Jonathon Harvey, ACME
Friday 13th March 1998
When did your organisation first come
into being and what was it called?
"The organisation was founded in November 1972
and it was registered as a housing association. We called it Acme Housing
Association, and I think the word Acme came from the fact that it was
merely a means to an end, it was the means to access short life property
in East London and we didn't think that the organisation would go on
into the future so we chose the most cliched trade name that we could
find, which was Acme".
Who were the founder members?
"The founder members came through from Reading
University Fine Art Department; a group of artists who were moving up
to London. London seemed the place to be in terms of continuing and
trying to develop ones fine art practice.There were one or two pioneers
who had gone up to London a couple of years before who suggested that
there were possibilities of finding places to live and work, because
that was the big issue, something that one could afford. So, we followed
people up there, but effectively the core was a group of artists from
What was the initial aim/policy and how has that changed/adapted?
"The initial aim was for a small group of artists
to find not only somewhere to live that they could afford, but also
somewhere to work as well. We were conscious that SPACE Studios were
beyond our means, that is if you looked at the cost of a SPACE studio
(albeit they were cheap), put together with the cost of somewhere to
live.So, what we became aware of was that there was a lot of short life
semi-derelict GLC/Local Authority housing stock that was due for redevelopment,
that had possibly a short life use and we formed a housing association
to get access to it. The initial idea was simply to house the original
group of seven. We needed seven people to form a housing association
and being constituted as a housing association allowed legal access
to the property. The alternative was squatting but we decided to go
the legal route and form a housing association.Having put a lot of pressure
on the GLC and kept pestering them we were allocated a couple of properties
in Devons Road in E3.Then very quickly, (because we were able to demonstrate
that we could make good use of semi-derelict properties and make them
work) they started transferring more property to us, which was actually
beyond the need of the initial seven people. So what came from a very
small group, and a self help approach, was suddenly to find ourselves
providing accomodation for other artists. We were aware that there were
so many other artists in exactly the same position as ourselves and
very quickly it grew from being one or two houses to within two or three
years managing 80, 90, 100 houses and becoming the largest single user
of short life housing stock in East London (all of which was being occupied
by Fine Artists at very low rent)"
In the light of later changes to the squatting
laws it was a key strategic decision to go legal wasn't it?
"Right at the outset we said lets try the legitimate route which was
suggested by the GLC who said basically 'we cannot talk to you otherwise'.I
think one of the most difficult things was actually getting £10 from
seven people to raise the £70 needed to register as a housing association"
Can you say who the seven people were?
"Yes, it was David Panton, Claire Smith, Kevin
Goldstein-Jackson, Rosemary Harvey, Susan Sauerbrun, Tom Goodman and
Where were you based first of all and where are you based now ?
"The first two houses were in Devons Road in Bow
and had a 21 month life in March of 1973. One of these is still standing,
and that is the kind of pattern that some houses are still around 20
years later.The first office was based in my house which was an old
shop in Devons Road. In 1976 we formed the Acme Gallery and moved into
Covent Garden, Shelton Street which was the office and gallery base.Then
when the gallery closed in 1981 the office moved into a new studio block,
a Crown property in Robinson Road which we still manage. In 1992 we
moved from Robinson Road to a new studio block in Copperfield Road where
we are now.This building is also the base for Matts Gallery."
Artist Mineo Aayamaguchi in his
studio in Robinson Rd.
What was the reason for you to be associated with and now based in
the East End of London?
"As I said it was being aware that other artists
hade come to London and managed somehow to survive and get hold of cheap
property in East London. We followed and it was purely for economic
reasons. There was no other reason whatsoever; the East End looked like
the only part of London where one could actually survive and where there
were enough opportunities to find space to live and work.Indeed, and
to be actually able to afford that space and have enough time to do
ones own work"
What part has your organisation had to play in locating such a
large number of artists into the East End of London?
"Its quite difficult to say, but obviously we
have been instrumental in providing homes and work spaces for 2,000
artists over the last 25 years, which is a considerable number. A
lot of those living as well as working in the area. The implication
from that in terms of artists as members of the community and putting
down roots, bringing up families and so on is obviously considerable.
Its difficult to measure the impact, whether we have had the largest
single effect in establishing artists in East London, I'm not exactly
sure, but I think its possible that we have"
Who were you/are you funded by?
"Very early on we got support from The Gulbenkian
Foundation, seed funding for the first couple of years and then moved
on to Arts Council/Admin funding and the Arts Council then delegated
responsibility for both Acme and SPACE to Greater London Arts and
then that became the London Arts Board.So we have had continuous funding
over the last 25 years.Its worth saying that that funding is a very
small part of our income, it was originally "short-fall"
funding and now its funding in relation to the services we provide"
So you are self-funded?
"We are 95% self funded and always have been"
You have also had lotterry support?
