Blue Monkey Network: Judith Alder interview
31st Mar 2020
Blue Monkey Network is an artist network run by artists, in partnership with Towner Eastbourne. Founding member, Judith Alder, has coordinated the group throughout it’s 9-year history. We caught up with her as she was about to hand over the reins to fellow artist Steph Sutton.
Having lived in Eastbourne for most of her life, Judith began her arts career after studying for a BA in Fine Art Printmaking as a mature student. After graduating, Judith teamed up with three other Eastbourne-based mature graduates in 2003 and set up a shared studio space.
“We took over a small light industrial space and called it Blue Monkey Studio after the toy blue monkey we found there when we moved in. Blue Monkey Studio still exists today in the same location with two of the four original artists (and the blue monkey) still in situ”
“Having set up our studio, we wanted to try to get to know other artists in the area and began to hold occasional social events and open studios, and gradually gained support from various arts organisers locally who were keen to help create a more networked arts community in the area. Between 2003 and 2009 we organised various ad hoc events and exhibitions with artists we got to know over the years and were always amazed at the response we received and the number of artists who would appear at our events.
A significant point came in 2010 when the new Towner gallery opened in Eastbourne, and Director at the time, Matthew Rowe, invited us to set up an artists network on a more formal basis, to be run by us but in partnership with Towner, using the gallery and its resources as our base and with a presence on the Towner website”
“The suggestion was that we should set up as a membership organisation, with membership subscriptions helping to fund our activities. This is a model that we have continued since the beginning with a small annual membership subscription which allows members to attend our events free of charge and for which we offer a monthly newsletter of jobs and opportunities as well as our monthly events.
Our events are open to all artists, with those who are not members paying an entry fee, usually around £5. We held our first official Blue Monkey Network event at Towner in 2011 and have continued to organise monthly events ever since, with additional bespoke events, workshops and projects at times’.
“Over the past nine years our relationship with Towner has changed at times, as Directors and other staff have come and gone, but in principle the gallery has always taken a hands-off but very supportive role, offering help and advice when requested, but allowing us a completely free rein as far as content and format of our programme is concerned.
We are able to use the Towner Collection and exhibitions as a resource for our events and are given free use of regular meeting space and a visible presence on the Towner website for all of our events and activities. At times we have been invited to get more involved with the Towner programme, e.g. in 2011 we were able to put forward a small group of members to curate an exhibition from the Towner Collection, and there have been opportunities for our members to get involved in the practical side of installing exhibitions and assisting artists. A number of our members have also gone on to gain employment with Towner as artist/educators or gallery assistants.
As a model this arrangement has worked well for us. We have been able to remain autonomous, using the gallery and meeting spaces, Towner Collection and exhibitions programme as resources we can draw upon, while also introducing artists to each other and to Towner staff. Without the generosity of Towner offering all of these free resources, Blue Monkey Network would not exist in this form”.
Can you tell us about the members of the Blue Monkey Network and the type of practice they undertake?
“The range of practice in the Network is quite broad, with artists working across traditional and non-traditional media from painting and printmaking, ceramics and sculpture, to installation, film and performance.
We tend to have quite a few mature graduates who join us when they leave Brighton University looking for continuing development opportunities and seeking a community of peers and like-minded people. Part of our membership also consists of experienced artists who have been practicing for a substantial period – sometimes all their lives, but who juggle a personal practice with a teaching or portfolio career. This is a particularly interesting group with huge skills and knowledge to share but whose personal practice sometimes takes a circuitous route, perhaps drawn out over long periods and with continuity of thought and creative development often interrupted by the need to manage different strands of work to make a living.
A third group would identify as artists who have “given up” on the art world and use different skills to make a living but still maintain a serious, high quality but low profile practice. All of these people contribute to making an exciting, sometimes unorthodox mix with a variety of views and opinions! We also draw members from quite a large geographic area across Sussex including Brighton, Eastbourne, Hastings and more rural areas of Sussex. Membership tends to vary somewhere between 60 – 80 people, and we usually expect to see around 30 artists at our monthly events but our wider reach via social media is much greater – we have over 700 members in our Facebook group and links with arts organisations and artists groups across the South East’
“I think artists value the opportunity for conversation with other artists as much as anything – to compare notes, catch up on news and develop new partnerships and collaborations. But I think key to the longevity of the Network is the varied programme of events we offer which encompasses professional development along with intellectual and critical discussion and debate, often stimulated by what’s happening in the Towner programme and out of hours access to Towner’s exhibitions as well as members’ own activities.
A lot of our events are led by artist-members who use the opportunity of speaking at, or running an event as a way of developing and presenting their own research, or perhaps as a challenge to themselves to present their practice in a Pecha Cucha-style presentation, or to test out an idea or discuss a new project.
With the long history and growing success, we asked Judith which projects and partnerships stood out, looking back at Blue Monkey Network, to which Judith responded, “there have been a lot of great moments, usually created by someone using one of our events as an opportunity to test out a new piece of work or a new way of doing something – trying out an idea for a participatory workshop, or making a new performance in response to work in one of Towner’s exhibitions – there is always an air of excitement when someone is actually creating something new, live in the gallery space.
We’ve also had some great visiting speakers at times when we’ve had a bit of extra funding – one year we were able to welcome artists Mariele Neudecker and Stephen Turner as guest speakers. We’ve also worked in collaboration with other arts organisations including Matt Roberts Arts and Axisweb to run professional development programmes, but perhaps one of our stand-out projects was a two week developmental residency, Shared Space, which we were able to run for 6 artists in partnership with a private school, Eastbourne College, who allowed us to use their art school for the residency during the summer break”
What advice would you give artists interested in joining Blue Monkey Network, or perhaps forming their own network elsewhere?
“Come along! We’re very friendly and open. All artists are welcomed at our events and we constantly have new people coming along for the first time so we’re definitely not a closed group. We love to meet new artists and hear about all the exciting things people do and make and are constantly in awe of the enormous energy, diversity, knowledge and experience in our arts community. We feel so privileged to be able to share in it. Over the years it has been very gratifying to see new collaborations form and people have formed spin-off groups for the purposes of exhibiting or supporting each other’s development through crit groups etc. I believe that being part of an arts community is essential for artists in so many ways and my advice is that if you can’t find a ready made group or network, make your own! It’s surprisingly easy to begin to build a network – especially with all the online resources now available. It just takes four or five committed people who are determined to keep in touch and talk about their work and great things can sometimes grow from tiny acorns”
Finally, what is the most important way the visual arts sector can better support artists in the future?
“I think artists are constantly in desperate need of support that will help them to continue to develop. It is a constant battle to find opportunities for critical discourse appropriate to one’s stage of development, to get business and marketing support and advice, access expert technical help, and benefit from the sort of personal and artistic mentoring which helps artists move their practice on.
I think at this difficult time when financial investment is hard to come by and money is scarce, the arts sector can support artists by being open and generous; by offering to share resources, recycle used materials, open its doors to help artists learn from the experience of others, create opportunities for shadowing in all areas of the sector so that artists can better understand how organisations work and where they might fit in. Organisations can help by offering advice and expertise from all of their staff and associates, open up unused spaces for artists to use, treat artists as valued partners and collaborators and make it clear that we are all part of a mutually beneficial relationships”
To find out more about Blue Monkey Network and how to join, you can visit the website here.
Image Blue Monkey Network at Towner Eastbourne ©Rohan van Twest, courtesy of Towner Eastbourne