It is many years since artists lived and worked in London’s Soho or Camden Town. The generations that emerged in the 1960s formed alternative communities in deprived areas of west London and then, a decade later, in Wapping and the Docklands. In the 1990s, artists once again returned to the heart of London, finding spaces in Clerkenwell and Shoreditch. All of these areas are now far out of the reach of all but the most successful artists, or those who were lucky and/or canny enough to buy property there when no one else wanted it.
It’s well documented that the association of artists with a particular area aids its gentrification. Yet, it’s now increasingly apparent that – thanks to a booming property market and sky-high rentals – there is nowhere left for struggling artists to live and work in central London. New models for studio-space provision are desperately needed, along with the recognition that artists are not simply convenient, dispensable nomads.
Of course, it’s not just artists who can’t afford to live and work in the capital: affordable housing is arguably in greater crisis than affordable studio space. Meanwhile, buildings worth millions of pounds stand empty and building in London is at a recent high. Studios and disused warehouses are being repurposed for residential conversions, displacing artists on an unprecedented scale. In numerous cases, artists are being forced to leave areas where, over many years, they have supported local businesses, which are now also threatened.
The crisis facing artistic production in London has even reached Parliament. On 19 January, Nicholas Trench, the Earl of Clancarty, raised the issue of government support for artists in a House of Lords debate, declaring: ‘The bedrock of the arts in Britain since the war has been, in large measure, the work of the individual artist […] A particular problem that fine artists face is the shortage of studio spaces and, with rising rents, particularly in London, this is an increasing problem, with spaces being sold off. The GLA estimates there will be a 30 percent loss of studio space within the next five years. Artists need reasonably permanent, cheap spaces.’ While there was tacit agreement from many of his fellow Peers, the response from Conservative Peer Lord Patten was firm in its opposition to government subsidy or intervention.
Recently, the Guardian’s architecture critic, Rowan Moore, wrote a feature titled: ‘London: the City that Ate Itself.’ Moore quoted Anna Harding, Chief Executive of Space studios, which has been providing workspace to artists since the 1970s: ‘There is a pretty hellish pressure; I don’t know how we can continue.’ Duncan Smith, artistic director of the studio provider ACAVA, comments that the ‘situation is becoming critical. In 12 months we will have lost 200 studios.’ Eighty of these are in an ACAVA-managed block in Cremer Street, east London, where artists were asked by the building’s owner not to oppose its redevelopment as flats in return for being evicted later rather than sooner. Despite all of this, London has been selling itself on its creative reputation for at least 20 years. ‘There’s great talent’, says Harding, ‘and it would be really foolish for the whole city economy to kick it out.’
Of course, there are benefits to leaving London. Having chosen to move to Rochester, a Kentish town 50 kilometres from the capital, the artist Matthew Darbyshire says there are only pros, namely: ‘loads more studio and head space’. He commented: ‘I guess it might create the Manhattan effect where everyone’s whizzing in from the outskirts so the city becomes some sort of showcase rather than hotbed.’ The artist Henry Krokatsis has recently converted a warehouse space into studios and a gallery, largely using his own funds. Located within Park Royal in far north-west London, Krokatsis felt that moving out of the centre was the only way to secure a studio space not only for himself, but also for a group of fellow artists. The resulting building, which he created with artist Charlie Woolley, is a light, airy space, mostly built from recycled elements, which hosts peer-organized shows.
Private and public organizations are also taking advantage of cheaper areas on the outskirts of London. The Earl of Clancarty cited ACME as an exemplary organization for finding solutions, having been a provider of spaces for artists for nearly 50 years. Jonathan Harvey, its co-founder and Chief Executive, acknowledges that ‘this level of displacement is really of a scale not seen before’. The organization is now focusing on developing new studios 30 minutes from central London, as part of a large regeneration scheme in Thurrock.
There is a glimmer of hope. Signs indicate that developers are starting to recognize the value of art and artists, and are investigating ways to incorporate non-profit cultural activity into their plans. The Mayor’s office has highlighted Section 106, a planning clause requiring new developments to incorporate affordable workspace and not decrease existing employment levels. How this impacts on Tannery Arts – a studio provider on whose board I sit, which needs to vacate its premises by the end of the year – remains to be seen. Attempts to find alternative buildings with a reasonable rent within a 10-kilometre radius have proven impossible. While this 25-year-old organization’s future remains critical, it is in the midst of cautiously positive discussions with the owners and architects of its current site for the studios and gallery to be rehoused as part of the new development. However, there are no guarantees, nor any formal government support to broker this kind of partnership.
Whether these initiatives are enough to stem the exodus of artists to other areas of the UK – or keep them from leaving the country altogether – remains to be seen. The traditional dependence on artists themselves to find a way to survive is no longer realistic: it is because there has been no consistent government policy that there has been no long-term planning or investment. ACME's efforts – which have recently enabled it to operate without the need for its Arts Council grant – exemplify that, once a building is operational, it can become self-sustaining. But it is a kind of capital investment that requires a long-term vision. If the situation facing artists in London is not acted upon, then the city will simply become an international base for buying and selling artwork produced elsewhere, rather than remain a leading centre for the living, breathing production of contemporary art.