Friday, 14 October 2011

Trust the trustees?

Chisenhale Art Place (CAP) is the name of the registered charity that runs Chisenhale Studios in east London. Its website lists 37 artist members. Until very recently there were 40, but during the summer the board of trustees gave notice to three members that their licenses were being revoked and that they had to quit their studios. One of those three happens to be Madeleine Strindberg, my wife.

Madeleine has been a member of CAP for 25 years. During that time she has used her studio to produce work that has been shown in numerous exhibitions and that won her the Jerwood Painting Prize. In recent years her work has been made at home as well as in her Chisenhale studio, which has also been used for storage of earlier work and for showing this work to interested galleries. The reasons given for Madeleine’s eviction are that she is not contributing sufficiently to the aims of CAP and that her studio is not an essential part of her practice. Eviction means that Madeleine has to find alternative space for several hundred paintings; many are over 6 foot; they weigh, I’d guess, several tons.

There is no appeals procedure. Nor has there been any opportunity to even talk with the trustees about their decision: all communication has been via the administrator, appointed by the board, who refuse to talk directly with Madeleine. And even if the board has reason to argue that Madeleine’s studio at Chisenhale is not being used as actively as they’d like, there are still things to talk about. Such as the infrequent use of studios by many members other than the three being evicted (yesterday morning only one studio in the whole building was being used by its licensee, and a glance through the signing in/out book showed that there are very few days when even half the studios are being used). Such as the fact that one artist member (who also happens to be on the board of trustees) doesn’t even live in England. Such as the regulations about subletting and the use of studios as business premises and whether a blind eye is sometimes being turned. Such as the rumours about the planned redevelopment of the building.

The decision to evict Madeleine and the two others appears to be arbitrary. The board’s attitude has been bullying. (One of the other members being evicted recently wrote to the board informing them of the concerns of the chair of the National Federation of Artists Studio Providers about the way the evictions were being handled; a trustee replied that those concerns ‘are of no interest to us’ and that ‘The Board has had quite enough correspondence and email about all of this already. Please do not bother us any more with this’; this reply was the only direct communication from any of the trustees that the member has had.) The refusal of the trustees to discuss the situation (I’ve seen an email from the chair of the board in which he says he has ‘more pressing issues’ to deal with) betrays the whole spirit of the place, which was established to give artists ‘secure premises’ to get on with their art in a cooperative manner.

‘Board of trustees’ is of course a term that’s recently become familiar to many in the poetry world, where the Poetry Society has had to deal with the fall-out from some clumsy decisions by its own board. You wander along for years without paying attention to the machinery of these places, then a gear slips and you have to make sense of it all. I think at least some of the artist members of Chisenhale are concerned about their board’s behaviour, but are also worried that if they speak out they may be next in line for eviction.

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