The Arts Lodge and Park Cafe is a creative hub based in Victoria Park, in Portsmouth’s city centre. Originally built in 1877 the former Gardener’s Lodge is now home to The Art and Soul Traders, a “not for profit” CIC Cooperative that exists to provide access to the arts for all, encouraging and promoting learning for life. I met up with the Director Mark E.W. Lewis to talk about what they have achieved so far and what’s next for The Lodge.
Thank you for meeting with me today Mark, can you give me a brief history of your involvement with the The Arts Lodge?
Literally I can always remember wanting to be part of a community creative hub art space going back to the Elephant Fayre Festival in 1987 when I saw detailed murals there inside the manor house. That’s what made we want to become a muralist, even though I didn’t know it was called that. I was painting friends bedrooms with Elvis and Bob Marley pictures and just loved the thought of painting on walls as canvasses and certainly in the public domain, where you have a bigger audience rather than some stuffy elitist galleries. Another early memory would be the Hornpipe, I don’t know if you remember that in North End. It was an early art space, showing films there and gigs and that really inspired me. So I tried to get into Art College when I was 17 but they wouldn’t let me because I didn’t get any qualifications at school, I got kicked out of school at 15. So I went self employed at 19 and never looked back.
The arts centre idea has always been there, I was always wanting to start a cooperative with others and was always looking for a place in the city from probably 1989 onwards. At least looking into it and researching the logistics and the structures, there’s many things to think about you know, I probably spent a good few years on it from 1989 to 2000. I keep finding bits of paper in little books from 1995 all about the centre in Albert Road, where I was going to have it first. You know the garage behind Porters, I was going to have it there originally. The people that owned it, when their Dad died, were trying to change it into residential accommodation, but the council wouldn’t give consent. The owner heard I was looking for somewhere and got in contact with me, to look into turning it into an arts centre.
I ended up showing Mike Hancock and Barbara Thompson, head of economic development around the place with all these ideas of corner studios, cafes etc, it was a huge place. Within a couple of months they got planning permission for residential, so they obviously didn’t want us. Their plan at the time, this is 1999, was to change Albert Road to residential. The first stage was to stop supporting the Kings Theatre, which is the most famous venue down there, so they stopped funding it and they were going to close it down or sell it to Wetherspoons. Everyone rallied around and campaigned to save it. They were getting pressure from Gunwharf, Commercial Road, Southsea precinct and Port Solent, all the commercial areas to get rid of Albert Road and more people will come to them. Even though Albert Road has always been Portsmouth alternative area and certainly after the Tricorn closed it’s where new traders start up, when they can’t afford a big shop to test out ideas. That was when I was going to Albert Road Traders Association meetings, because I was still looking for a venue down there. I was proposing they create an identity for the street, paint murals above the shops, street parties, a large archway sculpture saying Albert Road like in Carnaby Street. I designed it and got quotes for it £24,000, then heard there was money around for it. Then City Arts from the City Council objected to it on the grounds the buses wouldn’t fit underneath, we obviously had already ensured they would, and then the money disappeared. After many people complained it was kept as Albert Road and it did become a cultural hub of Portsmouth. So we’re very glad Albert Road is safe and it’s going from strength to strength.
So we didn’t get that arts centre and then in 2000, after I’d just come back from travelling Thailand for 3 months, I was thinking maybe I will move to London as I was banging my head against a brick wall with the council. The last thing I wanted to do was move to London or Brighton as many other creative types do, right back from when I was 18 I thought I’m not gonna move away like everyone else. I decided to try and make my home city great and that was the idea behind the lodge. I thought I’d give it one more go. I was phoning the council for something else and rang the wrong number, I rang property, but thought I’d ask what properties were on the list while I was there. I’d usually ring quite often anyway but it was always a factory spaces on industrial estates and the woman on the end of the line said Victoria Park Gate Keeper’s Lodge. If you’re trying to reach the community, where else, everyone goes to the park. Before we took over not many people we’re using the park, it had gained a reputation of being a drug user and alcoholics park and they were selling off parts of the park and knocking down the tropical gardens. I feel the council sees parks as an unnecessary expense, even though it’s the number one space in the community the public wants to go on a sunny day. They’ve already taken half of it, in 136 years 50% of it’s gone and they wanted to knock this place down to build a roundabout. So they left it in such disrepair, falling in on itself, to then say we can’t save the lodge any more, we’ll have to knock it down.
