Dialogue: The Spaghetti Factory

Despite being neither a factory nor having any ostensible relationship with pasta, artist-led initiative The Spaghetti Factory has been productive over the last five years, creating everything from exhibitions in domestic spaces to commissions on billboards and wide-ranging open-call shows. We talk with Eve Cromwell and Jenny McNamara, the two halves of The Spaghetti Factory, about yellow walls, grassroots structures, and the virtues of being parasitic.

ANNE: The Spaghetti Factory originally started with a series of eight one-night solo shows in your house. Was this the original impetus to start it, or did you always have your eye on a longer-term project? 

Eve Cromwell: It’s always quite weird. It’s one of those things that changes each time we talk about it!

Jenny McNamara: I go through phases of taking The Spaghetti Factory really seriously, and then getting too busy in life: thinking, I can’t do this any more; I don’t have the time! And then I love it again and want to build it up.

EC: I think a lot of it started because we’d graduated from Sunderland, and then we moved to Newcastle and didn’t really know the arts scene as well. 

JM: We moved to City Road [in Newcastle upon Tyne], three streets back from the quayside. It was a really good place to live. 

EC: A lot of it was about that. But we’d always talked about the idea of doing something a bit grassroots and ad hoc beforehand, in Sunderland. We just liked the idea of doing projects in this DIY way, having seen Slugtown and knowing it could be possible.

JM: We lived together when we were undergraduates in Sunderland too. There was an abandoned house across the street from us, and we’d talked about doing something in there — but then it burned down.

ANNE: Nothing to do with you, though?

JM: Haha, no. But the house in Sunderland we lived in was really old-fashioned and badly decorated, so we didn’t feel we could do anything there. When we moved, it was to somewhere nicer, so we thought, now we can do it.

ANNE: It was at the same time as Slugtown?

EC: They started a few years before us, I think, because we were going to Slugtown shows when we still lived in Sunderland. But in Sunderland there was a thing we used to go to called Solo Arts, in a pub or nightclub, and that was the only thing that existed there. We just liked the idea of trying to make something of our own in a more casual or fun way. We had a lecturer called Jeff (Sarmiento) and he told us before we graduated that the most important thing you can do is go to shows and meet people, so I think we were on a mission to do that.

ANNE: So you mounted the shows yourself, and met people that way?

EC: Yeah. 

ANNE: If you’d have wanted to establish a space that wasn’t in your home, do you feel as though you’d have been able to at that time — would you have found a way? Or was it a case of just doing it in whatever way you could?

EC: Space was hard to get. We’ve been through so many ways of trying to get hold of exhibition space. We got to know Dan Goodman and System Gallery when we’d just moved here, and it has been a really good relationship.

JM: That space was above a pub called Bar Loco, and very DIY. It was great. We got the sense from going to his shows that he did things really quickly. He almost always said yes to people’s proposals.

EC: When he lost System’s space, we went into a big thing of trying to find space through the council in an empty shop…

ANNE: With him?

EC: Yeah, we looked into it. But it died as an idea really quickly. We were looking at empty shops for a while…

JM: …we went to Durham to talk to Empty Shop.

EC: Yeah. Dan lost the room above Bar Loco when we were moving out of our house, so that partly was responsible for us thinking about finding a space.

ANNE: Were you consciously responding to a need or a gap of some sort, or – at least at first – just doing something you were interested in?

JM: A bit of both, I think. A large part of it for us was getting to know artists in Newcastle. We were going to lots of exhibition previews, getting to know people. But we focused specifically on recent graduates; people who hadn’t had solo shows before. It’s hard to get that first show after university, and those first two years after you graduate can be so tough. You’re getting used to being out of uni and getting some idea of what it means to be a professional artist. 

For Spaghetti Factory shows we’d meet artists in a pub to chat about their work. Sometimes we’d do studio visits. It was nice to be able to put some time and attention into it.

EC: It was a really big goal of ours, that we wanted to have met the artists first, properly discussed their work, to have visited them in their studios.

