For the last three years a group of local artists and craftspeople has organised an exhibition at the Tunnel Gallery at Tonbridge School called ArtSpring. Each time a disparate group of artists would turn up with work, there would be bedlam for a few hours and then a coherent exhibition would begin to emerge. After three editions it felt as though that format might have run its course. In November 2015 we had the opportunity to take a shop on The Pantiles in nearby Tunbridge Wells as a pop-up. The success of that ignited a dream that we might be able to organise something more permanent.
Four of us started meeting and tried to hammer out a plan, with yours truly focussing on the financial aspects. We knew that in the past few years the demographic of Tonbridge had changed. New apartments and houses had been built, a significant population was relocating from London and the town was starting to support a number of more individual shops. On a trip to scout out possible retail premises there was a chance encounter with the owner of an empty shop.
The first stage was to find out if enough artists and craftspeople were interested in the concept. Everyone who had been involved in the previous events, and a few more besides were invited to a presentation. Ideas were floated, opinions gathered, and the feedback was generally positive.
Our legal advisor told us that even a group of people sitting round a kitchen table had effectively formed a partnership and that it was best to get it on a formal footing. Incorporation seemed like a big step. On the other hand contracts for property are not set up for loose associations. In the end we formed Tonbridge Art Collective, which is a type of association with a formal constitution. The contract for the premises was signed by three people (including me) who do bear personal responsibility. This was made acceptable by taking a one year licence rather than a lease. This gives us the flexibility to test out the concept by operating for a year.
Whilst we had hoped to make rapid progress, almost inevitably the legal formalities slowed things down. As a result we were not able to meet our original plan of opening in May, and with most of the members also preparing for SEOS we had to delay. Even so, the contract started on the first of June and the race was on to open in early July.
As the opening approached it was clear that we were cutting it fine. Like any project, complete perfection is unattainable. We had planned a soft opening with a few days to trial our processes before we were officially open. Invitations has been sent out, Prosecco and nibbles ordered and we still didn’t feel quite ready. It took me back to my days as an Implementation Manager for IT projects. We were down to the last day before the opening weekend and as it happened I was scheduled to be on duty. Whilst we were still polishing the last bit of glass we took a decision that the door would be open and if someone came through it and wanted to buy something then we would sell it to them. Remarkably it happened!
That evening we had a celebration party with all the members and their partners. We found ourselves surrounded by a high quality display of art in media from glass and ceramic to precious metal, felt, photography, watercolour, acrylic and oil. The next morning we were open for real and trade was brisk. Comments from visitors helped us to stand back and see what we have created through the eyes of others: “Lovely”, “Fantastic”, “Brilliant”, “Just what Tonbridge needs.”
As we settle into business as usual each of us gets to take a turn stewarding, so visitors can always meet an artist in the gallery. New ideas will come and unexpected challenges will arise. So far at least, we are on track financially. Differences have been resolved amicably and it feels as though we are achieving the goals of our collective, which is not only to operate the gallery but to create a mutually supportive network of local artists.
Anyway, do pop in if you’re in town Tuesday to Saturday 10:30 to 17:30 or Sunday 11:00 to 16:00. (Closed on Mondays.) More details at www.artspringgallery.co.uk