So when the lady at the council mentioned it was available I said I’d meet them down there in half an hour, I just knew that would be it. I came down and opened the door, and thought oh no, the dream was there and all I saw was a couple of years of really hard work just to get it back to even a usable state. But within a year I’d raised £50,000 from the SRB (Single Regeneration Budget) and that was a good initiative, mainly because it wasn’t decided by the elite bureaucrats, it was the local community who decided who got the money. I had to go in front of panels and put my proposal, luckily I’d already been painting murals in the city, so the people on the panel knew of my work, knew of the building and they also wanted it saved. The grant allowed us to get it back to a good state, new walls, electric, gas, roof, workshop, computers etc and even allowed us to put the cafe in as well.
We raised another £10,000 from other funders, £10,000 from the council to fix the roofs, so all in all it was about £70,000 to do it all. It took a year to get the money and at least a year to renovate it. I had to project manage all of the fundraising and the renovation without taking a wage. It was very hard, we’re talking earning £2000 to £3000 a year for 80 to 100 hours a week, with 4 to 5 hours sleep a night. If I didn’t manage to get away to do some painting I would have gone mad or collapsed, it drained me emotionally, physically, financially and creatively, but when it is your baby and your dream there’s nothing more rewarding and fulfilling. I have realised it is better to fight for something you believe in than to work for something you don’t.
There’s always something to do, at the start I didn’t know much about the policies, procedures, fundraising and paying the wages and bills etc. We’d never really had that at the lodge as it was mostly volunteers and we had no one running the show, it’s always been a voluntary job by me. It’s the worst job, that’s why nobody wants to do it, everyone wants to come in and enjoy the space and be part of the art scene. I’ve got the knowledge now after 15 years of doing it, but there’s so much involved it would have been great to sit down with someone at the start who understands all that. The only way I think that will happen is getting big funding and paying proper wages to raise it to the next level. It’s been pretty much ticking over the last few years, it needs to get raised up with a team of people and projects to make it sustainable. You probably need to look outside of town to find professionals who’ve done it and then we can train up local people and offer apprenticeships to allow the net generation to take over. Then I can step back and do all the hundreds of projects that I’ve always wanted to do, my own personal ones. I haven’t even had an exhibition here of my own or taken any of the courses that we run. I’d love to be take part in the film making course and do web design and all sorts. I’ve got a lot of exhibition ideas that haven’t been done before including an exhibition of all our murals, over 300 murals worldwide, that would make an interesting exhibition.
The good thing about the mural at The Strand is we’ve got the lease of the wall for 99 years and we use some of the best paints in the world. So I’m just literally finishing off the bottom this week and will be taking some photos of it and publicise it in regional, international magazines and social media, as we haven’t really publicised it yet. The unique selling point is that it’s a never ending mural and because we have the lease for 99 years they can’t put a billboard over it, so it will be there for my daughter’s generation. Every year we get emails and phone calls from people asking to appear in the mural, so we’ve got a list we’re working through. People can pay to appear on the map, have their van driving down the road or even have the name of a loved one on a headstone in the graveyard. So I imagine in the end I can see the whole city painted in some detail, with all the architecture etc. You can fit 500 vehicles on there, 5000 people and probably 3000 houses, so imagine how long that takes, each one taking a few hours.
The only thing we’re not really doing at the moment is courses. We’re still doing workshops, exhibitions, murals and a local to European volunteer and work placements program. We have concentrated more on the events the last few year, from comedy nights, live gigs, DJing, charity events, VJing, Pagan weddings, kids parties and film nights. Also we allow a few private promoters to hire the space for example Discreet did their Willy Wonka themed party here. At the beginning of 2008 we got the alcohol licence and entertainments licence, so it’s more recently other promoters hire it from us and we run the bar, which works well.
It’s a great space, in a central location and Portsmouth’s only art centre for many years. As well as art workshops and exhibitions The Lodge has hosted a number of other cultural events over the years, including music events, festivals, workshops and the last couple of years an open-air cinema. In less than 2 weeks you have a screening of Pulp Fiction in partnership with Portsmouth Film Society.
Yes, if the weather’s good we’ll have a fire in the garden and inside as chill out space. We’ll play it by ear and use the space inside, but we have a licence until 4am and a lovely outdoor space.
Last weekend Victoria Park played host to the annual Portsmouth Summer Fair organised by Portsmouth Climate Action Network (PCAN). How was the day and what was the involvement of the Lodge this year?
Yes it was good day, it didn’t rain. Ironically it’s about global warming and it has never rained at one of their events in 9 years. It’s always a good event, they tried several venues before Victoria Park. But they are a good bunch and they don’t get much support, the council was talking about stopping it and not supporting it again this year. Unless it’s like Mutiny or Victorious and they’re making money, they’re not interested. Especially the likes of me who’ve got no qualifications, self taught etc. they do look at us differently as we are independent. But it takes a lot of work to keep this free community art space going and do all these projects and after 15 years I think we have proved ourselves. The proof is in the pudding, actions peak louder than words and all those other clichés.