JM: We wanted it to feel useful for them — especially because the project wasn’t funded and we couldn’t pay them.

EC: There was a lot happening in Newcastle. It wasn’t that I felt there wasn’t enough activity. Especially having moved from Sunderland: at the time there was nothing happening there (there are plenty of new things popping up at the moment — we don’t want to diss Sunderland!). We wanted to join that activity, and to focus on new graduates.

You’d just started your Masters, Jenny, but I think I felt a bit lost after graduating: I wasn’t in education any more; I went for open calls for shows and so on, but I felt a bit, ughh.

ANNE: There aren’t many structures that offer that kind of support or exposure to recent graduates. 36 Gallery is important. But it points to a lack of project spaces: I feel we need more ‘pure’ project spaces — spaces to experiment. 

JM: There’s the little project space at The NewBridge Project.

AP: Yes, though you have to be an Associate Member to use it, don’t you?

EC: You can rent it I think, but yes, if you’re an Associate Member I think you can use it for three days for free [for more information, e-mail Ruby Glover at The NewBridge Project].

ANNE: What made you decide to create a separate identity in this way, rather than work under your own names? Did you decide to create a structure for yourselves that wasn’t you-as-you? And on that subject, where does the name come from?

EC: Maybe. I always thought of it as us naming a space.

JM: We didn’t put too much emphasis on it at the beginning. It was more important to just start doing it.

EC: And I think it would’ve been a bit funny to have it as us: ‘Eve Cromwell and Jenny McNamara Present’!

ANNE: You could’ve sold it to people as a kind of old-money London gallery.

JM: Haha, yes! Eve designed our posters, and still does. Its visual identity was a big part of it. Pasta, shapes — and later on we did do some pasta workshops. That helped to form our identity. We used to do these really long poster walks around Newcastle, putting them up everywhere.

EC: And no-one ever came because of the posters.

ANNE: Do you know that, though?

EC: I don’t know, actually!

JM: I do! Because we asked people. We did a survey at one of our house shows.

ANNE: Though you can’t count the people who saw your posters and didn’t come, but the posters lodged in their mind; they remembered you and came to the next show!

JM: Yes, that’s true!

ANNE: And what about the name? Was it from the pasta workshops, or did they come later? 

JM: It was from a sculpture that I made a few years ago, for my degree show: stripy lines and reflection in water. There was a pedal which allowed you to disturb the water and move it. It was inspired by a building. We went on a student placement, and I saw this building with bright sun on it, which gave me the idea. 

It was quite a frustrating sculpture, because it only worked with the right light conditions. If it had full sun on it, it’d get really good reflections, otherwise it didn’t really work that well. Anyway, we just liked the name. But we do often get mixed up with The Biscuit Factory and Alphabetti Theatre.

ANNE: Maybe you should do a deal — some sort of weird fusion of the three?

EC: Some sort of performance. 

JM: We were going to do a performance for The Late Shows a few years ago. We’d arranged to have a pasta chef to teach us how to properly make pasta, but it was cancelled because of Covid.

The yellow wall has followed us around as well. One of the artists who did one of the shows in our house painted the wall in his MA show yellow, and in two venues we partnered with – Sunderland Museum and Middlesbrough Art Weekender – there were yellow walls. 

EC: With Middlesbrough Art Weekender, we didn’t even ask for a yellow wall. They just provided it!

JM: Yellow was the only colour we could all agree on in our flat, too.

ANNE: You’ve always been keen to work with artists early on in their careers. What do you feel the North East looks like in terms of opportunities for emerging artists? Is this a place people can stay in and build a career? If you want to, you could think about how it’s changed.

JM: It’s hard to be an artist, to keep on making. I could go and work in a corner shop and have a much easier life than trying to be an artist. It’s my passion and I love it, but it’s so hard. There are so few paid opportunities to make and be creative.

