Judith Knight

Supporting Expressions that Go Beyond

March 7, 2015
Judith Knight

Judith Knight

Director of Artsadmin
Since its establishment in 1979, Artsadmin has been a vehement supporter of artists working across all disciplines. It has played an indispensable role in developing cutting-edge and interdisciplinary artworks mainly in the United Kingdom. Among the diverse activities that they realize are: the production of arts projects; the development of young talents through various programmes for emerging artists; the realization of the Unlimited programme together with Shape, funded by Arts Council England, which is a project that celebrates the works of deaf and disabled artists on an unprecedented scale; the management of the Toynbee Studios in East London, including the renting of five rehearsal spaces and the 280-seat theatre; and work within the European art organizations network Imagine 2020, which aims at supporting artistic work that explores causes and effects of climate change.

Judith Knight, the founding director of Artsadmin spoke to us to discuss the expansive activities that have developed over the course of three decades.
Interviewer: Kyoko Iwaki [Journalist]
Together with your colleague Seonaid Stewart, you co-founded Artsadmin in 1979: the year Margaret Thatcher came into power. As is well known, under the policies of Thatcherism, which supported a belief in free market and a small state, there was a drastic reduction in arts funding that profoundly affected artists across the country. Was Artsadmin established in order to take a stand against the deteriorating artistic status quo at that time?
 Like many others, I certainly did not want Thatcher to come into power in the first place, and, in my view her policies were detrimental to the country and for the arts. However, to answer your question, the primary reason why I co-founded Artsadmin with Seonaid had nothing to do with Thatcher. Our motive was more personal. We founded the organization simply because we wished to provide some stability and profile to the talented artists that we loved.

At the outset, however, it was nothing like what we could call a charity organization. It was literally two women sitting in a space the size of this table, calling it an office and doing everything on a shoestring with really no strategy, no planning and no financial resources. The only thing we had was passion. So, if we were asked ‘What is your business plan?’ at that time, my only and honest answer was that ‘we haven’t got one’. If you had asked me in 1979, whether we would be still there in thirty-five years, I would have responded ‘Don’t be ridiculous’ [laughs].
What kind of artists did you specifically wish to support?
 It is still a little like this in the UK to a certain extent, but thirty years ago, theatres in our country were much more text-based. This work was the only theatre that was considered to be serious theatre, and anything besides them was viewed as “fringe”. But there was so much interesting work at that time – artists who were creating these amazing interdisciplinary works by combining, theatre, dance, visual art, performance and many other art forms.

For instance, The People Show established in 1966 was one of the most famous companies at that time that started combining multiple disciplines to their works. Mike Figgis, who is now a film director, was one of the members who later left this company. We produced the first three theatre productions that Mike developed. Also very important at that time was Welfare State International, a company which had been created in 1968, who made wonderful large-scale outdoor performances and celebratory projects. Later we began to work with internationally known performance artists like Station House Opera, which was founded in 1980.

Although some of these artists were developing art works of amazing quality, they were never able to achieve real stable financial support due to their intrinsically interdisciplinary methodology. And, as is often the case, their work was sometimes more appreciated in foreign countries. For instance, The Mickery Theatre in Amsterdam, which used to run under its noted director Ritsaert ten Cate, was one of those international theatres that had continuously supported these companies (Mickery was a leading experimental theatre in the 1970s and 80s inviting artists like the Wooster Group, Robert Wilson, Peter Sellars and Shūji Terayama). The artists we were working for found a home at the Mickery and this led on to other international contacts in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and so on. This enabled them to survive and develop.
It was essential to persuade the Arts Council England, in order to attain the necessary resources. At that time, when even artists struggled to achieve enough funding, what kind of rationale did you provide them to win money for your projects?
 As you have mentioned earlier, due to the policies adopted by Thatcher, funds for countless art organizations were being cut or reduced. Everything was very tight, and so it took us a long time to persuade the Arts Council to fund us. What was fortunate for us, however, was that, at that time, people in other arts industries were beginning to do the same thing. For instance, Dance Umbrella, now known as a festival but which used to also arrange touring for independent dance companies, was established just a year before us; a similar organization had also emerged in the music industry. So, hand in hand, we tried to persuade the Arts Council.

