Hidden Gems Feature: The Ins And Outs of Arena Studios

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The Ins and Outs of Arena Studios

Words by Josie Jenkins
Article Originally published in Hidden Gems

One of the first things I learned when I joined Arena Studios was that it was not always housed in the Elevator Building on Parliament Street. Before that it was on Jordan Street, and before that Duke Street, in ‘Arena House’ which is named after Arena Studios and still has that name today.

Arena Studios was set up by Terry Duffy in 1985. At that time, he recalls, the creative heart of Liverpool was Hope Street and the bohemian set, pivoting around the art college, the Crack, the Everyman, and focussing on the poets, intellectuals, writers and actors. And then there came Arena, completing a ‘creative triangle’ between Duke Street, the Bluecoat and Bold Street. The intention was to start an organisation which promoted excellence in fine art and design: a creative hub, a hot bed for talent and new ideas. But when trying to set Arena up, Terry was met with a surprisingly negative response from the Director of Merseyside Arts: “Great idea, but it’s not possible as there’s not enough talent in Liverpool. In fact there is more talent in Wrexham than Liverpool.” So there was no start up funding.

Terry said, “I knew it was a great idea and it would work, so I had to find the funds myself, encouraged by the good will of artists and designers locally, helping with the holes in the roof and the mountains of pigeon dirt and also the good will of the City Council holding back on the massive rates bill until I could register the charity and realise the mandatory rates reduction due to charities. It was a worrying time but we succeeded.”

I only moved to Liverpool five years ago and was welcomed into the artistic community with loving arms. This was after Liverpool was named European Capital of Culture for 2008, after Liverpool One was built, the Albert Dock was regenerated and way after Arena stood as a lone arts organisation on Duke Street. I find it hard to imagine a time before Liverpool was the internationally recognised hub of artistic activity that it is now. Terry tells me it would have been hard to imagine back then that John Lewis would become the local shop. But Liverpool was a very different place then; although I am under-qualified to write about the art scene in Liverpool at that time, I do know that it was unrecognisable from what we have now.

As the coolest artistic hub in town, Arena helped to energise the Duke Street area, housing hundreds of artists and hosting legendary auctions, exhibitions, fashion shows, music gigs and parties in the vaults below. As a result of its own success, Arena went from being told there’s more artistic talent in Wrexham, to having to leave 20 years later, its popularity assisting with the gentrification of the area. In 2006, Arena and its 40 studio members were forced out as Arena House was to be sold to developers. Not only this, but Arena had rent arrears which would have been its downfall had it not been saved by a mysterious donation of £10,000 from an unknown person, who became known as ‘Anonymous Bob’. This ejection from the building did allow for the staging of an ambitious Biennial Exhibition with money from the Arts Council, a creative swansong for the end of an era.

Arena temporarily moved into a small unit on Jordan Street in the gritty, industrial, bleak lands to the south of the city. While adapting this cold, featureless unit into studio spaces with funding from The Culture Company, Arena was constantly looking for a more permanent home. In 2007, Elevator Studios was being formed in a huge warehouse around the corner and after several meetings Arena signed a contract to take the first floor of what was then a derelict building. In 2008 Arena cleared out of Jordan Street, but not before using the empty space to host an international exhibition as part of the Independents Biennial.

The insecurity of Arena’s housing situation is, however, by no means at an end. When Arena moved into Elevator, there were a handful of other creative businesses housed in the same building, Leaf café downstairs, the Biennial office round the corner and that was pretty much it for creative support. No Baltic Creative, no Camp and Furnace and certainly none of the trendy bars, cafés and venues that have popped up from nowhere in the last couple of years. In a flash, Baltic Triangle residents have gone from being paranoid that their car is going to get broken into, to pissed off that they can’t get a parking space.

Now it would be ridiculous for me to claim that Arena has single-handedly made Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle cool, but it was there at the beginning and it’s not likely to be there at the end. And it’s an odd situation, because the transformation of the Baltic Triangle into this cutting edge destination has been incredibly exciting to watch, it has inspired great art and artistic events, it has increased the popularity of our studios and it fills me with pride to say I work in the coolest part of town. I love it, but I am afraid that history will repeat itself. If our rent goes up, we’ll have to charge our artists more and at that point they may choose to leave. Without the artists paying the rent, Arena will have to leave too. It’s a classic situation that comes with the gentrification of any area, affecting all types of small businesses, in every city. Maybe it is just Arena’s destiny.

When I spoke with Terry Duffy about it, he described the art world like a pyramid. He said there are a few very successful artists and organisations at the top, but underneath there is a great volume of small organisations and individual artists working hard, providing art and entertainment for free, for the love of it, to try and make it big, because it’s just what they do; but these people are absolutely vital in supporting the few that sit proudly at the top. The ‘grass roots’ artists do all the groundwork, underpaid or for free, while the big businesses ultimately benefit.

So what is the solution to the problem of artists being forced to leave the areas they help to popularise? Terry and I could only come up with one – don’t rent, buy. A couple of great examples demonstrate how this has worked in Liverpool: the Bridewell Studios and Gallery, which started 40 years ago and has remained in the same building, had the foresight and opportunity to buy it at the start, and the beloved Jacksons art shop on Slater Street. With the building owned by the business, Jacksons is going nowhere.

But there is actually one other thing you can do. Just take it on the chin, be happy that you were there at the beginning, that you helped make something exciting happen for creativity in the city that you love and then think about any future move as an opportunity, an adventure. With movement comes change, with change a challenge and a challenge is something artists thrive on.

For the time being I’m happy to say that Arena is still home to 22 artists, illustrators and designers at varying stages in their careers and with bucketsful of talent just like in the old Arena. We’ve even retained a small but perfectly formed gallery that continues to showcase artistic talent from Liverpool and beyond. Arena has shown great resilience throughout its 30-plus year life, and so may the story continue.

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