ANNE: But those are all things that make it hard to be an artist anywhere. You could say in London, the pay-off is that it’s relatively easy to be an artist if you’ve got the money. It’s relatively more difficult to live there, but there are more opportunities for artists, perhaps. Maybe the difference in the North East, or any region outside of London, is that it can be cheaper to live here but there are relatively fewer opportunities, of course.

JM: I think if you’re wealthy, it’s probably easy to be an artist anywhere.

ANNE: It’s easy to be anything anywhere if you’re wealthy.

EC: I would say that finding an art-related job in the North East is quite difficult, as there are fewer opportunities here. But the art scene in the region is actually really nice. Everybody is really supportive. It’d be nice to have more studio space, but for a relatively small city, it’s not bad. There are massive waiting lists, but there’s a good community. 

I don’t know if there are as many paid opportunities as elsewhere, but there are a lot of things I’ve seen recently which specify that they are for North East-based artists. There are opportunities in Leeds, too, for northern artists. There’s a sense of things happening that are for the north, and I feel glad that I can apply for those opportunities. 

It’s not as competitive. There is competition but it doesn’t feel competitive, somehow, and I think everybody feels very well-supported. There are decent resources for those who need them. The NewBridge Project offers how-to support around doing your taxes and writing applications, for example. 

JM: Yes, that’s true, there’s an ecology of support here. 

ANNE: Of course it’s a given that it’s hard whatever you’re doing and wherever you’re doing it. Eve, you mentioned it being hard to find an art-related job: is that something that’s desirable for you, to find work that’s relevant to your practice? Or could you also envisage that there’s perhaps also an advantage in holding something that’s totally separate, and that you can walk away from at the end of the day? I know people who do both. I can imagine the tension of working in an arts organisation and maintaining an art practice — but conversely, you might find that your brain atrophies, having an admin job in a totally different sector. 

JM: Researcher Susan Jones wrote about the income difference between artists and ‘art-adjacent’ salaried workers. It’s like night and day. Even to get into that job market is so competitive, they’re so few and far between. From my own experience, being in an art job the past year, there’s always that balance between having a better income yet less time to devote to your practice. I don’t know anyone who has got the balance right and is happy with it.

EC: Yeah, it is hard. I feel like I’m never going to be a famous artist now! So then you start thinking about careers in institutions, or whatever. It’s really hard. 

JM: And I don’t feel I have the skills. With a lot of jobs I see, I feel as though I’d have to retrain — to get a non-art job, that is. 

ANNE: So the ideal for you would be Universal Basic Income

JM: They’re doing that in Ireland!

ANNE: They are. The only thing I wonder about with that is whether ethically it works in isolation to single out artists. If you’re saying, agency nurses, you have to work for £10 ph but artists have UBI. I agree with it in principle. It will be interesting to see how it’s working in Ireland, being selective in this way.

EC: I agree that it should be applied across the board.

JM: In the Structurally F_cked report [into artists’ pay and working conditions, published by sector organisations a-n and Industria], that was one of their outputs — that it shouldn’t only be for artists.

ANNE: I agree, otherwise you split your own argument. 

EC: There are lots of things that a lot of people want to pursue outside of their jobs or careers. They should also be allowed to pursue these things.

JM: Strike a Light, a small arts organisation, brought together 12 funding partners – some arts, some community businesses – to employ three full-time artists for a year on a proper PAYE salary, just to be artists, trusted to do good in the community but without set outputs. It’s happening at the moment. I’m really excited about that model.

ANNE: And there are UBI trials in the North East aren’t there?

JM: Yes, in Jarrow and London, but with only 15 people in each place.

ANNE: Presumably it’s designed as a test, to try out the model and see what works. But that’s pretty exciting.

EC: I think it’s a university thing, not a government thing. But imagine being told that you’ve got that. 

ANNE: It’s about seeing the shift, isn’t it? That’s what will be so fascinating: what do people do when they’re not having to think about putting bread on the table? They’d do all sorts of things — and all sorts of good in society, I’m sure. And you can measure those things, presumably, and go some of the way towards quantifying in hard terms the benefit of UBI. 

