Gareth Stevens discovers how emerging younger artists are being helped by an agile collective on a Bexhill industrial estate.

Flatland Projects is one of the increasing number of community based arts projects that are sprouting up nationwide. It is a very grassroots ‘for us, by us’ organisation that started just over three years ago. Although for most of that time it has been without a base, through tenacity and vision it has recently found a physical home in the newly launched Beeching Road studios in Bexhill. 

At its core, Flatland Projects subverts the more traditional top down model where bigger, well funded galleries almost cherry pick artists to build their programmes in a way that sometimes feels almost feudal. Perhaps ‘subvert’ is too strong a word. Flatland’s founders assure me it is more about diversifying the art ecology in Hastings and Rother. However, it remains that the division of power between artists and galleries can often (not always) be hugely unproductive and inequitable – serving a chosen few and exclusive to the long tail.

Flatlands Founders Ben Urban and Billy Stanley

Financial constraints mean that those artists who are already known enjoy a kind of accumulated advantage. Artists fresh from college have an almost insurmountable problem when it comes to developing their practice and exhibiting their work at the same time as being able to afford to live.

Flatland Projects

Flatland Projects is led by Ben Urban and Billy Stanley, and it was great to be able to talk with Ben so he could expand on these ideas and to tell me how the project first started.

He explains that the project was set up as a nomadic space in Hastings and Rother. For eighteen months it was based in Source Park and ran exhibitions and public workshops. “The aim was to intercept the middle ground of Arts activity in the region – to provide an alternative to the more established institutional culture provided by spaces like the De La Warr Pavilion, Hastings Contemporary and the Towner.”

“It is not just about us providing a range of pop-up exhibitions, more than that it is essentially about relationship building, about providing a more wrap-around support for emerging practice which works with artists before, during and after the time they may exhibit with us”. Flatland Projects seeks to bring together fledgling curators, art organisers as well as artists and to encourage them to work beyond their usual silos.

Ben studied at Goldsmiths, graduated in 2017 and then moved back to Hastings. Moving from a thriving South London-based arts scene back to Hastings was somewhat of a culture shock. “As a newly graduated artist Hastings did not deliver on its promise, I felt that there was no place for me despite the alleged arts buzz that I was expecting”. Ben tells me that on his return, gaining access to a supportive network was difficult unless you were mid-career. “If you didn’t have access to affordable studio space or were not in a financial position that gave you sufficient free time, it was very difficult for artists in my position to find an inroad into what is supposed to be a thriving scene.” This is the main reason why the idea of Flatland Projects was conceived – to provide a platform for emerging younger artists who were just at the outset of their careers. 

Flatland Projects has curated two exhibitions at the De La Warr Pavilion, the first one of which was the Platform Graduate Prize for East Sussex in 2018 “This was a great experience because it showed that we were intersecting institutional space with emerging practice.”

Flatland Projects is not a commercial enterprise. Rather it was set up as an agile, not-for-profit collective without an office space or a salaried team. Since the project’s start it has received four rounds of ‘Arts Council England Project Grant’ funding which has enabled them to keep their programme free and open to all.

Beeching Road Studios

Just over two years ago Flatland became involved in a Rother District Council initiative sparked by a local growth fund to develop six light industrial units into creative workspaces. 

In 2018 the Council purchased the freehold on these units comprising 1,599 square metres at Beeching Road Industrial Estate in Bexhill. The site has since been refurbished in order to provide workspaces to accommodate and develop creative sector businesses. In partnership with Rother District Council, Flatland Projects has taken on the exhibition, education, and early career studio programmes there and the grand opening was on Saturday 9 April.

It is hoped that by 2025, Beeching Road Studios will be established as a hub for artists and makers and arts based businesses that will provide specialist training and education programmes. It also aims to provide a variety of attractive, affordable and secure spaces, as well as opportunities for collaboration, career development and business growth.

The location of Beeching Road Studios is unusual for such a project. Roughly equidistant between Bexhill and Collington stations, it was a short walk and easy to find. Google told me to walk up past Brewers Paints, then Screwfix and my destination would be on my left. The opening of the studios was an exciting event. It was slightly surreal to see groups of people talking and laughing outside the ‘gallery’ whilst next door others were pulling up to quickly replenish their stock of Rawl plugs or emulsion paint. The main gallery is spacious and airy – its many skylights and open steel beamed roof structure gives an immense flood of diffuse light and the feel of the mythical New York loft. 

Sophie Goodchild

Whilst this was the event which marked the opening of the studios themselves, it was also the private view of its inaugural exhibition. Significant other: Bulging Water by Sophie Goodchild is an engaging set of works featuring a startling range of materials and approaches. Each work has a tactile quality that invites you to touch them. Not only are the exhibits diverse in materials and methods, they are also of various scales ranging from a massive dyed lambswool hanging entitled Breeding Ground down to the smaller pieces made from salt and blown glass. One of these small-scale pieces, Subterranean I, which for me is one of the stand-out works, is veined with striated orange lines. The glass looks like some kind of suspended X-ray, except that this analogy is broken by an almost playful globular protuberance that breaks the picture plane and again asks to be touched. Every work is visceral and talks to us about our connection with the earth and our environment. To some extent the work is Sophie’s response to her experience of pregnancy. The works avoid representation and are more concerned with the tangibility of the object. I highly recommend that you take the time to visit this new and exciting art space, not least to sample the engaging work of Sophie Goodchild.

To find out more about Flatlands Project go to flatlandprojects.com

Sophie Goodchild’s show at Beeching Road Studios is running until 15 May. Monday – Friday by appointment and Saturday-Sunday 12.00pm – 5.00pm.


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