All garret and no stick

Without the structure, shelter and stimulation of art school, many prom ising graduates simply fall by the way-side. But now British artists are benefi ting from the generosity of a new breed of patrons. By Gillian Widdicombe
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The Independent Culture
"What is needed, especially for the very talented, is a bridging operation," says Graham Paton, whose gallery in London Fields is a haven for young artists, many straight from college. "I've seen some who have started off terribly well sink witho ut trace as soon as they leave the relatively secure student structure."

Paton started showing youngsters in the early Eighties - his shoestring couldn't stretch to Kossoff and Freud. Nowadays even the biggest galleries will make space for exceptional graduates - but selling one or two pieces won't keep the woodburner going.

Young artists need more than a gallery: they need a stable base. And that, given the expense of renting a studio (£20 to £30 per week for a small, bare room), means either a scholarship or a residency. But a post as artist in residence comes with stringsattached. When work is not going well, few young artists want to keep the studio door open so that kids can pick their noses and watch them labour. There are exceptions, though.

Nicholas Jolly is one of Paton's artists. After two shows in London Fields, two pieces were bought by a senior executive in the Sony Corporation - who had just started an artists' residence favouring British artists in the United States. Robert and SusanSummer live in New York but have a summer home in the wilds of Connecticut, where they converted an old factory into studios, renting a couple of lakeside houses for living accommodation. Jolly's eight-month stay sounds like a holiday with the Lilac Fairy. "You give a list of materials you want," he says, "and there's an account at the local supermarket. It's quite isolated so you can get a lot of work done; but it's only 60 miles from New York, so you can go down to a show, or hire a car and look around America."

Some bickering is inevitable. "I'd been working on my own in a studio for about six years, so I did have misgivings. But the turnover was interesting, and there were remarkably few strings. The Summers don't ask, but it's sort of expected that you give apainting to thank them. Naturally you give a piece that you think Susan, who visits every couple of weeks and invites you to barbecues on the terrace, would particularly like. And everybody who uses the minibus gives the owner a little painting."

Jolly paints slowly, and reckons that the only Connecticut influence in his work so far has been "ironing out a sort of morbidity". But according to Paton, others have been transformed by their escape from "tight little England". One RCA postgraduate moved from lyrical plants and trees to massive comic-strip paintings.

It's a long way from the wilds of Connecticut to the Dickensian warehouses of Bermondsey, but this is the nearest Britain has to offer, thanks to a remarkable Spaniard, Delfina Entrecanales, who has recently converted an old chocolate factory into studios for 35 artists.

Here, she gives British artists free studio space for two years, and foreigners for one year with living accommodation included. She doesn't like Americans or, of late, RCA postgraduates - too well provided for already. She wants Cubans, Africans, Lithuanians - in fact anyone likely to have trouble getting a visa.

She doesn't necessarily like the art you produce, or the fact that she took you on as a sculptor and you've turned up as a born-again painter. She may think your let-it-all-hang-out paintings, well, pornographic, or your minimal dribble a bit silly, but she does want to help. she moved her studios from Stratford to Bermondsey, where her colony of artists had outgrown the clothing factory she converted in the late 1980s. Now she can provide her residents with an excellent canteen (artists pay £1 to eat, but it's open to the public). Oh, and she can offer the Brodsky Quartet an office and studio. And she can plan an opera workshop, a collaboration with the Southwark Festival, with Africa '95, with the primary school next door ... Restrictions? Studios close at 10pm; no loud music. At the end of their stay, artists give one piece to the Delfina Trust, which exhibits to the public.

You have to go north to find anything comparable. To Dean Clough in Halifax, where Sir Ernest Hall has converted an old cotton mill into a marriage of business rental and free studios for 23 artists. No age limits, no fixed term. Scattered throughout thethriving complex, the studios vary in size, one big enough for a sculptor to cast on site an £80,000 commission for Liverpool City. Sir Ernest thinks of his artists as a community, a forum. He's proud of "the wide range of dissenting voices - they don'tall agree what art is".

Even more remarkable is the marriage of art and Church at Durham cathedral, where an artist's residency - studio within the precinct, accommodation in St Chad's College, end-of-year exhibition in Durham Art Gallery - has been going since 1983. Last year Durham had the young Scottish landscape painter Robert Maclaurin, who responded to the architectural scale and human intimacy with views of tiny figures framed by vast decorated columns: Canon Coppin scurrying around in his cassock, a woman cleaning the floor, a thief eyeing the silver.

It's the kind of sympathy between artist and host one might assume to be universal. But today's patrons are more broad-minded than that. This year, the cathedral chose the artist Ian Breakwell. "I've never been a practising Christian," he says. "Quite the opposite. What prompted me to apply was realising that within every story of conflict around the world there was a religious dispute. And a great deal of my collection of records and books, and the paintings I like, are the result of religious patronag e."

Breakwell hopes to make a documentary film based on the cathedral's festivals, and two audio-visual projects: a 10-camera shoot of bellringing - "the most minimal, mathematically rigorous traditional music I've ever heard" - to be shown in a secular place with life-size projection; and a modern danse macabre, with hundreds of cavorting skeletons. Canon Bill Hall says the cathedral was fully aware of what Breakwell might or might not do when it appointed him.

This will be a good year for those in the garret. A conference about art in sacred places at Winchester in May; and an Arts Council seminar on artists' residencies. There's also word that Brixton Prison would like to add a resident artist to its recent galaxy of artistic achievements. According to Paton, the art painted "inside" is pretty good, too. Rotten food, but no charge for accommodation.