EC: Yeah. Because I’d love to volunteer. I can’t wait to retire!

ANNE: Ah, yes, it’s the dream. Apart from the fact that you won’t be able to until you’re 80, toothless and penniless. 

Anyway, you work directly with artists, but have also delivered projects with organisations: Sunderland Museum, Middlesbrough Art Week. What do you think the benefit is of an artist-led structure — and how might your work have been different if you were working from within a more formal organisational framework?

EC: I think Middlesbrough Art Week is just so good. They run everything as it should be run. They just accept what you’re doing and trust you to get on with it. Newcastle Contemporary Art is like that too.

ANNE: And the hallmarks of both those organisations is that they’re not regularly funded. You have to have the right ethos in the first place, of course, but it’s more possible to be flexible and artist-centred if you don’t have the strictures that regular funding can impose. 

Our recent Q&A with Liam Slevin recently touched on this. Unfortunately, the way that funding works at the moment, it seems you can’t have both. I don’t see why you shouldn’t have both, but…

JM: Why do you think that regular funding changes organisations?

EC: Because you have all sorts of targets, don’t you? 

JM: You have to put in a business plan. Why can’t you write a business plan that centres on remaining experimental, on putting trust in people? 

EC: Because with that trust, there’s also risk.

ANNE: You’re right, it’s about risk: you have to have the right governance model, and risk needs to be managed. You can’t do something totally open-ended, because the outputs and outcomes are harder, or impossible, to measure. So you get tied up in knots. I think it’s possible for a very clever organisation, with enough clout with Arts Council England – as in, they’re important enough to ACE to not be at risk of de-funding – to do things their own way as far as possible. But most organisations are effectively at the end of a piece of a string.

If you look at organisations which have transitioned from unfunded or project-funded to regularly-funded, one obvious change that they share is the often massive increase in the number of staff members. And then you have to report on everything, and that reporting is a job in itself. A lot of activity is gauged around how it can be reported against.

EC: Funders are also less likely to want to fund you to do something that might fail, because it has to be reported against. 

ANNE: Yes, that’s true. If people were enabled to at least embrace the possibility of failure, it follows that they might have better ideas in the first place. And then if they failed, they’d have a better chance of how to fix it. Rather than start with something so timid that it can’t fail. 

JM: And something that’s being duplicated by several other organisations at the same time. I don’t know why you can’t trust people based on their track record and past experience. If they’ve run all sorts of incredible projects in the past, why isn’t that enough? 

EC: It’s something that Dan Goodman says: you have to start from scratch every time.

ANNE: To go back to the question, from working with organisations, I imagine in some senses it throws into contrast what you’re doing from an artist-led point of view. Have you had instances, working with organisations, where you’ve felt the benefits of working as an artist-centred structure?

JM: A hundred per cent. 

EC: Working with organisations is so slow! It sucks all the fun out of it. And then there’s always this expectation to grow, do more, expand. We found that a lot of the time, the larger the institution, the more boring it becomes. 

JM: Things could happen so quickly in our flat, that was what kept it exciting. It was so snappy. A lot of the people we’ve worked with in institutions are overworked themselves and don’t have time for us. They just end up saying no, no, no to everything we ask!

EC: With Now That’s What I Call Art 3 in Middlesbrough, The Auxiliary didn’t really have the time either — but the difference was that they just let us get on with it. 

ANNE: That refers back to something you said before, about trust. That seems like the key word to me: they trusted you to do what you said you were going to do. 

EC: Yeah, definitely. There is a lot more red tape with larger institutions, too. We’ve had to put barriers in front of work, do endless risk assessments… 

ANNE: It changes your stance, as well, doesn’t it, how you approach doing something in the first place. If you’re more stiff and guarded from the start, it’s going to colour the project.

EC: Yeah. And then you get into this kind of treadmill. Sometimes we think to ourselves, we want to go back to doing fun things that are really ad hoc.

