The Social Studios

As the short-lived gallery prepares for its final exhibition, Derry's lesser-known artists are running out of places to turn to showcase their work

The latest exhibition at the Social Studios, at the bottom of Shipquay Street in Derry, is Changes Works, a collection of pieces by artists such as Philip McFadden, Mhairi Sutherland, Patrick Bradley, Colm Mulhern, Robert Gillespie, Brian Farrell, and Tyrone Patterson, and includes Rory Harron’s installation, 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Cats'. Having already run until September 10, a second, final showcase resumes from September 21 - 29.

And then it’ll close. Not just the exhibition, but the gallery itself. The premises will become home to a new enterprise.

More than likely the Social Studios will be forgotten by most – maybe never even known – but it’ll be remembered by some, fondly, wistfully, perhaps angrily, just like the London Street Gallery, which opened and closed in the city a couple of years back.

That had a longer life than the Social Studios, which hasn’t even lasted a year.

To be fair, it was never meant to last forever. The premises are run by the Holywell Trust, whose intention was always to bring in a social enterprise. Finding one suitable took longer than expected.

Rather than leave the place empty, Declan Sheehan, who was then Social Innovator at the Trust, had the idea of opening an art gallery in the meantime, and he approached the Cut Cast Quartet, four artists – George Doherty, Kevin McLaughlin, Jes McSparron, and Philip McFadden – who had previously put together an exhibition during Derry's City of Culture year in an empty shop on William Street.

Cut Cast Quartet.

The idea was to provide a space where local artists – young, old, new, established but not widely-known – could work and exhibit. Not just that, they could engage with the community and the community could get involved, meeting and talking with the artists, finding out about what they do, how their ideas develop.

It would be an outlet and an interface, casual, fun, and serious. The public could learn about the work that’s going on in the city, and the artists could learn how to operate in more of a business and social environment, hopefully achieving sales and commissions along the way.

It would be a place missing from Derry since the closure of London Street, a middle ground between the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) and Void, a gallery where they could exhibit without paying for the privilege, a place where they could sell, without the pressure of producing purely for commercial reasons.

The Social Studios opened in December 2014. Catherine Ellis is one of the artists whose pieces feature in the final exhibition. She works in a variety of media, and many of her pieces have a striking sense of fun and left-field imagination – giant plaster eggs packaged in a half-dozen cardboard containers, wishbones cleaned and coated and strung together like Christmas decorations.

A full-time artist from the city, she has a degree in Visual Communications from Ulster University Magee, and took a Fine Art HND at the North West Regional College. You can’t get beyond that in Derry, but circumstances allowed her to commute to Belfast where she completed her degree the city's UU campus. 

In many ways, hers is a typical story – she knows many who had to do the same, but she knows more who were unable to.

The contrast between life for artists in the two cities struck Ellis. Because Belfast offers a Fine Art degree, it draws groups, galleries, and facilities. 'There’s an infrastructure there so individual artists can meet and you can feed off the creativity of others,' she says. 'That’s why so many artists leave Derry and don’t come back.' 

She worked for a while alongside other artists in one of the studios on Pump Street. 'But when they closed, we were on the street. We were looking for new studios for a long time, the length and breadth of the city.' Eventually she found a new studio, with Creative Village Arts on Bishop Street. And, like Rory Harron, she is now part of a collective, Open Door 77, which was started by Colm Mulherne and Stephen Boyle.

She exhibited her work at the London Street Gallery, but that door was only ever going to stay open for a year and, when it shut, another one didn’t open. Even when public art has been commissioned in the city, such as in the recently finished and delightful Pump Street Courtyard, like many local artists she felt excluded by the process.

'There was no-one willing to take a chance on lesser-known, inexperienced artists. The first question in the application process asked if you’d had any previous experience on a £30,000 art project. Nowhere did it ask to see any of your work.

'Someone could have had a great idea, but there was no way of being heard and there was no-one willing to take a chance.'

She has taken to guerrilla tactics, creeping out with other artists in the middle of the night to place pieces in city spaces, such as along the quayside, so commuters find mystery art work – plaster feet and oversized fishing rods – competing for attention with the council’s flower displays.

The Social Studios, staffed by volunteers as well as the exhibiting artists themselves, has provided an important, but short-lived outlet. 'Once this place goes,' says Ellis, 'there’ll be nothing. And artists here need a decent space where you can show your work for free, and hopefully sell some of it too.'

George Doherty

George Doherty, who helped set up the Social Studios, and who will continue to help run it until the end of the month, shares Ellis' concerns. 'We’re not frustrated as artists,' he says, 'but we have to change in the environment we live and work in. We’ll try and hold pop-up exhibitions, but anything we manage will eventually be in cooperation with others who see value in the work of local artists.

'If people thought art could be as effective as flowers in the city we would have an art scene that was not at that mercy of any economic climate.'

But why should anyone outside the artist community in the city be bothered? 'Because,' says Catherine Ellis, 'art lifts the spirits. It adds to the life of the city and causes people to stop, and gives them something to question and muse over. Art has the power to define the city.'

No-one is giving up. As well as the planned pop-up exhibitions, the Social Studios launches its website on September 18. The site will accept online work, host online shows, become a forum for discussion, and enable new strategies for viewing and making art in Derry.

The Changes Works exhibition continues from September 21 - 29 at the Social Studios and Gallery.