Ben Urban

Ben Urban, co-founder of Flatland, East Sussex shares how the organisation’s core values have shaped their artist development programmes, collaborative relationships and contributions to the cultural landscape in and around Bexhill.

I work to support artists and develop artists and it makes a lot of sense to me to make the curatorial voice or arts organisation voices as small as possible. It’s more about the artists and their development and their platform. That’s something that I think and hope has been a common thread throughout all our work since Flatland’s inception. 

Ben Urban

Flatland was founded in 2018 by myself (Ben Urban) and my schoolfriend Billy Stanley. After finishing our art degrees in London we both moved back to Hastings in 2017.

When we came back, we went to an opening in St Leonards on a Friday night and we both knew lots of people there from when we were at college but it didn’t feel like it was for us. It was for people who were already beavering away making it work and it didn’t feel as though there was space in the ecosystem for us.

We both liked making things happen and we said ‘let’s put on a couple of shows and bring people down from London; bring people that were on our art foundation back’. So, we did that and we found a space in the Source BMX park in Hastings which was cool and new at that time and really exciting as a complex to reactivate the promenade in Hastings.

Image: Ben Urban

At the time I don’t think we really thought about it that much but actually one of the key strategic moments in the organisation was that we were putting on contemporary art exhibitions from our palette of taste in South London and bringing it to Hastings but symbiotically, people from the ages of 10 to 20 were seeing contemporary art without noticing it. Our space had no wall between the gallery space and the BMX bowl so you  didn’t have to go into the gallery, you could just see what what was going on and think ‘that looks strange!’ or think ‘that looks really intriguing; I’ll go and take a closer look’.

I’m super conscious of bringing art into a place that’s primarily occupied by working class people and turning it into a middle class space. I’m very aware that the work that I do has to be really closely managed so that every time the class divide starts to do this (gestures a balance shift), we do this (gestures a levelling up reaction) we’re always doing a balancing act to make sure that the organisation never hits a point where it’s only for people moving down from London that can have to access it just because they’re used to accessing it and they’re used to the palette of the type of things that we’re trying to bring to the world. 

Carl Gent, Over the Fallow Flood, 2023, Flatland

When Covid hit and we left the Source, we had a valuable year to re-strategise and think about where we wanted to go after having the two and a half years pre Covid to really test what we were. At that time we were approached by Rother District Council to add some consultancy to an artists’ studio project. The funding wasn’t confirmed and we went along as the token artist-led organisation as we were the only ones at the time and we became really integrated into the steering group process for that building. The council very bravely put a lot of trust in us to consult and say what is really needed on the ground.

When we moved to Bexhill it was amazing that we were given this trust to say what’s really needed and why there needs to be a clearer infrastructure to make creative careers much more viable. That came about because of all the programming at the Source – with every bit of funding we secured we made sure that it had money in there to support artists to spend time either redeveloping existing work or making plans for the future.

Our Artist Support

Babalola Yusuf, performance at Flatland

We try and be quite reactive in terms of the mentoring we put in place. A good example would be that we’ve had a Young People’s residency for the last six months for six artists aged 18-25 based in or from East Sussex and the way we’ve chosen those mentors…

…I’m trying to redevelop the language around mentors and mentorship as it’s quite problematic and more about peer to peer learning….

…we invited artists and writers to come and talk to the group and we have ensured that we structure that as group work but equally as independent work. We invite an artist or writer to give a talk in the morning and then in the afternoon we’ll have a set of studio visits with the artists and we’ve been very clear on the language we use.

If we’re talking about an artist’s talk, it’s not a lecture, it’s an artist’s talk or it’s a seminar or a workshop. We’re trying to put language in place for how we treat the artists or how we see the artists in terms of their place within the organisation.

The artists on the YP studio programme take no less of the exhibition programme than an international artist like Tarek Lakhrissi, our last show. The next show will be the group show from the end of the YP residency and that’s not called the end-of-residency show! I believe one of our biggest strengths is that we try our very best to break down the hierarchies in modes of programming. 

Martin Cross, open studios at Beeching Road

The Local Network

The Cultural Coastal Trail connects Hastings to Eastbourne with Bexhill in the middle. We do a lot of work eastbound in Bexhill. We look to Eastbourne a lot because they are two very similar cultural environments.

Flatland is seemingly quite a small organisation but on any one day we can have 100 artists working in the building! We also have the De La Warr Pavilion and in Eastbourne they have Devonshire Collective which was originally a small artist-led organisation but has now taken a similar shift to our direction. They have Towner gallery so we work closely in dialogue across the two towns but that work’s really tied together.

When we originally bid for the role we worked really closely with Kim Byford who’s now the director of the Talent Accelerator programme which is an independent programme housed within the De La Warr Pavilion. The Talent Accelerator programme is the linking organisation between arts and cultural organisations, to schools and training, the Department of Work and Pensions etc. Talent Accelerator is the missing link that has never existed within coastal areas of deprivation and that feels so essential to the work we’re doing.