JM: A conversation we’ve had on and off for several years is about space; about whether we want to get a space. We’ve gone back and forth, but I think the answer is no, really, as we’ve seen the toll it takes, having to get funding, staffing, it takes all the fun out of it. It works much better for us to partner with people with spaces, work together for a while, part ways, and then do something else.

EC: We’re parasites!

ANNE: The parasitic model is a good one. And it means you can be defined by the sum of your parts: you can shift shape accordingly.

EC: Yeah, which is nice, because it means we can experiment, and then reflect back and think, well, we won’t do that again, or to go back and work in a different way.

ANNE: More recently, you’ve worked closely with System (Dan Goodman) on what has quickly become a well-known and liked format for an exhibition series, Now That’s What I Call Art, an ‘open invitation’ show, with two editions in Newcastle, and one in Middlesbrough. Can you say something, first, about how and why you created this?

EC: A lot of it was down to Dan, to be honest. Dan was invited by NCA and then asked us to join him.

JM: I remember, I was in Gallagher & Turner, and he’d just had a meeting about it, and turned up at the gallery and said, will you help with this?

Then we got together, the three of us, and chatted about how it might work.

EC: Now That’s What I Call Art is Dan’s agenda.

JM: But talking about being experimental, it was so exciting, the first one, because it was experimental. Out of the three of us, that first time, I was the most scared. I had a hard time giving up control, not knowing what work was going to turn up. I was worried it was going to look like a car boot sale! Looking back, that’s so funny, because I quite like car boot sales. 

EC: I like car boot sales more than galleries.

ANNE: Well, you get more visitors.

JM: We planned six install days but we had to cancel the last three because it filled up so quickly, and it was just crazy. All of us were there for all of the install days, and it was just constantly busy.

EC: We didn’t know who was going to turn up or when. But it was so nice to meet so many people. A lot of the people, it was their first piece of work they’d ever shown anywhere. That feels like the root of the project, and it’s what’s exciting about it.

JM: Yes, we met so many people. People were hanging around, helping each other to put up their work. 

EC: But then we changed it slightly so that we didn’t collapse trying to put it all up.

ANNE: Is this a format you’ll continue to work with — and develop further? 

JM: Yes, there’s another one planned, but we can’t say anything more about that yet!

The last exhibition had some good events accompanying it too. There was a crit, an event with Artists’ Union England, and Jess Roper from a-n came to talk about the Structurally F_cked report.

We might try going for Arts Council support for the next show. We might also try to include other venues. We think for the next one we’ll shake up the format a little, too, so that it keeps it interesting for us: we’ll add a new factor to the experiment.

ANNE: You could introduce other elements which play on the bring-your-own format: a film night, karaoke…

JM: Dan loves karaoke!

ANNE: Well, you can have that one for free! Anyway, you’re both artists. How do you balance the needs of your own practices with those of your collaborative work as the Spaghetti Factory? Is it a juggling act, or do you find that the two complement each other?

EC: I haven’t made any of my own work this year so far, because I’ve been working on Spaghetti Factory projects, alongside working four days a week in my day job, which is very frustrating, and I don’t really like the situation, but at the same time it’s better to be busy.

JM: You made the box for RePUBlic Gallery.

EC: Oh yeah. I made one thing this year!

It is hard, but I don’t resent Spaghetti Factory work.

JM: I feel the same. I find it really hard to find the time to make work. Admin really sucks me in. I like working with a-n, but it takes some of my time.

EC: You have it worse, to be honest. I’m a bit crap with Spaghetti Factory. A lot of the work is admin, and I think I’m a bit rubbish at that. I just make the posters!

JM: You know that cheesy quote, ‘If you don’t start building your dream, you’ll find yourself building someone else’s’? I feel like that’s what happens. It’s good to remind myself how much I like doing Spaghetti Factory work. I don’t look forward to writing a funding application, but it’s quite exciting to think we might have some autonomy over future direction.

