The general public does not generally think of the law as a creative tool but rather as something to be avoided at all costs – except perhaps when buying residential property or making a will.

In the field of the visual arts there have been some notable exceptions in the second half of the 20th Century: Christo’s Running Fence and other projects which set out deliberately to use and involve the laws relating to buildings and land use as an integral facet of such works; JS Boggs’ deliberate attack on the UK’s anti-counterfeiting laws to make works representing UK and other countries’ Treasury Notes; Alan Smith’s creation of 1512, a work which permanently ‘entombed’ the residual funds (£1,512) of the Ceramic Workshop Edinburgh upon its demise, by deliberately incorporating into the work the UK’s laws governing accumulations of money for perpetuity and Kerry Trengove’s Eight Day Passage which required circumvention of the London Building Regulations in order to execute the work which involved sealing himself into a bunker built inside the Acme Gallery and digging his way down through the basement and out into Shelton Street in Covent Garden over a period of eight days.

The Acme Gallery was itself a manifestation of the imaginative use of the law by David Panton and Jonathan Harvey who established in the UK what has become one of Europe’s leading artists’ service organisations.

ACME Studios was established in 1972 to provide low cost living and studio space to UK artists. Over the past 26 years it has provided accommodation for over 2,000 artists during the initial stages of their careers, many of whom have since become extremely successful, both critically and commercially. ACME is now the largest organisation of its kind in the UK and is the leading development agency for artists studios. It currently provides space for 600 artists in London.

The provision of secure and affordable working and living space for artists who could not otherwise afford it, is the most direct and fundamental means of support for artists; and this philosophy has from the outset underpinned and driven ACME’S work. ACME’S work has always been largely self-financing, enabling the organisation to survive and thrive through its agile use of laws relating variously to finance, property, companies and charities – always responding creatively and flexibly to the vagaries of the UK’s artistic community and also to the radical challenges and changes in their economic status and ability to survive.

ACME is essentially two inter-linked legal entities: ACME Housing Association Ltd, a company incorporated in England and registered as a UK charity, and ACME Artists Housing Association Ltd, also a company incorporated in England. The creation of these legal vehicles by Panton and Harvey enabled them in the 1970s to approach the old GLC and other owners of neglected and run-down property portfolios and to offer to them not only a worthy but also a legally sound organisation which could be relied upon to manage properly short-term leases and tenancies. ACME guaranteed occupation of such property by artists who would, by their very presence, act as guardians against further dilapidation (and arsonists) and contribute to the halting of the social decline in economically depressed areas of London – notably East and South-East London. Property owners were also guaranteed that ACME’S artists would vacate the premises when required. These arrangements succeeded and contributed substantially to the regeneration of London’s Docklands (well before the London Docklands Development Corporation was ever thought about) and to what have become extremely successful commercial developments along the East London Corridor.

Given this high degree of creativity, business acumen and experience it was not surprising in the least that ACME achieved a National Lottery Award of £1.2 million earlier this year, via the Arts Council of England, to facilitate its most exciting project to date: the purchase and development of a former Fire Station in Gillender Street, London E14 and the purchase and completion of the conversion of ACME’S operational base at Copperfield Road, London E3. The total project costs are £1.8 million, and ACME has successfully raised the difference. Copperfield Road provides 48 non-residential studios together with ACME’S main office. The Fire Station project is a major advance, and provides an opportunity for ACME to secure its services to artists permanently, not only for those it currently assists, but for many thousands into the future.

Their recent successes not only represent the fruits of ACME’S labours over the past quarter century, but also herald the imminent achievement of two of its principal long-term aims: to purchase buildings in London to supplement, and ultimately replace, the temporary artists’ studios with permanent and accessible properties and to develop combined work and living studios for fine artists at low-cost rents. If the Fire Station is a measure of what artists have in prospect, the London landscape should see and benefit from many more such cultural properties: it offers 12 fully accessible work/live studios and six non-residential studios. The scheme has been widely advertised and promoted to artists aged 25 or over throughout the UK. The first intake of the three-year residencies (at rents of £60 per week fixed for the three years) are: Edward Allington, Helena Ben Zenou, Gillian Blease, Paul Burwell, Martin Creed, Permindar Kaur, Kypros Kyprianou, Mary St James, Lindsay Seers, Virgil Tracy, Barbara Tyrrell and Joanna Woodward. Moreover, Tyrrell, Woodward and Burwell have been awarded three-year buisaries of £5,000 per year and rent-free spaces. These have been made possible with additional support from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Arts Council of England, with at least one of the bursaries being awarded to an artist with disability. The selection was made on the basis of proven need and the potential benefit from the opportunity offered.

All involved deserve congratulations on this remarkable and successful endeavour; and it is hoped that ACME’S work continues to flourish and develop long into the next millennium. For further information contact: ACME, 44 Copperfield Road, London E3 4RR . Tel 0181 981 6811.

© Henry Lydiate 1998



This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.