, act as a knowledge base and resource for members and affiliated organisations, and develop a dialogue with other visual art organisations on a local, national and international level. The group’s founding members are AfterallChisenhale GalleryElectraGasworksLUXMatt’s GalleryMute PublishingThe Showroom, and Studio Voltaire – together representing a diverse range of activities including commissioning, production, publishing, research, exhibitions, residencies and artists’ studios.

http://commonpractice.org.uk

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