Of course, the first few attempts didn’t work. The Arts Council’s logic was: ‘we are subsidizing the artists, so they should be paying you.’ And we were arguing against it by saying, ‘well, they can’t, because if they pay us they won’t have enough money to sustain themselves.’ The argument went on for about five years. Initially, we pushed the artistic argument saying that these artists were creating really groundbreaking works, and that they were having great influence, but that wasn’t really getting us anywhere. In the end, I think the argument that won for us was a financial one. We said that by funding us, we would be able to offer the artists stability and support and use the money efficiently so that there would be more engagements for those pieces and that the projects would have a longer future life. From there, little by little, funds started coming in. In retrospect, however, I understand why the Arts Council was reluctant to fund us. We have now played an important role in supporting this area of the arts in the UK, but back then they didn’t know how Artsadmin would develop so, I can understand their reluctance at the time.
When did you start gaining sufficient funds from various resources?
 It has never really been sufficient. However, after we moved into this building – Toynbee Studios – which has been our building since 1994, we have attained financial stability to a certain degree. Until then, we were a small group of five or six doing everything with minimum resources. Nevertheless we did a great amount of work, nationally and internationally.

Currently, as an Arts Council England National Portfolio organization, we receive around £530,000 in public funding annually. We also raise around £100,000 in philanthropic support from trusts, foundations and donations, and nearly £300,000 from hiring out five rehearsal studios and office spaces in Toynbee Studios. Additionally, as we are engaged in three European arts networks, we also get a proportional amount of budget from these organizations for projects. Those organizations are, Imagine 2020, a network tackling climate change through artistically innovative approaches; Create to Connect, a network of thirteen European cultural and research organizations working to create powerful and long-lasting connections of artists, cultural operators, researchers and audience; and, Bamboo, a network aimed at supporting the production, promotion and circulation of contemporary artistic projects addressed to children.

We use all these incomes to first; support artists in various ways – artistically, financially, administratively; to produce works with artists; to run educational programmes for nurturing young talents; and also to take on environmental issues. Apart from these main missions, we take care of various one-off projects. So, Artsadmin is a wrong name really. I can say this because I was the one who came up with the name! In the 1970s, we didn’t call ourselves arts producers; we called ourselves art administrators. However, from the outset, we didn’t just to administrative work; we absolutely worked together, producing the work with the artists from the beginning to the end.
Did you have any administrative experience before launching Artsadmin?
 Yes, the first job I had was in Hull Arts Centre as a secretary. Then I went to Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre as assistant to two of the directors. They were doing unusual versions of classical works, like Shakespeare, Molière, for example, but because of the work of the extremely talented three directors (Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse, Robert David MacDonald), I experienced such visually different ways of doing things. The fact that I got the chance to work there made me think beyond text-based work. After this, I was Administrator at Oval House, an experimental theatre in South London. Seonaid (Artsadmin’s other co-founder) was a colleague at this theatre. Here, I saw all these works on the verge of theatre and visual arts, and it was so exciting.
Artsadmin started from a simple idea of two administrators, but now, it’s an organization consisted of over twenty people. Could you tell us about the organizational structure and your staff members?
 Sure. Gill Lloyd and myself are the co-directors. Gill takes responsibility for Toynbee Studios. Without Gill, we probably wouldn’t even be in the building! She also leads on the finances – she is much better with the money than I am! And, of course, she also works with artists. Then we have the Marketing & Developing team; Admin, Building & Operation; Finance Team; and the Bar & Café people. There are people working as Advisors for the artists, and there are actually only five Arts Producers excluding Gill and I. Additionally, together with the Arts Council, we are currently running, with Shape, a project called Unlimited, which is an exciting project for commissioning artworks by deaf and disabled artists. So, there is a whole team of people there. We do hire freelancers from time to time, but the core members take care of most of the tasks. I think that, as an organization, we cannot get any bigger. This is a good size for maintaining everything under control. This team that we have now was formed gradually after we moved into Toynbee Studios.
You moved into Toynbee Studios, a facility with around twenty office spaces, five rehearsal rooms, a theatre, and a meeting room, in 1994. How did this come about?
 For this, I probably do have to thank Thatcher! After she came into power, she closed down the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), which had used Toynbee Studios regularly. So, the building was hardly used when we came along.

