Photo: Paul Burns
Sometimes a person’s greatest gift to the arts may not be money – or not only money – but a completely new way of doing things. Promising young artists don’t need wealth to produce great work, after all, they just need space and time. And Delfina Entrecanales realised that they weren’t getting it.
This was the middle of the 1980s. She had moved to Oxford from Spain after the civil war, where she met her first husband. When the children left home, she offered several cottages on her Wiltshire farm to musicians, but then she heard that graduates from art college were getting stuck in dead-end jobs instead of doing what they had trained to do. "At that time it was especially difficult to find studio spaces,” she told the Telegraph a few years later. “Developers were taking over warehouses where artists were working. A lot had to work full-time in order to pay for their painting, and what I wanted to do was to help artists have their own freedom and independence."
Improbably, the answer was above a jeans factory in Stratford, east London. Here she found an empty space which she parceled into studios in 1988, allocating each for two years to a promising artist who would pay only as much rent as they could afford, if any. Overseas artists would be given accommodation too, for one year. Four years later, the Delfina Studios Trust, as it was called, moved south to bigger premises in Bermondsey. Now it could provide 34 studios, an exhibition space and a subsidized canteen. "I have always been obsessed by artists not eating properly,” Entrecanales says. “It's my Spanish background. And the artists can exchange ideas over food."
Soon, this new residency project was being widely talked about, not only as an act of kindness, but as a very good idea. During the planning stage for Tate Modern, one of the curators, Frances Morris, vividly recalls a visit to the Delfina Studios.
“I remember – as inspirational – the gathering of curators and artists at the long trestle tables of the studio’s dining room,” she says. “Delfina Studios was a place that sheltered and nurtured talent.” A lot of talent. More than 400 artists have now been residents since those early days, including a dozen Turner Prize winners and nominees such as Tacita Dean, Jane and Louise Wilson, Mark Wallinger and Martin Creed.
On a trip to Syria in 2005, Entrecanales realised that artists there were also struggling to find work space. What followed was a further move, to Victoria in 2007, and the reinvention of the trust as the Delfina Foundation, now with a renewed focus on artists from North Africa and the Middle East. “It definitely feels like a family and not an institution,” says the Turkish-Kurdish artist and former resident Ahmet Ögüt. “They do everything to connect you to people with the same concerns. It’s far more than basic networking.”
When a new extension opens in the January, the foundation will double in size and refresh itself again, from now on gathering artists thematically rather than from a specific region. The first programme will focus on the politics of food and feature artists from Indonesia, Lebanon, South Africa and Kenya.
Some put the figure at around £20m but, when asked, Entrecanales says she doesn’t know how much she has donated over the years. As well as endowing the foundation, there have been many other gifts, to Tate Modern and countless smaller bodies that would need to be factored in. And besides, the number doesn’t matter. She did all this, and continues to do it, she says, because it fulfills her. “Being a grandmother,” in her words, “is not enough.”
The Prince of Wales Medal for Arts Philanthropy celebrates individuals whose significant cultural philanthropy has played a crucial role in shaping and sustaining the cultural sector across the UK.
Arts & Business, part of Business in the Community, is managing this award on behalf of The Prince of Wales who is our President. This is the sixth year in a row he has presented these medals.
This year, the five honourees whose contributions have been both instrumental to the organisations they have supported, and inspirational to others are: