Dialogue: Albion Row Studios

Albion Row Studios is Newcastle’s newest artist studios, built from scratch in a characterful ex-industrial building (the birthplace of Domestos, apparently) in the city’s east end in 2023. Founding members Hannah Christy, Sabina Sallis and Maya Wallis talk to us about the changing face of the city’s studio spaces, sustainable artistic communities and what it means to be in Byker.

ANNE: Could you say something about how and why Albion Row Studios was formed? 

Albion Row Studios: Albion Row Studios was initiated as a response to contemporary realities of artistic production, to multiple studio closures across the city, and as a desire to experiment with modes for sustainable practice and community-building. The project is headed by Hannah Christy, Sabina Sallis and Maya Wallis, who came together when all in need of a studio space.  

ANNE: The studios are in Byker, in the east end of Newcastle. How did you find the space? Did you consciously want to look at the east end or was it just a case of finding an empty space wherever it was?

Albion Row Studios: Hannah came across the building complex we’re now part of while looking for a studio sublet.  Andy from the nearby studio Testhouse introduced her to our landlord, which got the ball rolling. We initially looked around a smaller space until seeing the space we are in now. We were instantly impressed and excited by the size of the unit and the amazing light. 

We immediately could see the potential for large, light studios and an opportunity to build a community of artists. In a way it feels coincidental — we weren’t actively looking to start a new studios space but rather were driven, like so many artists, to find adequate workspace.  

ANNE: Do you feel as though the location, in Byker, might influence the studios and vice versa?

Albion Row Studios: The location was a pull for us, as both Maya and Hannah live in the area and Sabina’s kids go to school nearby. The majority of studio members also live in the East End. We felt it was important for the studios to have a proximity to the city centre and to the other artist studios in the city. 

We are sensitive to the location and are aware of the gentrification and urban development that is beginning in Byker, and are thinking about our role within this. We are conscious that the site might feel very different at the end of our three-year lease, and are thinking about how we can secure some longevity.  

ANNE: After Commercial Union House was earmarked for demolition, the large artist community that had been based in the city centre was displaced. Do you think this has changed the character of the city, or altered the way in which artists work — and what do you think might be the positive implications of this displacement?

Albion Row Studios: It is apparent that the city centre is lacking the presence of an art community. The demolition of Commercial Union House has changed the city, and a lot of artists are now without space, or are commuting further afield to find studios. There is an uncertainty that artists will be able to occupy space within the city centre again, especially in the way that studios such as Northern Charter were collectively run, with little or no external funding. 

It is hard to think of the positive implications of displacements: maybe that with more artists looking for space, there may be more drive to start their own initiatives. It would be great to see smaller projects pop up throughout the city. It would be fantastic to see more diversity within artist-led projects with small groups of artists running different spaces, even if just temporarily. It would be great to see more of a variety of smaller DIY cultural projects, rather than artists in the city being forced into dependency on larger institutions or a few heavily-subscribed studios.

ANNE: It’s primarily a workspace, of course, but a key part of the studios is the social / meeting space. What prompted you to include that and how do you see it functioning in future — for meetings and co-working between studioholders alone, or might you think about events too?

Albion Row Studios: Our aim is to primarily give people space to do their work, to develop their practice, and to socialise with other members to converge a diversity of perspectives and ideas across artistic fields. Having a shared space within the studio is essential to building a strong community. It is also needed in practical terms — somewhere to make coffee and eat your lunch! 

As a group we are interested in the way we can create ‘a venue’, to engage with the public and provide an opportunity to discuss complex and challenging themes. 

We have just hosted our first opening event and have begun to discuss future events and use of the communal space. There is definitely a wish to engage the public, through events and possibly exhibitions, but also the need to respect studio members and recognise that this is their workspace. We don’t want to interrupt that. 

ANNE: When you were planning the studios, were there particular exemplars around the North East or further afield that you looked to as a model for the sort of structure – physical and organisational – you’d like to adopt?

Albion Row Studios: All of us were members of different art organisations in the past. The initial modelling was inspired by the first NewBridge Project and The Northern Charter [a studios and project space which existed until 2021 at Commercial Union House in Newcastle city centre] and our experiences of being members of those projects. We believe firmly in collaboration and value co-operative governing principles of shared responsibility, transparency and care. 

There is a longstanding tradition of self-organisation in Newcastle and we were inspired and also supported by these organisations as we first got started. We tried to gather as much information as possible and spoke with Rebecca Huggan at The NewBridge Project and Sam at  The Lubber Fiend and looked at the organisational framework of The Northern Charter. We also spoke with Serf in Leeds and received very valuable advice on how to constitute ourselves. We are immensely grateful for everyone’s generosity of time and knowledge. 

In more practical terms we also were so grateful to receive advice from architects Nicola Hem and Ian Mellish as well as Joseph Sallis who oversaw the studio build with our members. 

We are still learning as things go, we haven’t even been open a year yet, so meeting with studio members and hearing from them about how they would like things to operate feels important. We are very open to change and experimenting with organisational structures, but return to those core collective principles.    

ANNE: What are your hopes for the future? What would you like to see the studios become?

Albion Row Studios: We hope to remain consistent with the ethos of artist-led spaces, operating within an appropriate scale. In terms of experimenting with what this venue can be, we would like to follow an organic process. It would be interesting to look for affinity between practices of the members and to consider how we build the studios together. 

At the moment we believe that offering workspaces and immediate community is the most radical and necessary thing we can do now to face an uncertain future. We are committed to providing comfortable and affordable studio spaces with longevity. We value the connected nature of the artist network in Newcastle and want to find ways to bolster this. 

ANNE: It’s impressive that you’re meeting that uncertain future with so bold and principled a vision, and is exciting to have a new artist-led studios space in the region. Thank you for talking with us, and good luck with the next year as you live with and consolidate your new space.

About the contributors

Hannah Christy is interested in spaces and contexts which facilitate shared experience, be that conceptual, social or bodily. Her work uses photography, installation and text to communicate sensation and feeling. With Sabina Sallis and Maya Wallis, Hannah runs Albion Row Studios. This project provides a specific and necessary space to think about the structures which enable strong artist communities. Alongside this, she works as Assistant Curator at the Farrell Centre, developing the public programme.

Sabina Sallis is a speculative and trans-disciplinary artist, researcher, and educator, working across multiple media. She conducts her art as a sustainable land practice concerned with world-building, engagement with plants, healing and cosmology. Sabina holds an MA from the University of Arts in Poznan and a practice-based PhD from Newcastle University.

Maya Wallis works across text, performance and scanned image to expose hidden and private moments of pleasure. She is fascinated by everyday acts, such as dressing and listening to music, that bring joy, excitement, and bodily rushes. Maya studied Fine Art at Newcastle University and subsequently undertook the year-long Collective Studio at The NewBridge Project.

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