Regenerating space and building creative hubs: Artspace Lifespace

Doug FrancisRuth Essex first met the people behind Artspace Lifespace when they were art-squatting a large building and had created a temporary art centre. 

Doug Francis is a founding member and Ringmaster of Invisible Circus and one of the driving forces behind Artspace Lifespace. The roots of Artspace Lifespace and their big-scale creativity lie in the 1990s with temporary galleries and arts events at London's Portobello Road markets.

When Doug moved to Bristol in 2005 he became part of a network of local artists and performers.  After trying unsuccessfully to track down the owners of dilapidated car garages in Statescraft, they occupied it in 2006 as the Bristol Arts Trade Centre. When the owner found out, they decided not to evict the artists, recognising that the rolling program of arts events and hundreds of volunteers were, in fact, regenerating the space.

This activity introduced them to Ruth Essex. After their initially illegal occupation of the garages, in a delicious twist of irony, the group then legally occupied Horfield Police Station - a council-owned building that Ruth found for them - for two years where Artspace Lifespace was established as a limited co-operative.

"To work with them on more formal arrangements with landlords for their projects was going to be win-win because they're such a fantastic team," says Ruth. "They're not just a network of artists, but also plumbers, electricians, carpenters and set builders - a group with the complete set of practical skills who aren't phased by anything.

"They've undertaken hugely ambitious projects in Bristol since then. My role has been to support their work, including championing what they do within Council and brokering contact with developers and business groups."

The Cathedral

In 2007 they approached the owner of the Pro Cathedral - a site that had been empty for 30 years. Seven months of regeneration work lead to a four-month long festival program.

Doug Francis remembers, "It took quite a lot of work because it was a listed building. But the developers got quite into the idea and were hands-on in helping us with the Development Application. Their PR guy said, "This is a no-brainer.  When we come to try to market the development, we'll be able to do it in the building as opposed to in some little office somewhere and draw attention to the site." 

"There was a massive cleanup and restoration went on as well.  So the owner got use out of it being open to the public. They could get all the shareholders and all the local people in to look at the place and they got to attach themselves to 'cool and groovy', underground arts."

So enamoured were they with the initiative that the developer donated £20,000, which was then matched by arts and business and £40,000 in kind. Further funding came from hiring the space out to Channel 4 for a shoot. The funding was spent on repairing the building and fitting it out with equipment, a 250-capacity theatre, and two auditoriums.

Over the four months Artspace Lifespace put on four new productions of their own and hosted 56 other events, back to back.

The Island

One of the most successful Artspace Lifespace projects is the transformation of an old fire station and surrounding buildings on Bridewell Island in the centre of Bristol.

The Island project

After cycling past a development sign at Bridewell Island, Ruth Essex contacted the developer, Urban Splash, and brokered a peppercorn rent agreement for Artspace Lifespace to use the space as an arts centre and studio spaces initially for six months, which has since extended to three years.

"Ruth's really proactive like that," says Doug. "She helped us with all the initial negotiations."

The space had been a nightclub but everything inside was four to eight years old so had to be refitted and new fire alarms installed. Urban Splash donated £10,000 worth of  building materials and supplies and the rest of the £20,000 needed to finish works was raised by Carny Ville. 

The Island still hosts Invisible Circus' Carny Ville, a spectacular extravaganza of circus acts, cabaret and performance artists which attracts international attention. The event is very much defined by the space - which comprises several interlinked indoor spaces, a courtyard and multiple balconies - it has not only built the profile of Invisible Circus but has come to partly define Bristol too.

"People have been blown away by the scale of Carny Ville," says Ruth Essex, "and artists have moved to Bristol and stayed on because of it. They got a studio in Bridewell Island, collaborated on projects and small companies have grown out of that production so it's become quite a hub that's generating a lot of outcomes."

Currently The Island consists of 40 artists studios, training and rehearsal facilities, a performance venue, a recording studio, photo lab, video editing lounge and costume, prop and set making resources.

The business model used by Artspace Lifespace is based on income from low-cost studio and rehearsal space, with rates scaled.

"We try and be flexible. If projects are funded then they pay a slightly higher rate than if they're unfunded, right down to a membership of £20 pounds a month if you want to train in the circus space," says Doug Francis.

The buildings on the right hand side of the city-block space were recently taken back by the developer and turned into a state-of-the art youth facility and support services, a move that Ruth Essex says is productive for all involved.

"It feels like a good result because the site is also about creative learning and some of those artists collaborated on that process and will be involved in future projects for the development," she says.

Doug Francis agrees, "That was a nice outcome for us. It drew attention to the site as a really great space and very signature to Bristol. And it remains a centre of community activity. This building is fully occupied."