The Toynbee Hall Complex was first constructed in 1865, and was used for a long time as a facility leading the Settlement House Movement that peaked in the 1920s (Settlement Houses were established in poor urban areas, in which volunteer middle-class workers would live, hoping to share knowledge and culture with the deprived). In the 1930s, they built the new part of the building, which is what we call the Toynbee Studios. We went to talk to Toynbee Hall and asked them if we could use it and make it into arts and rehearsing studios. Wonderfully, they said yes. In 1994, we moved into the building. Later, in 2000, we got capital funding from the Arts Council, London Development Agency and European Regional Development funds to purchase the lease for the Studios from Toynbee Hall. Also from the money, we refurbished the building, and built a new studio on the roof. We re-launched the building in 2007. We now have the lease of Toynbee Studios, including the theatre and the café, until 2038.

Toynbee Studios gave us stability, a home for the artists we work with and many others. It also gave us a stable income stream.
Comparing yourself before and after moving into Toynbee Studios, how do you think the activities have changed?
 From 1979 until 1994, that is, before having an office in Toynbee Studios, mainly our task was to produce artworks. We listened to the initial ideas of the artists, applied to funding for getting the necessary money, took care of all the tasks to realize the project, and also developed a tour plan. So, to repeat, we were working hard in order to provide a stable creative environment for the artists we loved.

Everything changed after we moved into Toynbee Studios. The stable income stream that we got from the rent provided us with more financial security. Also, the studio facilities gave us the physical space that is essential for any artistic project. And, from this quite unexpected stability, our activities spontaneously started to grow. The first thing we did after we moved into Toynbee Studios, was applying to a funding organization called Arts For Everyone. From this money, we hired an Artists Advisor who distributes bursaries and gives advice to young talents. Also, we were able to take on a paid trainee annually.
Why did you start thinking about nurturing young artists and administrators in the 1990s?
 We were supporting these brilliant artists we loved for fifteen years with considerable success. But then, there were an increasing number of young people banging on the door saying ‘can you help us too?’ Then we realized that we weren’t doing much for the younger generation, and this was because, we simply didn’t have the time. So, what we needed to do was to hire an advisor whose job was to help these young artists.

The advisors literally provide advice necessary for emerging artists. For instance, talk to them about their initial ideas; provide them with connections needed for realizing the project; aid them with the funding procedure; give them advice about who might like their work and which venues might be best for their work – there are just endless questions. Also, the Advisors are responsible for the Artist’s Bursary Scheme, giving time and space, which was one of the first of its kind that didn’t demand anything at the end of it. And, through these developments for nurturing young talents, the youth educational programme was launched.
The educational work covers a diverse range of activities. SCRITS provides opportunities for presenting work-in-progress materials to develop discussion in a safe and supportive environment. In Summer Lab, artists between the age of 18 and 24 participate in a free four-week course, designed for young artists who wish to expand and explore their creative abilities through live activities and performance making. In Live Art in Schools, artists go to local schools to present their work. And, in the Youth Board, young talents mutually provide informational and supportive resources for those who are developing their artistic talents.
 The activities that you have just mentioned all came from doing a Summer School when we employed a very energetic education producer called Sam Trotman. And, in the Summer School , we worked with incredible artists like Mem Morrison, Mark Storor and Nic Green. Since the participants were very engaging, we wanted to have a connection with them even after the Summer School was over. And, so, we came up with an idea of forming the creative Youth Board. In fact, every year, one member of the Youth Board sits on our Board of Trustees. We thought that it was important to have their voices heard in our planning.
Apart from the artists you continuously work with, you have nineteen Associate Artists listed on your website: for example, DV8 Physical Theatre, Emma Smith, La Ribot, Mamoru Iriguchi and Robyn Orlin.
 Between the Associate Artists and us, there is no contract. We don’t do their management nor do we produce their work. We just provide them with creative advice, marketing advice, and profile. What we ask in exchange is to put that we are associated on their programmes. The Associate Artists normally change every two years, but then they can be extended. We might be adapting this structure – it is a conversation that’s been going on internally at the moment.
Recently, you have been involved in several projects with international artists, as well as introducing UK talents outside of the country.
 Yes, but one thing to note is that what we don’t really do is tour management for incoming productions. Our primary mission is to work together with the UK-based artists to initiate the projects. So, to give you an example of one of our recent international projects, in February 2014, we visited Mons, Belgium, which is the European Cultural Capital 2015. People there have asked us to organize a mini festival called Ailleurs in Folie – Londres, for introducing young UK-based talents. Also, in this spring, we are inviting The Freedom Theatre of Palestine, which is based at the refugee camp in Jenin, to do workshops. We would love to host them for several weeks, but financially, it’s just not possible. If suddenly, all the money fell from the sky, we will be very keen on doing more international residencies, as we have ample space in our Toynbee Studios.
Together with many other fundamental messages, The Freedom Theatre expresses the voice of resistance against the suppression from Israel through their theatre. Nowadays, many other theatre companies are actively involved in political issues – maybe equally so as the time when you started working in theatre in the seventies.
 Yes, many artists are responding more and more to difficult situations; whether it is political, or environmental. What differentiates them from the artists in the seventies is that their expressions are often more subtle; they don’t use “agitprop” but are involved in politics in a more engaging way. For example, in a beautiful audiovisual installation called Beheld by Graeme Miller, ten glass vessels are charged with 180-degree images taken at locations where the bodies of stowaways have tragically fallen from the aircraft in midst of their emigration journey. In Dominoes, a project by Station House Opera, thousands of breezeblocks are used to create a moving sculpture, which runs across cities – informing the spectators of the simple fact that all issues are inevitably connected without borders. These artists do not raise their voices to deliver their agendas, but strong messages are still there.
During the past few years, Artsadmin has been involved increasingly more in various art that deal with environmental issues.
 In terms of these environmental projects, we were all rather slow on the uptake. When we started casting our eye on the natural environment, many incredible organizations were already working on issues like sustainability and climate change. Platform was one of those leading organizations, which tackled the issue of the environment through collaborative work by activists, scientists and artists. Ackroyd & Harvey (Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey) who integrate sculpture, photograph, architect, biology and many other disciplines to render their amazing craft is one of the leading figures working in this field. You may recall their work from the grass installation in 2007 that covered the walls of the Fly Tower of National Theatre, London

