On a recent Friday night, the Arts Lodge in Victoria Park hosted a preview of its new exhibition of work by photographer and artist Claire Richardson.
The next day it was the venue for a wedding reception, and on Sunday dozens of people turned up there to hold a Hope Not Hate barbecue.
Since opening in 2001, this little brick building has been a beacon for the cultural community and for a wide range of groups that have come to appreciate the friendly atmosphere and welcoming staff.
A sign outside gives its mission statement: ‘Portsmouth’s only not-for-profit co-operative. Where great art is a walk in the park.’
It has put on art exhibitions, gigs, film screenings and countless other events over the past 15 years, as well as providing training for dozens of artists and a free place to practice their craft.
From Push Recovery Community to various other charities, vegans, via LGBT groups, unions, and many more, the lodge is well used, and has become a vital hub for the community.
I wanted to create a centre, a community space where creative types were running it, offering free services, workshops, and events for that communityMark ‘Rocky’ Lewis
But Portsmouth City Council’s wider plans for the city centre park include ending Art and Soul Traders’ lease for the building in the new year. The council wants to convert it into a cafe to help vulnerable people back into work. So far more than 8,000 people have signed a petition calling for AST to be allowed to renew their lease.
Mark ‘Rocky’ Lewis is the man behind AST and the Arts Lodge has been his baby.
He had been nurturing the idea for an arts co-operative for several years before finding the derelict building.
He explains, ‘It was a shell, literally a burnt-out shell when I came to it.
‘I thought it was the perfect place – where do people like to go whether they’re rich or poor? People love to go to the park and this is a beautiful park.’
With the help of a £50,000 grant from the government’s Single Regeneration Budget and £10,000 from the city council, Project Phoenix saw Mark and dozens of volunteers turn that shell into the homely, quirky space that it is today.
Before opening the lodge Mark was, as he still is, a muralist.
‘I was painting pictures on walls – I didn’t know there was actually a name for that. I’ve got no qualifications, I’m self-taught.’
While his work has adorned walls around the city, his best-known project is a huge map of the city, depicting characters from its history at the junction of Granada and Clarendon Roads in Southsea.
He explains: ‘I wanted to create a centre, a community space where creative types were running it, offering free services, workshops, and events for that community.
‘I did offer it to some local artists to run with me as artists’ studios, but that didn’t pan out. Looking back, I don’t blame them for not wanting to get involved – it’s been hard.
‘It was 100 hours a week for no money for the first few years – that’s why I’m not willing to walk away from this easily. I’m physically and financially tired.
‘When I walked through that front door I realised I had two or three years’ hard work ahead of me, just to get it back to being a working space.
‘When we first opened we were the talk of the town, everyone wanted to be involved, but then things went quiet after a year or two.’
Although Mark has been the driving force, he has been reliant on a small army of volunteers down the years. At the moment there are a couple of dozen people who regularly come and help staff the cafe, help with admin and the lodge’s general upkeep. Throughout the summer the lodge has been open from 10am to 10pm every day.
‘Voluntary organisations may start off with the goodwill and enthusiasm from lots of people, but that soon runs out and I get that – no-one can work forever for nothing.
‘But to hand it over to corporates who couldn’t give a damn about community and what we have achieved here, I don’t have the vocabulary for it.’
And he says that he has paid people for their work when he can.
‘I have paid out £250,000 in wages over 14 years, but that’s not much when you think about how many hours they’ve clocked up. Over the past 14 years I’ve probably only painted about 10 per cent of the time, all the rest has been taken up on running this place, on the admin and everything like that. I think I’ve got about 14 job titles here.
‘But it is my passion and it is my vision.’
And Mark prides himself on the lodge’s inclusivity.
‘This is a really cool place to chill, and it is for everyone.’
When The News visited, Jenny Horsfall, 66, and her friend Audrey Owen, 73, were enjoying a drink in the garden. The friends are regulars at The Lodge.
They says: ‘We come every week, it’s the lovely surroundings – it’s quirky and it’s quiet out here in the garden. It’s rather peaceful.
‘The staff here are always very pleasant and we enjoy the exhibitions.
‘There really isn’t anywhere like this – it isn’t like the coffee shops in town.
‘We would miss it terribly if it shut. When we found out that it could be closing we were very disappointed.’
‘An essential space’
Moses Milner, 24, from Southsea, volunteers with the charity Friends Without Borders and at the Arts Lodge.
He says: ‘It’s such an essential community space. It promotes a culture and celebration of the arts.
‘It’s a place to share ideas and experience ideas. There is nowhere else like this in Portsmouth. It’s a place of refuge, to come and meet new people and feel safe, it’s somewhere that you can feel like you belong.
‘I’ve been coming here since I moved back to Portsmouth after finishing at university.
‘The principles of the guys who run it here are something that I identify with. It’s about giving culture for free and not commodifying it –giving everyone the chance to access music, art and film and all the other great things that they do here.
‘It was this principle that captured me and it’s why it’s so important to the city.
‘It’s a special environment.’
Moses also helped organise the People’s Lounge stage in the World Music Village at Victorious Festival.
‘We invited the Arts Lodge to celebrate with us because the ethos of what we were trying to do there was very similar. They contributed to the amazing atmosphere and what we were trying to do there.
‘If we lose this space it would be a huge dent in the alternative culture of Portsmouth.’
Ian Linnane, 33, from Fratton, is another one of the lodge’s regular volunteers and says: ‘I’ve found it very welcoming.
‘I help out in any way I can.
‘It’s not just a place for artists and musicians – anyone can come down here, whether you’re a toddler or a pensioner. Everyone enjoys their experience here. You can just have a cup of tea, or the kids can go on the bouncy castle.
‘Anyone can come and help out and make themselves useful. There’s always something to keep you busy and you really feel part of the community and part of Portsmouth.
‘I have been a service user and also help people as a volunteer for Solent Mind, so I know the benefits of feeling part of a community, and that’s essentially what happens here.
‘It gives me that positive outlook to do something productive.
‘With the creative arts, you don’t have to be skilled yourself, just being creative, it helps in ways that you just can’t measure. How do you measure someone’s sense of wellbeing?’
The council’s masterplan for Victoria Park
Portsmouth City Council is looking at an action plan for all of Victoria Park.
Key points in the plan include:
n To retain and enhance the historic design features of the park and, where practical and appropriate, reinstate historic design elements which have been lost.
* Support increasing foot and cycle traffic through the park.
* Retain and improve facilities for children.
* Improve the facilities to effectively manage a range of small/medium-size public events.
But it is this aspect that has proved most contentious:
* Improve the quality of the existing concession (The Lodge) and ensure that it supports the other management principles.
It would also mean the removal of the popular aviary.
At a meeting of the full council in July, councillors voted that Portsmouth’s Tory leader, Cllr Donna Jones, must reconsider plans to kick out Art and Soul Traders. Cllr Jones said she will revisit the council’s decision to give AST until early next year to leave and find a new home.
But she warned the plan to kick them out and redevelop the site into a new cafe to get vulnerable adults back into work may still happen as part of the long-term strategy to revitalise the park.
The team beind the lodge are planning to make another deputation at the next full council meeting on October 11.