EC: Sometimes you come to resent it, but the idea of being able to pay ourselves to deliver several shows is really great.

JM: What makes me annoyed is salaried people sort of acting like they understand what it’s like to work as an artist. I find myself in situations like this all the time. Unless you’re a maker working freelance now, I don’t think you can understand in the same way.

There are ‘arts-adjacent’, business-type people (a lot with backgrounds in  economics, business, english, history) responsible for arts funding and deciding what to do with it, but artists are not involved in the process at all. They’ve never been an artist, and now they’re in a position making decisions that affect artists.

ANNE: Unless of course they’re far-sighted, and their background helps them to empathise with artists and bring a different perspective to the process. I would say that there’s something to be said for having people from different disciplines arriving at intersections where they can be helpful: they understand the problems artists face regardless of whether or not they have lived them. 

JM: Yeah, that’s true.

I’m trying to think about things I can make faster, in shorter amounts of time. Collage instead of sculpture, drawing instead of installation. Scaling down so I can continue.

ANNE: Well, the last question is about the future. What’s next for you? Is there anything you want to add about things you’re working on together, or is it an unknown at the moment.

JM: We were going to do something for Manchester Contemporary with another artist-led collective, but they couldn’t make it. 

EC: It’s perhaps for the best because it would’ve stretched us a lot.

JM: I’d be interested to return to that though: working with other artist-led collectives.

EC: My big goal is always just to do some sort of mad skip gallery — pulling up to a parking spot and putting on an exhibition there.

JM: Someone at the conference I was at recently did that, in Vienna.

EC: Stuff like that, anyway. That’s what I’m interested in.

JM: Yes, DIY.

We actually don’t do an awful lot of chats like this, planning the Spaghetti Factory’s ‘strategic direction’! Sometimes we see an opportunity come up, and we think, we should apply for that. And that pushes us onto the next thing.

EC: It ends up being us just bumbling around.

JM: Sleepwalking! Haha.

ANNE: Bumbling is good, though. A good mode.

JM: We did studio visits for a while, and I really liked that. Then with Newcastle College, twice we taught an exhibition practice module for second-year students, and set them a brief. I’d like to do that kind of thing again. In the future I’d love to take a group of artists away for a residency — have lots of workshops and time to talk to each other.

ANNE: Like a retreat?

JM: Yes. Not one they have to pay for though.

EC: A lot of our joint work arose because we originally went to Mallorca together. We just want to go on holiday!

ANNE: Haha. It makes sense as a model, though, taking the kernel of what you liked working on together, the two of you, and expanding that outwards to still focus on the same ingredients: bringing artists together, having conversations, learning from one another. 

Eve and Jenny, thank you very much for the conversation, and good luck with all to come!

About the contributors

Jenny Mc Namara is an artist/designer from Dublin, living in Newcastle. She’s obsessed with pattern and colour, and works across a range of media including LED light and sculpture. She has been awarded public funding by Arts Council England to support the development of her work.

Jenny is also an arts organiser and since 2018 has run The Spaghetti Factory with Eve Cromwell, which aims to support early career artists in the North East. She was until recently the grassroots artist representative for The Clayton Street Corridor (a new cultural creative zone in development in Newcastle), and Producer for Communities at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. She is currently vice-chair of a-n Artist Council 2022-2025, and a board member for Round Lemon (an artist led organisation based in Birmingham).

Evelyn Cromwell is an artist living in North East England. After completing a degree in Glass and Ceramics in 2017, Eve enjoys making functional sculpture and experimenting with various materials, with a particular focus on wood and plastic. She’s also one half of The Spaghetti Factory.

Eve’s studio practice embraces the constraints that design offers, and she views her work as props or sets for an imagined world. She is interested in how society shapes, is shaped by, and reflected in specific objects. Her work allows viewers to reflect on the significance of the mundane, acknowledging that the things we use, throw away and create will one day become artefacts of our culture.

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