Lois Stonock

Lois is the Director of Metroland Cultures, and was previously the Artistic Director of Brent 2020, London Borough of Culture. Previous to working on the Brent 2020 programme she founded the Jennie Lee Institute a think-tank focussed on new models for arts & culture to thrive in the UK. She led a 6-year research programme into artistic practice in Syria which was published with Ibraaz. She worked with the British Council in East Asia to develop their programme of international collaboration and exchange across 14 countries and led the Contemporary Art Society’s Public Programme. Previous to this she managed Bloomberg’s Arts & Corporate Philanthropy portfolio across EMEA and curated Bloomberg Space, curating shows with Elizabeth Price, Charles Atlas and Tobias Rehberger. She is a Clore Fellow and a member of the Royal Society of the Arts. She trained as an artist at Goldsmiths and sits on the board of Open School East and Southpaw Dance.

Lois, please tell us about your role.

I’m the Founder and Director of Metroland Cultures. My role is to ensure that our organisation - and the resources we have - are utilised to serve the artists and the communities where we work. That sounds quite simple, but I think it’s really important to be clear that the whole point of Metroland is to work for artists in Brent, and the communities around us. I want Metroland to provide the kind of support the sector needs right now, which I don’t see coming from funders or the current government.

On a day-to-day basis, I’m responsible for leading our whole artistic programme. This involves overseeing a studio building which offers free studios to 24 artists in Kilburn; the Brent Biennial which brings over 200,000 visitors to Brent every two years and platforms practice which is rooted in community; Peer-to-Peer, which is a programme of support and professional development opportunities for artists working at the intersection of community and social change; and Metroland Young Associates, which is a development programme for young people. Most importantly I lead and rely on a fantastic team of curators, producers and arts professionals. My role is to support them to do what they do best and refine the lost art of getting out of their way! They all bring expertise, experiences and relationships that I don’t have, and my job is to make sure they can use that to help us fulfill our mission.

What was your journey into the arts?

I grew up in the North East of England, in Sunderland and later Durham. I don’t come from a background where we went to see art growing up - my only memory of ‘art’ is being in the shop at the Hancock Museum in Newcastle looking at rainbow stripey rubbers with my Mum! Basically, I did art at school and loved it - visual arts was this whole other way of communicating without words and I was blown away by it; it was complicated and wonderful. I know we sometimes feel like we have to make sure art isn’t complicated now, but the nuance, complexity, possibility for newness and endlessness of it all was so exciting as a young person. I also had an amazing art teacher who just gave me a space in the art room and let me be there whenever I wanted to, and I think I really understood what learning was and what it could be through art.

Thankfully I was part of the generation where we didn’t have to pay fees to go to university, and I ended up at Goldsmiths on the fine art course. I loved being with artists and making work, but I also loved learning about the work more than making it. Training as an artist has been fundamental to how I lead and work with others. So, after I graduated, I hustled my way through various jobs in the art world; starting out with being on the desk counting visitors at a gallery called the Haunch of Venison. To this day this is the most boring job I’ve done - but I was lucky as they paid me, at a time when most places didn’t.

I have found the idea of being a ‘curator’ hard to get my head around because – training as an artist – I spent so long trying to think around every aspect of the work I made. To be ‘curated’ felt odd, to have another voice intervening in what felt so intimate was hard to understand as an artist. However, since I have collaborated with so many brilliant curators and researchers, I have a huge respect for what they do and have come to terms with the fact I probably have a curatorial practice, although I hold it like one would hold a bird with a broken wing!

What inspires you?

What has inspired me has changed as I have gotten older, made mistakes and learned from them. It used to be the art I would see in museums and galleries, then the ideas and the ambition of the programme, but now I think it’s the artists, the people and curators and ecology I work and collaborate with. We are living through times where everything feels, and is, critical. Running a small organisation in London that mostly serves artists who have faced and suffered from inequality all their lives – whether through their ethnicity, their sexuality, their gender or their class – serves as a daily reminder of the urgency and significance of the work in addressing systemic and political issues. The artists we work with are constantly on a knife-edge: they are simultaneously fighting to find a space to make work (and btw affordable studios in London are not affordable), fighting for equality in our institutions (which they shouldn’t have to), and advocating for others at the same time be that in Gaza or Sudan. It’s relentless. The artistic community at Metroland are all just trying to survive and yet they use their platform to germinate and empower their community. That is very inspiring. If I can create a place, an environment or a programme that helps that, and helps the artists and team I work with to be the best version of themselves, that makes me proud. They are all so much more inspiring than I am!

How does your experience contribute to CVAN London, and what are your goals for the London network?

I hope that my contribution to CVAN London is to advocate, agitate, and maintain on the agenda three priorities that shape how I am thinking at the moment.

  1. Firstly, how are we as cultural leaders advocating and challenging ourselves and policy makers, asking what could, and indeed should, institutions be? We must ensure that in 20 years we have built realistic conditions in London that means artists can live and work here.
  2. Second, it’s making sure that we are making space for future leaders, and ensuring new organisations are being nurtured and built by others from the grass roots up, and that they thrive not just survive. The communities and artists we work with don’t want more of the institutions we have already, they want a new future that they can be part of building. Friendship, kindness and care feel central to that – pushing against barriers, gatekeepers and the market. It’s hard enough for Metroland, so it must be desperate for others trying to get something off the ground in 2024!
  3. Thirdly – which is really a solution to the first two points – the current funding structure wants us to replicate a broken model and system, and I believe CVAN should be making a case to change this system. Right now, it feels like we are starting to have the right conversions, but none of the actions really go far enough to address economic background, and the outcomes the funders want are miles away from where the artists are. Solutions are too simplistic and don’t take into account the true impact of inequalities. It feels like we have all got stuck in more traps that disempower artists. It is my responsibility as a leader to ask these questions and push for others. I have been at too many roundtables where I am told ‘we are struggling so we can’t change the system’, ‘we don’t have enough resources to campaign for others’, ‘it's not our role’ or ‘we are doing too much, we are doing good work, we don’t need to change’. I am shocked how much I hear the latter, and it’s lazy.

What three words describe CVAN London?

Supportive, Gobby, Change-Making and a fourth –Jo Townshend – we wouldn’t be here without her, and we need to celebrate that.

What are you currently working on and what does the future hold?

Survival. It is a word which is probably familiar to a few of you. My day-to-day is fighting to ensure we can continue our work as a new organisation. It’s constant fundraising, advocating and finding new ways to bring what we do closer to those we serve. This sounds bleak but I have been excited to find colleagues that share my hope and determination for change. I am excited about the future; I feel the demand for change everywhere and I want to be part of that.

Thank you!

Lois Stonock Portrait