The reason why Artsadmin started getting more involved in environmental issues was because we went to one of the first of the Tipping Point meetings, which connected artists and scientists. I still remember the time when I first went to their meeting. I knew about issues around the environment of course, but it was something quite different when those extreme statistics were actually coming out from scientists’ mouths. So, I came out from the meeting fifty percent completely depressed, yet fifty percent utterly optimistic. I knew that the situation was profoundly worrying but, on the other hand, I’ve also heard about these amazing artistic, activist and scientific projects happening.

Soon later, Artsadmin co-founded Imagine 2020, a network of European arts organization concerned with the issue of climate change (Kaaitheater, Brussels and Kampnagel, Hamburg are among others involved in this network). Additionally, we have launched the Two Degrees Festival in 2009. In this bi-annual festival, we tackle the issues regarding not only the environment, but also economical crisis, and other critical issues in the world. Although it is relatively a small festival with most of the events happening in and around Toynbee Studios, it is now known for its unique vision, which connects art and activism. However, I personally think that the environmental issue overtakes all other problems. I mean, all activities are predicated upon the existence of our planet.
Through the continuous efforts by Artsadmin, the working environment of independent artists in the UK has surely become more sustainable and fruitful. In my view, the effort was successful precisely because individuals with strong beliefs, simply wanting to help and support the artists, lead through all missions. The results would not have been the same, if it were done for the sake of any company branding or for any short-sighted national agenda. Despite all the hardships and struggles, why do you think you were able to run the organization for thirty-five years?
 During the sixties and seventies, there was such optimism around. And, because we were living in a hopeful time, many thought that the world, including the arts world, was only going to get better. In retrospect, however, it hasn’t got better at all. In fact, in many ways the world is becoming more difficult for many people. Nevertheless, however simplistic it may sound, I believe that artistic expressions could provide change to society.

We know what the arts do to education. We know how the arts expand the possibilities of children. We know how it improves our confidence level. And, even more, arts earn money for the state by becoming a resource for tourism. Despite all this, governments are reluctant to give enough money to the arts, even though arts funding is such a tiny part of the national budget. It has been proven that arts provide profound differences to the individual, society, and the state. So to answer your question, I think I was able to run and maintain Artsadmin because I strongly believed in the power of the arts and what only the arts could do. Sometimes it is so frustrating because the world is becoming harsher and perhaps the positive affects of the arts come slower. Yet still, I will continue doing my job because, again, I believe that arts can make a profound difference to individuals. You can see it. You know it in your heart.