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Opening this weekend, the non-profit organisation and photobook library occupies a 19th century seafront building in St Leonards-on-Sea
In March 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, artists Nick Ballon and Alma Haser felt an urge to “give back” to the community. A year earlier, they had bought a studio space along the seafront in St Leonards-on-Sea in East Sussex, within a listed 19th century building. Its basement houses their personal studio, “but we also had this long, thin shop upstairs,” says Ballon. “Working as an artist can be quite solitary… It made sense not to rent [the upstairs space], and think about how it might benefit the community instead.”
Bellon began talking to local artist Georgina Cook, who shared similar ideas about creating a non-profit arts organisation. As well as organising workshops and events for children and young people, they wanted to nurture a space where the public could engage with photobooks.
“We’ve done some research in our local library, and they had about two photographic books within the art section,” says Ballon. With the aim of creating a reference library aimed at a local audience, they began collecting donations. So far, they have received around 300 photobooks from 60-70 publishers and independent artists.
The Photobook library will open this Saturday, 19 March. “We’ve got this un-curated library of books, which we now need to refine,” says Ballon. With time, the team hopes to curate collections within the library. These will be focused around local artists, or topics that may interest the community – such as sea-side towns, youth culture, or the southeast of England.
“It’s a tool for us to encourage people to come in and engage with conversation and photography,” says Ballon. “Photography-types with a natural interest will not find it hard to find us. It’s about making the library interesting enough through talks and programmes to encourage other audiences to come to us.”
Alongside the library, the workshops will be organised by Georgina Cook. Picnic recently acquired Arts Council funding, which will enable it to run free or donation-based workshops for children and young people for the next six months. These will be led by process-led photographers, including Jason Evans, Eddie Otchere, Alma Haser, Annie Collinge, Clarise D’Arcimoles, and Maisie Cousins.
“We really don’t want to take a top-down approach,” says Cook, explaining the plans to team up with local organisations to provide mentoring, as well as events and outdoor exhibition programs. “What we do will be in response to what various groups and partners identify as being useful to them, to support what they already do… We want to emphasise reaching children and families that don’t have as much access to informal art education or exposure to photography.”
Picnic will provide a rare space where everyone is invited to engage with photography – a medium which can feel inaccessible, expensive and intimidating. “Making this accessible to everyone is key in what we’re doing,” says Ballon. “I can let it exist upstairs without having to charge rent… We can give it a really good fighting chance to be able to have a long-term future”.
@picnic_on_sea will open to the public on 19 March, at 40 Marina, Saint Leonards-on-sea.