SPACE was founded by artists Bridget Riley, Peter Sedgley and Peter Townsend in 1968. They recognised the dire need of professional visual artists for affordable studios in London and were inspired by a visit to artists’ spaces in New York. While visiting the old docks on the South Bank of the Thames they swiftly realised that the wasteland of empty warehouses might offer a solution to the problem.
In 1968 the Port of London Authority was selling the old dock buildings to the Greater London Council (GLC) and Riley, accompanied by Professor West of the University of Reading's Faculty of Urban and Regional Studies, visited the leader of the GLC, Desmond Plummer. He advised them to form a company and return with their proposal: that the empty buildings be used as studios until their future was decided. When representatives of this new company (SPACE) returned he granted a two-year lease on "I" Block and the Match Shed warehouse in St. Katharine’s dock for £500 a year.
Grants from Henry Moore, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the Arts Council and Henry Moore's donation of his Erasmus prize provided the materials to partition the building into studios and install heating. The work was carried out by SPACE and students from London art schools. As the word spread, the original dozen or so artists grew to 100, with applications from Holland, Germany, Greece, America and Africa and almost overnight, the organisation developed a waiting list of 200.
The bold experiment to convert St. Katharine's Dock is now seen as a pivotal point in contemporary British art and urban development; this model was swiftly copied and adapted, inspiring ACME in London, PS1 in New York, WASPS in Glasgow and Kunstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin.
SPACE vacated St. Katharine's Dock in 1970 when the building was redeveloped and leased Martello Street Studios in London Fields, Hackney, and Stepney Green (where the offices moved) as a replacement. Martello Street was the first of over 70 diverse buildings (varying in size from 1,000 sq. ft. to 40,000 sq. ft) that SPACE has leased from both private and statutory sector landlords. Since 1968 some of the most notable premises have been the Old Dairy at Prince of Wales Crescent and Somers Town Freight Depot.
While SPACE sought to provide the least expensive studio accommodation through these buildings, AIR (Information Registry of Art) sought to collect artists' information, find new patrons, generate new audiences and ways to engage that audience in the visual arts. AIR was started by Peter Sedgley who believed that artists needed a more direct way for their work to reach the dealers and collectors without having to go through an intermediary gallery. AIR, located first in St. Katharine’s Dock, was non-selective and any artist could submit biographical details and slides of their work. The public, galleries, exhibition organisers or potential buyers were invited to consult the registry to find work and artists that might interest them. In 1969 AIR helped organise 9 exhibitions, including two in Germany and one in Tokyo. By 1972 twice that number were organised and the number grew throughout the 70s. From 1970-1975 AIR was kept and curated in the basement of the Royal Academy. It initiated two publications — "Catalyst" 1967-69 and "AIRMAIL" in the 70s — both artists’listings and information magazines.
Arts Services Grants Ltd (ASG) was awarded charitable status in 1974, acting as an umbrella to AIR and SPACE. In 1975 SPACE established the first "Open Studio" an event unique at the time. Open Studios have enabled thousands of artists to flourish, selling their work directly to the public without need of a gallery or agent. In the same year, the AIR Gallery opened in Shaftesbury Avenue but the AIR index was disbanded. The building, which housed AIR and SPACE, was originally taken for SPACE as studios but the chance of a central London, ground floor showing area proved irresistible. Alistair McAlpine provided the materials, the GLC financed the conversion, the initial running costs were supported by the Gulbenkian Foundation and the AIR Gallery was born.