Rachel Irons, Flatland

When we moved to Bexhill we became the operators and cultural and curatorial lead for Beeching Rd studios which is a Rother District Council owned building and project. I’m chair of the studios and Flatland is the gallery space within the studios so we’re the lead organisation in public programming and artist development.

Kim is on the steering group for the studio building along with representation from DLWP and Rother District Council and together as a body of workers we really rely on our partnership working deeply to ensure that all of the cultural spaces in Bexhill are for everyone and for all the people that really need it.

For the first time, the studio development programme will be a co-delivered programme between myself and Joseph Constable, Head of Exhibitions at DLWP.

We will co-run that Artist Development programme and as two curatorial voices within the area will offer all of the mentoring to four artists over the year with 50% subsided studios and a mixture of visiting artists, curators and commercial gallerists. Alongside this we’re running the second iteration of our Curatorial Fellowship which is a six month programme for an emerging curator in the first five years of their career.

We both developed that fellowship on the basis that curatorial roles require experience and to get an Assistant Curator’s job it requires a year or two experience. It feels like it’s a really broken system when you have to have the experience to have the assistant’s role even if you’ve studied curation. Why not make those types of roles slightly more entry level to enable people to access them? You have people with PhDs applying for Assistant Curators jobs so we offered the curatorial fellowship as a means to test what the landscape is and to find out who needs it and we were inundated with applications from people who were way more qualified than me. We realised there’s a sector wide issue here; there’s no entry level opportunity for people to get a light touch understanding of how an arts organisation works.

Creating Cultural Communities

Carl Gent, Flatland

At Beeching Road Studios, we’re located in an industrial estate about a 2-5 min walk from Bexhill town centre and we’re directly opposite Screwfix and an electrical maintenance company and a broadband company; we’re right in the heart of peoples’ working lives.

How do we encourage people to come over the threshold of the building? When we first took over the contract to develop the blend of tenants on the building, that was a really important part of our thinking to almost neglect the question of how to get people over the threshold of the gallery. How do you bring people into a building that’s mainly for people to work internally in their studios? What types of organisations do you need in that building to give people entry points so that in six months time, they might go into the gallery?

We’ve got a lot of work to do with neighbouring areas with Bexhill. There’s an area called Sidley which is the neighbouring town to Bexhill. Sidley has really high level of social deprivation and the Pavilion and Rother District Council received a big proportion of the Levelling Up partnership money to support an organisation called Heart of Sidley to build a community hub. Geographically, Beeching Rd sits directly in the middle between Sidley and De La Warr Pavilion so we’re almost like a stepping stone to this international arts venue from this community that’s incredibly isolated in the region. Next year, in preparation for that build to start we’re really thinking about how we can put infrastructure in place to make sure we’re really connecting those isolated communities to the promenade because ultimately that’s where the taste of the town lies.

Jim Lineker, Under the Pomegranate Moon, Flatland

Bexhill is a really beautiful and exciting coastal town and having this incredible modernist piece of architecture on the promenade that potentially people that live under two kilometres away aren’t even accessing feels really alarming. That’s a huge part of the work we’re doing with Talent Accelerator and the building; to try to provide access to culture on a really non hierarchical and very open framework. We want to allow people the opportunity to try it and see whether it’s for them and do it without really having to do it; like by attending a ceramics workshop that’s enough and if that then develops into buying a book from the book bindery or taking one of our leaflets…

These things are slow progress in a place that has a community of people that really needs everything in terms of the visual arts and also an area of high social deprivation. Like my family growing up, maybe don’t have time or a real need to go to an art gallery and it’s kind of pompous for me to think that families need that. There’s the cost of living crisis going on and some people don’t need to go to these things.

As long as it’s a really viable option for people, we can show how culture can really support wellbeing and activate the place they live in and make it a place that they’re really proud to be in. I hope the work we’re doing particularly gives young people of the area this identity that where they’re from is a creative place and its a place that they see as showing them how you could become an artist or how being in the creative industries is really viable in Bexhill and that there’s support in place to make that possible for you. Whether that means that you don’t interact with us until you’re in your mid twenties or in your mid forties, the fact that people can see what we’re doing and it’s visible, that’s really important. 

Flatland launch party

Final Thoughts and Advice

I want people to ask me how I started because I would love for there to be ten Flatlands in Bexhill but equally I think it’s really important to know your demographic and to know who your audience is and to not try and do what other people are doing. Going back to what we said earlier, knowing what you do is really important and not changing what you’re doing because of what funding wants. Of course there’s means of shifting things slightly to address the values of the funders but that doesn’t mean it’s got to change the fabric of the work you’re doing because you know the place you’re working in the best.

I think it’s about being really clear and concise with the work that you want to do rather than trying to put on the best exhibitions programme because actually that’s not particularly what coastal regions or out of the city areas need. Often it’s really invested and considered work that really thinks about who the people are that you’re going to work with and what they’re going to do in the near and distant future – that’s what I think is really important for arts organisations to consider.

For more information about Flatland and Beeching Road Studios visit their website here.

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