Culture: Back to No Future for Art Studios; Visual Arts Britain's Artists' Studio Scene Is Booming, with a New National Federation Linking More Than 45 Organisations Stretching from London to Bristol, Gateshead and Scotland. Only Birmingham Is Going Backwards, Writes Terry Grimley

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Byline: Terry Grimley

This year has marked contrasting milestones in the fortunes of artists' groups in Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham.

Manchester's MASA group has just published a book celebrating 25 years of running its studio complex while earlier this year Bristol unveiled Spike Island, a former factory housing studios plus a gallery in a conversion designed by award-winning architects Caruso St John, designers of Walsall's New Art Gallery.

Meanwhile the Birmingham Artists group has been forced out of its studios at Lee Bank Business Centre after the city council withdrew its support. After building itself up over 21 years, Birmingham Artists has made its two administrative staff members redundant and is abandoning its role in organising exhibitions and other projects.

"It will become a purely voluntary organisation, going back to where we were 20 years ago," says former administrator Pamina Stewart. "At the recent annual general meeting we decided to go back to core values, with no exhibitions, open studios, projects or education work.

"We have about 130 members, but I can't really see why people would join if we were not offering the exhibitions and opportunities we used to. It was always the projects that drew people in."

Following a six-month stay of execution the deadline for leaving the studios is now December 30, but most of the artists have already moved out. The handful remaining are hoping to find out today whether they have been successful in applying for small business grants which would give them another year in the building.

It's a far cry from five years ago, when Birmingham Artists were driven out of their previous home, the Old Union Mill, by imminent redevelopment. At that time the council took a pro-active role in rehousing them and invested pounds 100,000 in dividing up spaces in the Grade II-listed late 1950s factory on Lee Bank.

Ironically, the redevelopment of Old Union Mill has still not begun.

Among those who could be staying put for the time being are Mark Renn and Mick Thacker, a two-artist partnership specialising in public art works. Earlier this year they won a pounds 300,000 contract to design a gateway feature for The Wirral.

"Our turnover last year was about pounds 250,000, and it's actually bringing money into the local manufacturing economy," says Mark.

"Now Mick and I are seeking fabricators in other parts of the country. Where before we went to Hockley, now we're having some work done by a company in the Black Country.

We're both living out that way now. In fact, we're even talking to a company in Liverpool.

Whereas in the past we would have looked to source that work locally, now we can't guarantee we'll be based in the city any more."

Few artists can demonstrate such a direct contribution to the economy, but there is general acceptance nowadays that artists play an important role in regeneration - even if it means helping to put up property values before eventually pricing themselves out of newlyfashionable areas.

In an era when cities are competing for investment and footloose young professionals, the ability of resident artists' communities to project a "cool" image of bohemian creativity is a priceless asset.

Birmingham accepts the principle in its published creative strategies and ought, on the face of it, to be well placed to work with artists in helping to lift vast, run-down areas like Eastside. But for some reason it seems to have more difficulty in translating theory into practice than its rivals.

By an extraordinary irony, the first artist in residence at Bristol's showpiece, Spike Island, earlier this year was Ruth Claxton - a Birmingham, not Bristol, artist.

Ruth, a member of Self Service, a small group which also includes Juno Projects and Tom and Simon Bloor, is one of Birmingham's high-fliers, represented by a commercial gallery in Geneva and with a one-person show coming up at Ikon next year. …