"Yes we recently had lottery support. Even though
we are a large organisation managing a number of different buildings,
up until recently all of those buildings were leasehold, negotiated
on the open market. In a sense the organisation is only as strong
as the collection of leases that it has. Most of our leases are good
leases in terms of the rents we pay and the reviewsthat are built
in to them, but it does mean that we are very vulnerable to changes
in the property market and the way in which rents can be reviewed.
For Acme to survive it was essential that we were able to buy property
and the lottery has allowed us to buy two properties; the Fire
Station in Gillender Street and this building in Copperfield Road.Not
only does that ensure greater revenue because we are not paying rent,
it also allows us to build a surplus to be able to move other leasehold
properties into freehold.Otherwise the whole pattern of studio provision
would be one of buildings being acquired and then lost and so the
capital investment just gets dissipated and you have the situation
where otherwise artists would actually be forced out of East London
in the end. I think after 25-30 years its time for there to be some
permanent property available"
Were you supported by the local councils , in particular Hackney
and Tower Hamlets?
"We've never had any support at all from the
local authorities and in a sense, in terms of property negotiation,
we have always felt it best to negotiate on the open market because
one can actually do things a lot quicker.Often council property has
been so surrounded by political considerations and other interest
groups that to try and negotiate would have not been effective.So
we have always gone for the open market. We do get charitable rate
relief but that is at no cost to the local authorities anyway. We
have never had any discretionary rate relief, nor have we ever had
any other form of financial support.Tower Hamlets did support our
lottery bid by writing supportively but they have never supported
us in terms of cash"
What circumstances do you think enabled your organisation to survive
"A combination of good fortune and continuityin
terms of those involved. Both myself and David Panton, as founder
members, have been consistently involved in the organisation and I
think that helps, as does a very loyal staff with a very low turnover.
That build up of experience has meant that one is more able to judge
opportunities than others, and we have learnt to do a lot with a very
little. We have had to learn to be very economic in the way we have
run the business and we have managed to survive"
What effect do you think you have had on the profile of current
British Art and Artists?
"Again I think it is difficult to measure that
but undoubtedly we provide a basic means of suopport which is cheap
and well managed , secure studios, allowing artists to get on with
their own work. Now not all of those artists will produce what may
be considered at any time to be great work but one measure, and this
may be controversial, is that a third of artists that have been nominated
for the Turner Prize have had Acme houses or studios in the past and
six or seven Turner prizewinners have. So that is a measure of the
way we have helped artists over the years"
How do you think the social/financial and artistic environment
has changed since you first you first started?
"If you were leaving Reading now I think you
would probably have the benefit of your course providing more information
about what its like being and surviving as an artist.I don't think
that things are any easier now than they were when we moved up to
London and I think the economic position of the artist is still as
dire as it was 20 years ago. I think in the 80's there was maybe a
small blip when there seemed to be more opportunities and artists
actually seemed to be able to afford their space but I dont think
that is the position any longer.Artists are still as vulnerable as
they were in the past"
How would you describe what happened to the artistic community
in relation to the east End between 1972 and now?
"Well, over the last 25 years what has happened
is that from artists moving into East London as a temporary arrangement,
because it was the only place they could move, people find quite quickly
that East London represents their home and they build links throughemployment
and with the local community and so on. It means now that the artistic
community is actually intergrated into the fabric of East London.
The way that this is identified by local authorities is often innacurrate
because they tend to look at certain areas and say 'that's a cultural
area' whereas in fact its much more widespread than what they attempt
to identify.Tower Hamlets for example look at Spitalfields and say
thats where its all happening, and its not"
Carpenters Road studios, Stratford,
Photograph: Hugo Glendinning
Where did your property stock come from ?
"It comes mostly from the commercial property
market and we have been fortunate in being able to aquire leases on
buildings at the right time whebn there has been a dip in the property
market. We are also very good at making use of buildings which are
problem buildings in the sense that planning restrictions mean that
they cannot be used for development or residential purposes.The Fire
Station project is one where we are providing work/livespace for artists
in a building that was an old fire station, it falls into an industrial
employment zone so the building had no potential for conversion into
loft living and therefore had a low value.We were possibly one of
the only users because we could demonstrate to the local authority
that we would use it for workspace and they allowed us then to be
able to insert the living element because the work element was the
thing that drove the whole project.The living element is ancilliary
to the studio space"
You state in your booklet that "Acme's efficiency as a short-life
housing organisation, rather than as an artists' group per se, produces
further transfers of housing stock" 1975. Can you comment?
"I think we said that because we were getting
access to GLC housing stock because we were an efficient user of semi-derelicat
houses. There were artists who were able to make really good use of
them and we didn't approach the GLC as an arts organisation. In a
sense the GLC never considered, until a short time before abolition,
that Acme was anything more than a user of housing stock. Because
I think approaching them from the arts point of view would not have
worked at all. We had to really satisfy them that we were a good user
of housing.That was the key.If we had been banging on about the needs
of artists I don,t think we would have got very far.We had to satisfy
You published "Help Yourself to Studio Space" to 'stem the flow'
of artists in London.