You’ve just announced the cafe space is available to let. If you are interested in letting the Cafe The Art and Soul Traders are currently taking tenders and will be interviewing shortly, the closing date for application is 18th September. What’s next for The Art and Soul Traders and The Lodge?
We’ve just applied for funding, whether we get it or not. This funding is so big it’s ridiculous. I can’t be accused of not thinking big sometimes, if anything I’ve been thinking too small over the last few years, but had to fight to keep the place after our 110% rent increase. As I said earlier, it needs that big injection, to buy the building from the council as a community asset transfer to secure to for future generations to come and make it more sustainable. All this time I will slowly be taking a back seat and handing over the reins. In the winters I want to do more international development work. I’ve got an idea as a kind of off-shoot of the lodge, putting a package together of how to replicate it in other cities.
I am creating an International cultural exchange project called Art 27. Art 27 is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that everyone has the right to freely participate in culture and community life and benefit from scientific advancements i.e. computers, film making and multimedia tools. So to me when I read that I thought, this is a foot in the door with the funders, you have to give it to us, not just art for art’s sake this is life, this is our right to better ourselves and redistribute the wealth to people in need. This is how you change people’s attitudes is by encouraging them and giving them the tools to make a bigger change in their communities. If you’ve got a story, great, but if you haven’t got a voice it’s no good. If you’ve got a story give them a camera to record it and then a website or radio station and that story becomes known. It’s not individuals that change the World it’s individuals that get together and create organisations, then those organisations get together to create movements and those movements create change in the World. That is important in this country but it is more prevalent here, so I would like to take it to poorer, developing countries around Europe and the World. So we would offer a package of this is how you could do it in your community, not we’re coming in and showing you, because every community would be different. It’s saving them 5 years hard work that I had to do, of going through all the paperwork and getting it right. If someone had came to me in the beginning and said this is how you do it, it would have saved so much time, energy and stress. So Art 27, based on article 27 and further abbreviated as A27, which is the main road along the South Coast of England. So this is where it starts then it goes along the country, then Europe then the World.
You are also known locally as a voice on political issues, what are your views on the current direction of the Portsmouth City Council with regard to the Arts and what do you feel could be improved in future?
As I said, we’ve always had a problem with a few people in the council. There’s thousands of people who work for the council and most of them are great. There’s probably 5 to 10 people maximum we’ve got a problem with and most of them got kicked out with the Lib Dems. The 3rd Floor Arts Centre for example, it’s been closed for 7 or 8 years and there’s still a big silver sign outside saying 3rd Floor Arts Centre. The budget for arts is £500,000 a year yet whenever we ask for grants, they say we’ve only got £1000 for grants this year. It’s all being spent on wages and they are not doing much, if anything we’re paying them huge wages to hinder or close down community venues. I hate moaning about it when people ask me, it’s boring, it’s giving them such a bad name and the city. When someone asks about The Lodge and City Arts I want to be positive, but straight away it’s about problems. Most of the time I am a positive person you have to stay positive or you wouldn’t do this and carry on for so long.
There’s a festival we’d like to do in the park, a social festival where charities, not for profits get together, put on a bit of entertainment and raise awareness of what they do. We also have plans to double the size of the kitchen and put 3 toilets in, one will be disable and public access from the park. So we’ve put in pre-planning application and it’s going to cost £44,000 which hopefully the council will pay half of as we’ve spent £250,000 on the place in time and money. That will allow us to do bigger events here, without hiring out portaloos.
So the key for us is to stay here and build on what we’ve achieved so far. The future looks good there’s good people about, better people in the council, lot’s more organisations like us have emerged. So it’s good. I was in London recently and a gave a business card to a well know comedian and he’d heard of The Lodge, a famous comedian off the TV, so that’s a real compliment. When people thank us for what we’ve done it makes it all worthwhile, that people have benefited from the lodge and thank us, is better than anything big wages could pay.
The Arts Lodge is one of Portsmouth’s best kept secrets, if you would like to hire the venue for a private function or even rent the Park Cafe please contact Mark directly on 07787798341 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you would like to volunteer and donate some of your valuable time and skills to the Arts lodge, go to http://www.artandsoultraders.com/our-volunteers/
If you are interesting in appearing in the strand mural visit http://www.artandsoultraders.com/major-projects/ or for more information or contact Mark directly.
For more information on the upcoming Art & Soul Traders crowdfunding campaign please contact Mark directly.