Help Desk

Help Desk: Studio Trouble

Help Desk is where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to contemporary art. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.

A few months ago I moved into my first professional studio, which I share with two other artists. They have been friends for a long time, but I don’t see much of them because my work hours are different from theirs. One of the artists is not very respectful, she keeps leaving her things in my part of the studio (we don’t have dividing walls between us) and possibly even borrowing my tools (often things are not where I left them). She doesn’t seem to do this to the other artist. I’ve moved her things back into her space and left a couple of notes but the situation continues. I also mentioned the issue to the other artist, but she didn’t seem to want to get involved. Help! What should I do?

Tracey Emin in her studio, circa 1996.

Tracey Emin in her studio, circa 1996.

Let’s start by assuming that a crisis is not looming; some people just don’t have the same need for rigid boundaries of space. Generally they don’t intend any disrespect, they just have different ideas of what’s appropriate. Maybe Artist A grew up in on a commune, or is from a culture that regards shared space differently than you do. Perhaps she is simply thoughtless, which is certainly not the worst crime ever to be perpetrated by a studio mate (ask me about the jackass who drunkenly urinated on a shared wall, where it soaked into a colleague’s work on the other side). In any case, clear, forthright communication will be your deliverance. Without knowing many of the finer details—like exactly what she is leaving in your space, and where, and why—it’s not easy to determine what you should convey to her, but here are some general strategies that might help.

First, it’s a good idea to figure out precisely what the offenses are and why they offend. Is your work easily damaged, and the potential for disaster is stressing you out? Are you irritated by the thought that your tools might be lost or broken and not replaced? Do you just need to have a space that feels 100 percent your own to be secure? You are entitled to set boundaries, and knowing specifically what you need and why can help you craft some language that might convince your studio partners to respect them. Just remember, they have needs too, and you might have to negotiate or come up with helpful solutions. If having a visible, inviolable physical perimeter is important to your peace of mind, you could mark areas of the studio with tape or paint on the floor, or hang a curtain (these options should be discussed with your compatriots before being enacted, or else your gesture might be read as furtive and petulant). You could also discuss mutually beneficial options: If Artist A moves her canvases into your space because there’s not enough room to work (and then forgets to put them back), then building a shared rack or rearranging the studio to make a storage space might be the answer. As for your tools, you can always buy a locking cabinet (this measure has the added benefit of helping to prevent theft in a more general sense, in the case that the studio is broken into).

I’m guessing that only the most basic details are spelled out in your lease, so it would be a good idea to craft a studio agreement that deals with issues of interpersonal space. Again, this can be accomplished only by direct communication, so try having an all-hands in-person meeting, and then sending out an email with the details of what you agreed upon.

While we’re on the subject of talking face to face, perhaps you could schedule periodic studio meetings, since normally you are in the studio according to different schedules. A monthly meeting will give everyone a chance to share issues, propose changes, etc. Think of it as a regular studio visit, a chance to bond with your studio mates and talk about what you’re working on. Having a regular meeting will keep any bad feelings from building up, and provide an opportunity to reinforce your friendships and social connection, which will do wonders for the esprit de corps.

As a means of conflict resolution, leaving a note rarely has the desired effect because the attitude that underlies it is indirect and non-cooperative, and obliquely asking Artist B to intervene is not mature behavior. If you want to solve this problem, you’re going to have to sit down with Artist A (and B if possible) and spell out the terms of what you need. Be prepared to ask questions, and be willing to listen to the answers. Healthy relationships are not conflict-avoidant; start over with a different frame of mind, and approach the situation as a problem-solving collaboration. Don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal, which is for all of you to have a great place—physically and emotionally—to make your work. Good luck!

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