A New Angle: HQI gives emerging creatives the simple, yet hard-to-come-by, privilege of physical space

Muz Azar and Richard Wilkins talk us through how they are supporting young artists and designers to establish their practice in an exponentially “inhospitable” city, and in turn hoping to keep London thriving creative hub.

Date
2 March 2021

A New Angle is an editorial series that aims to give a platform to creative industry changemakers who make it their mission to disrupt the status quo. Each week we’ll chat to a person or team doing important work in the sector, making it a fairer place, championing vital causes, supporting underrepresented groups and tackling pertinent issues facing creatives everywhere.

This week we chat to Muz Azar, director, and Richard Wilkins, resident and trustee, of London-based charity HQI, an artist-run non-profit which works with the owners of vacant buildings to provide long-term arts facilities to visual and recording artists. Through community projects, residencies, mentorship and the simple yet hard-to-come-by privilege of physical space to work in, the organisation helps young creatives make foundations for their career – here, they tell us how, and what the industry can do to support its vital work.

It’s Nice That: What is your mission, and what about the creative industry are you hoping to change?

Muz Azar: HQI Foundation is a registered charity and new artist-led institution to help protect Londons’ artistic community as a centre of pioneering contemporary music and visual arts. We are currently trialling one approach to achieve this long-term goal by helping a relatively small group of diverse artists, 25 per year or so, bridge the ever increasing developmental gulf facing emerging artist-designers who wish to establish their practice in London. Our help in encouraging our residents reach creative and professional maturity is entirely community orientated, led by research and development residencies and made possible by a non-commercial and non-profit approach to work and studio space. We hope to support more artists as HQI develops.

The aspect of the creative industry we wish to change is to first encourage individuals within to come together and support one another, utilising the structure and wellbeing a community space affords. In the future we hope to influence as a quasi-think tank in practice, encouraging industry incumbents to adopt some of our healthier and sustainable approaches to artistic development. This will inevitably lead to improved wellbeing and higher qualities of work.

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Photos by Matt Snellin

INT: Tell us a bit about your background, or the background to the organisation, and what led you to this point.

MA: There are a number of factors that led to the decision to start HQI, but it can be simply summed up with a realisation that London was, and continues to be inhospitable for artists, both financially and emotionally. We felt the inevitable conclusion would be that more artists would either struggle to constantly juggle their time/income/practice which would likely lead to stunted professional and artistic development, or move further out, perhaps to new cities entirely.

We knew there must be commercial organisations with the same concerns as us, for whom a creatively deserted city would be equally damaging, and so approached both creative industries and landlords to offer us support and space with hopes to start an initial experiment in the form of a free community space. Stanhope, a major commercial developer supported us, and we developed a space in the old BBC headquarters in White City. Since then, we’ve been able to help 70 artists with access to free studios, exhibition and event space. A relatively small number in the grand scheme of things in London, but we hope others will adopt a similar approach to arts community provision around the city.

INT: What are the major challenges you’re facing, and why?

MA: The primary challenge facing any creative community with a physical footprint in London is likely to be keeping true to your ideals whilst navigating the harsh realities of the rental market in the city. It is no secret that rents are insanely high, and whilst there are some fantastic ‘meanwhile’ rental opportunities out there, emerging institutions and organisations need more support.

Broader still, generating income is another obvious challenge for most arts organisations. So far with support of our landlords, private donations and public funding, HQI foundation has been able to keep our spaces free for all artists in the first three years of operation. This has obvious financial benefits for residents, but has generated a unique community atmosphere which may have not been possible had we operated like a more commercially minded co-working space. For further sustainability, we have intentions to supplement our existing financial support with self-generated revenue that may derive from consultations, products and hiring out our spaces occasionally.

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Photos by Ivor Alice

INT: How are you tackling these challenges?

Richard Wilkins: The terrain for the arts is so varied, and often needs creative strategising to navigate. We don’t see residents as students, or customers, but an integral part of HQI’s infrastructure and organisation. Residents actively shape our building and strategy, and are involved with everything from day-to-day upkeep to our external communication. The effectiveness of this stems from encouraging people to work and communicate across disciplines.

We offer unique research and development residencies, across a wider spectrum of disciplines than usually covered, for example: musicians, performers and commercial freelancers looking to develop their practice, as well as to more formal visual artists. This kind of cross-discipline short circuiting tends to only really happen in art schools or limited professional contexts, so creativity tends to get silo-d off by specialism. All our residents have equal, and free, access to co-working and making spaces, as well as specialised facilities, such as music studios and large-scale project spaces. The overlap between artists, designers and musicians is far greater than most assume, and building creative links between them, both socially and in the production of work is enriching to individual practices and HQI’s as a whole. For example, being able to leave the music studio midway through a session and have a discussion with a furniture designer and illustrator in the next room is incredibly liberating.

In addition, collaboration between residents has afforded opportunities to rethink other institutional models typically found in the arts. We have established a flexible pop up record label that responds to the needs of the respective artist, with residents providing a creative framework for releases. Residents have also developed an events and project space upstairs, with a custom 360° lighting system designed specifically for our cylindrical events room. These run in conjunction with our sister organisation, HQI, intended for commercial projects beyond the scope of a charitable foundation.

INT: How can the creative industry help your mission?

RW: HQI aims to actively produce and safeguard space and time for individual and collective creative development. We recognise that the new terrain of work for young artists often means that creativity finds itself outside of conventional, formal cultural contexts, ie in freelance commercial work. We feel compelled to reach out and empower these workers as much as conventional art practices, as we believe the creative minds of these practitioners should be engendered and allowed to develop. Ideas like shorter working weeks or initiatives like Art Council England’s DYCP are in the same spirit - ensuring creatives have more freedom in establishing or re-igniting individual practice.

MA: For example, creative organisations could benefit from allocating some of their resources, infrastructure and space towards artistic development initiatives for both internal and perhaps more importantly external participants, even if there isn’t evidently an instant commercial incentive. This would be beneficial to both artist and organisation, in the exchange of key resources, information and new ways of thinking, critical to the sustainable development of both. If anyone wants advice on how to start something up, be in touch, we’d be happy to freely share our experiences!

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Jenny Brewer

After five years as It’s Nice That’s news editor, Jenny became online editor in June 2021, now overseeing the website’s daily editorial output. Contact her with stories, pitches and tips relating to the creative industries on jb@itsnicethat.com.

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