"I think naievely one thought that you could
stem the flow of artists to London. What we were trying to do was
to suggest to artists in cities outside of London ( and we were working
with SPACE on this initiative - a booklet which was a simple point
by point guide to how they could go about trying to find space)that
they could satisfy their own studio and housing needs where they were.What
happenend strangely enough was that once we promoted and distributed
it we received many more applications here in London however it did
help some organisations to set up in their local areas in the 70's.
Also we were involved in the idea of an international studio programme
with the idea that we would provide the conduit for artists elsewhere
to swap with artists in London and the UK. It relied on the host organisations
in other countries doing their bit and the problem for us was them
maintaining their commitment to the programme and that fell away quite
quickly. What we find ourselves doing now is because we are good at
managing property we have been asked by a number of internmational
arts organisations such as; Australia Council for the Arts; Austrian
Ministry for Science, Research and Art; hessische kulturstiftung,
Wiesbaden, Germany; Zuger Kulturstiftung Landis & Gyr, Switzerland
and the Arts Grants Committee of Sweden to act as their agents in
London so that they can send artists to London and we provide the
means either buying or managing property on their behalf. This means
that overseees artists can actually visit London, because London is
perceived by a lot of other countries as being the most exciting place
for the production of visual art at the moment.So, we act as their
host and we manage property on their behalf which is better for us
because its consistent with what we do anyway"
Jubilee Terrace, E1.
Accomodation for visiting Swiss artists on Landis & Gyr fellowships.
Photograph: Hugo Glendinning
Why no gallery now?
"Well, the gallery came about because one recognised
that as young artists we all had a need to show and there were a number
of other artists that had that similar need. Also recognising that
its important to show artists at the right time and to show artists
in a major way. We tried and were successful in getting a central
London venue.We got it cheaply because it was in Covent Garden when
Covent Garden was beginning to move from the market being shut down
to the current development.We got in on that opportunity, in that
window if you like from 76 to 81. During that period we developed
quite quickly a programme that allowed artists the opportunity to
take a coinsiderable responsibility for the way in which they showed
their work and for Acme to partner and support that. I think towards
the end there were very few public galleries that were allowing artists
to produce installation work, made radical changes to the building,
make performance work and that was the kind of thing that we championed
in the context of a lot of public galleries who were uncomfortable
with that.I think the building and the gallery during its last couple
of years in Covent Garden had a sense that so many artists had thought
about so many ways of approaching it as a site for work that perhaps
one had run through and exhausted those possibilities. The gallery
was also beginning to run quite seperately from the core activity
of helping artists by providing cheap studios and living and when
the building had to be returned to the GLC we took stock of the situation
and said well, it had been a very successful gallery and helped a
lot of artists in a short period of time but it was important to return
our energies to the core activity.There is a considerable distinction
between being involved in something where you are making choices on
art and artists and actually providing the means to support that and
we wanted to concentrate on the latter"
Acme Gallery, Ron haseldon Exhibition.
Photographer: Hugo Glendinning
Do you perceive Matts' Gallery as being associated with Acme?
"We are delighted that Matt's Gallery is in
our building and we support other galleries such as The Showroom.
In a way there was an opportunity to help Matt's and also for them
to help us in terms of us taking on a building which was too large
for just our use.It is nice to have art in the building but if we
had had the money to develop the ground floor as studio space we would
have preferred to do that because thats our priority. The involvment
of Matt's though has allowed the building to stack up economically
in terms of conversion. Its good being able to support Matt's and
leading up to that we were also involved with support from Greater
London Arts in terms of providing advice to matt's when Robin was
thinking of relocating. So we went looking at buildings with him and
it just so happened that we got a building ourselves and we said why
not come to one of ours. There has been no policy to provide a gallery
space but its good to have Robin here. Obviously we go back a long
way. We are both in different ways quite fiercely independant organisations
and its an appropriate conjunction"
Where is Acme now?
"The real way forward, given that we are quite
a large established organisation but non-the-less pretty vulnerable
(only as good as the leases we have), is to move from leasehold to
ownership of property.This is an amazing investment when you consider
the benefits over 20, 50 or a 100 years. Our aim is to create a permanent
network of space and to add value to that, as at the Fire Station,
by saying perhaps we can not only provide physical space for artists
but also a breathing space with the development of work/live space,
but also to try to attract to such programmes funding from other organisations
and so on to provide bursaries. We would want to develop that further
alongside the core activity we are providing with non-residential
How do you perceive that you can protect the future of those buildings?
"Through ownership by Acme Studios, because
it is built into our charitable constitution that they have to be
used for those purposes.We would like to think that we will be leaving
behind a permanent resource, not only in the sense that it doesnt
need support from elsewhere but that can actually generate income
to be able to grow and build. We want to add quality to the services
we provide as well so I think that is the vision"
Finally, can you say at this point how many artists you have on
your waiting list?
"Yes we have 620 on our waiting list, with currently
500 placed in studios/housing or shared use and only 2 available spaces"
Fire Station project
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