Joe Scotland

Joe Scotland is director of Studio Voltaire, the South London, non-profit exhibition space and artist studios based in Clapham. He joined as an artist, and has been at the organisation since 2003; he was appointed its inaugural director in 2010.

Studio Voltaire supports emerging artists and centres on creative experimentation. Some of the artists who have been championed by the organisation include Phyllida Barlow, Ella Kruglyanskaya, Cathy Wilkes, and Nairy Baghramian. Studio Voltaire commissions a wide range of participatory activities and projects working in collaboration with artists, local organisations, schools and community groups. First established in 2010, House of Voltaire works in parallel with Studio Voltaire. It operates biennially as a temporary store in Mayfair selling unique artworks, limited edition prints and objects by world–renowned contemporary artists and designers.

We catch up with Joe on Studio Voltaire’s expansion plans, its most recent commission programme and the urgent need for more studio space in London.

What’s your main priority and what’s the best part of your role?

A large part of my role is fundraising and income generation, and as our team grows I seem to spend more time managing and overseeing other people. It is important to try and strike a balance between these vital functions and the wider artistic strategy and programming. It should be an obvious thing to say, but working with artists (and their work) is the best part of my role. It changes how you think about things. 

Please tell us about the series of off-site exhibitions and commissions that are taking place while your permanent home is going through expansion plans.

For the first time ever, Studio Voltaire is presenting an ambitious year–long programme of offsite projects whilst we undertake The Studio Voltaire Capital Project. The programme celebrates a number of important commissions and projects in our organisation’s 25–year history. We have commissioned Nnena Kalu, Dawn Mellor, Phyllida Barlow and Monster Chetwynd to create new work for this significant series.

Studio Voltaire elsewhere is taking place in unusual and exciting venues across London and comes at a time when our permanent home in Clapham is undergoing a transformative £2.4 million redevelopment and we are closed to the public. 

Studio Voltaire elsewhere launches with a new commission by Nnena Kalu. For nearly 20 years, Nnena has been working within the artists’ studios at Studio Voltaire as a part of ActionSpace, an incredible organisation supporting artists with learning disabilities. The exhibition is taking place in a space just behind the Royal Academy in Mayfair and will be the artists’ first solo exhibition in London. Our elsewhere series will continue with a mural commission by Dawn Mellor in Kingsbury, a large–scale sculpture commission by Phyllida Barlow in a ruined chapel in Nunhead Cemetery, and a performance commission by Monster Chetwynd across sites in Clapham. It is an exciting opportunity to work with artists again, and also to present projects in some very unusual locations across London. 

Who do you follow and admire in modern and contemporary art? 

Matthew Higgs (Director of White Columns, New York) has been an important influence in my professional life. When I was starting out at Studio Voltaire in the early 00s, Matthew had taken up the role of Director at White Columns, the oldest alternative space in New York. His open approach to programming and approaches to fundraising, especially in those early days, really helped shape my thinking. I really enjoy working for a small/medium scale organisation – it feels like you have a lot more autonomy and less hierarchies to deal with.  

Can you talk us through the new Studio Voltaire please? When is it due to open?

The capital project will completely transform the amount of support we can offer artists, as well as expanding our wider offer to local and international audiences. Our old building had no proper heating and our roofs leaked terribly – which is obviously not ideal, especially for the artists who had studios there. 

When we reopen, we will not only have completely renovated our entire building but will also have 42% more studios with a new mezzanine level, providing high quality workspace to over 75 artists. This is a really fundamental aspect of the scheme. Artist’s are increasingly being priced out of the city and we are facing a very serious shortage of affordable workspace, with the capital losing 17% of studio space within the last three years. We are also introducing a communal studio, offering a much-needed, lower priced alternative. Some artists work from a desk or a laptop and want to benefit from the social aspects of a studio, but do not want a traditional style studio or the costs involved. The building scheme will also allow us to provide two artist’s apartments to house visiting artists and curators working within our programme onsite for the first time, as well as introducing new short-term residencies for international artists and curators. 

