Name: Sarah Walters
Born: Upminster, Essex
Studied: Fine Art and Art History at Goldsmiths, London
Job Title: Director of Romford Contemporary Arts Programme (R-CAP)
Random: Holds a black belt in karate
I speak to Sarah Walters about life after graduation, being a visionary and never giving up…
If there’s one thing I don’t doubt, it’s that Sarah Walters knows how to take on a challenge. Five years after graduating and two and a half years after the birth of R-CAP (Romford Contemporary Art Programme), Sarah never seems to have lost sight of her desire to see this side of East London culturally transformed.
The first time we met came after I’d heard whispers of artists rallying in Romford; if there was something creative – anything creative – happening here, I had to find out who was responsible. Positioned in the north-east London borough of Havering, Romford has – in recent years – begun to develop as a large centre for retail. However its provision of creative opportunities has yet to reflect its proximity to east London’s art scene or the number of art graduates in the area.
Over the last two years, R-CAP has inhabited some of the town’s seemingly unloved and vacant spaces, drawing on local artists, college students and undergraduates in order to utilise art as a regenerative tool. Live events and site specific projects have animated abandoned restaurants and empty shops in a bid to bring contemporary art to places where its presence may seem alien. With a particular soft spot for students, one of their public projects was even consolidated with a ‘graduation’, after the participants had completed their ‘studies’ in such subjects as confidence, collaboration and resilience.
‘I think that’s where it started for me,’ Sarah says, recounting her time at university. ‘We were pumped full of all these ideas about ethics; about what we should be doing and what the art market should be.’As she graduated from Goldsmiths in 2009, Ideastap was starting to emerge. ‘I was organising the degree show at the time and thought, ‘I like this!’ So I applied for a grant to curate another exhibition once I’d finished. We wanted it to talk about what it was to graduate into this recession and how we were supposed to negotiate that. We couldn’t afford to make work anymore; we couldn’t afford to show work because competition entries have to be paid for.’ It would later be these same hurdles that would fuel future projects.
From that initial post-graduation exhibition came an art collective but – after a year and a half of waitressing full time and seemingly getting nowhere with sourcing more space and funds – Sarah was exhausted and ready to walk away. ‘I’d applied for about 30 grants and decided to apply for one more, thinking that I would stop if I didn’t get it. I was so desperate – I was basically begging them.’
As fate would have it, she did get the grant and – with that money – Exchange Studios was birthed. ‘We created a model based around the idea that it doesn’t always take money for things to be exchanged. The question we asked was: what does a graduate have to offer?’ I smile and wait for her to answer her own question. ‘They have lots of time – presumably because they don’t have a job; they have loads of energy and passion and enthusiasm; and they have all this knowledge from the education they’ve just paid for. But what don’t they have?’ This was answered by providing artists with equipment, rent-free studio space and an exhibition as payment for their time.
I comment that Sarah clearly has a mind for business, especially seen through her seeming ability to negotiate almost anything with the council. ‘I definitely used to be the least business minded person in the room,’ she laughs, ‘but it’s a skill that has become necessary. The council know that art equals regeneration, which equals profit. It’s like having a second language – if artists can speak business, then they can also start to demand that things are done more ethically.’
‘What do you really want to see happen in Romford?’ I ask.
‘I think Romford has the potential to be a really creative place. I don’t want it to be the new Shoreditch – I want to tap into what Romford is. New creative graduates look around their home towns and think, ‘What’s here apart from my rent-free parents?’’ I wince slightly at the truth in her words. ‘Nothing! But we want to do whatever we have to do to keep those people in the area. Putting art somewhere isn’t a miracle worker in itself but – when you build a culture of creativity – you can start to change not only individual lives but whole communities’, she says.
And that’s exactly what R-CAP are aiming for. With a just-signed contract for a year’s access to a block of empty retail units within Romford’s busy centre, setup is already underway to host artist residencies, creative startup businesses, a performance festival and a fashion design competition. Another facet of their plans is to set up a shop where local artists, designers and art students can test a market for their work. It is this want to provide a platform for ideas that Romford so desperately needs if it is to keep hold of its young artists.
What advice would she give to graduates wanting to transform their own community?
‘Never give up! Don’t lose sight of the end goal and just keep going.’