We’ll also have 233% more public space across the site, to allow for expanded exhibition and events programming. The scheme will create a dedicated learning and events space, a planted courtyard garden, café and the first-ever permanent House of Voltaire – our very popular shop selling artists’ editions and artworks. 

The scheme has received significant support from The Mayor of London, Arts Council England and Lambeth Council, as well as a number of generous patrons, trusts and foundations and artists. We are now in the final stages of fundraising and are due to open Studio Voltaire this winter.

How do you think the reopening of Studio Voltaire will affect the London network of exhibition spaces?

In the early stages of planning, when we were discussing our priorities and needs of the scheme, the question of adding another exhibition space naturally arose. We quickly came to the decision that this is not a priority. A lot of capital projects in London in the last ten years have focused on increasing the amount of exhibition spaces. The one thing that London really doesn’t need is more gallery spaces, and for our organisation it would have been simply unsustainable in terms of staff capacity and funding. 

Artists’ need safe and affordable spaces to work, that is the priority. I think our focus on supporting artists’ studios is part of the reason why we have had such a positive response from funders, supporters and advocates of the project. The scheme really responds to an urgent need in London right now. We need to provide more affordable, high quality studios, as well as the wider support structures to ensure a diverse range of artists can live and work in the city.   

On a local level, groups and individuals also need social and community spaces. In recent years, many dedicated spaces in our area have been closed due to cuts in funding and austerity policies, especially at local council level. We can play a modest, but important role in having new spaces for our local community. We have greatly increased the work that we do locally, with community groups, schools, colleges and health organisations. As well as having new and improved public spaces, our whole building and programmes will be more accessible and welcoming.

The greatest effect will be the way organisations like Studio Voltaire influence the wider contemporary arts ecology. We play a key role in supporting artists at a vital point in their practice, many of the artists we work with in our programme and projects are then given major support by larger institutions or galleries. 

The Studio Voltaire Capital Project offers an unprecedented opportunity to expand our support of artists, giving them greater opportunities and facilities. 

Looking back, what were the most significant moments of Studio Voltaire of the last three years?

It has been a pretty intense and busy few years for everyone Studio Voltaire. As well as continuing to expand our artistic programme, we have also been significantly gearing up for the capital project. Our need and desire for the project have been on the cards for quite a few years, but in the last three years it felt like there was a real change and we were being ushered into the next stage of our development. 

Studio Voltaire is still a relatively small operation, and it takes time to build up a reputation and meaningful relationships with funders and supporters. A significant confirmation of our role and reputation was an early grant of £500,000 from The Mayor’s Office for the project. This was the first (and largest) grant of public funding we received for the project and was transformational in levering other funds.

There was a special moment at last year’s Venice Biennale when Cathy Wilkes was representing the UK, and Charlotte Prodger, Scotland. We commissioned Cathy’s first institutional exhibition in London back in 2009, and Charlotte’s first solo exhibition outside of Scotland in 2012. Of course, it is not all about prizes and prestige, and it’s a rather crass way of measuring success, but it was certainly a lovely and proud moment for us to see international support and recognition for these important artists.

What’s your vision for the next phase of Studio Voltaire?

The most important thing about the Capital Project isn’t the physical building, it’s what it will enable us to achieve in our artistic programmes and the amount of support we can offer artists. In addition to upgrading the existing studios and creating new ones, we will be taking steps to support artists who are facing financial barriers or who have limited access to opportunities.  

One of the biggest problems with our industry is the lack of diversity, especially with those from different economic backgrounds. Personally, if I was trying to breakthrough into the art world now, I do not think I would have the opportunities I benefited from when I was younger; I’m not even certain I would have been able to go to university. It is really important that the art world is not just dominated by people who have benefited from a private education and wealthy parents. 

Recent exhibitions you have seen and liked?

Johanna Went at The Box in Los Angeles! A life affirming punk performance artist.