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Developers won’t bring the arts to Vauxhall

24 July 2015

Artist-led regeneration is a common phenomenon. In London for a time, Vyner Street at the southern end of Hackney was a hub of contemporary galleries clustered round Stuart Shave’s space Modern Art. That area is now filled with hipsters, cafes and craft-beer pubs accompanied by soaring house prices. Hoxton, where White Cube took up residence in Gary Hume’s old studio, had the same trajectory.

The pattern of artist-led gentrification is a familiar one around the world: in, for example, SoHo, Chelsea and Williamsburg in New York, or Mitte in Berlin. Artists move in because of cheap studio space, they mess around for a few years and eventually galleries follow. Hip restaurants and cafes are next in, finally followed by rising rent and property prices which then drive artists on to the next area. The problem for developers with this model is simple: artists might find areas, but you have to wait for them to do that thing they do and the whole organic process to take place.

Developers don’t do organic. What they like to do is unleash a winning formula in a short-time frame and this is what is happening in Vauxhall. Based around the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station into residential apartments, a combination of developers, land-owners, Wandsworth Council, Lambeth Council and the Mayor of London are trumpeting the area’s new identity as a cultural quarter in order to sell the 18,000 competitively-priced homes being built there over the next decade.

The biggest cultural attraction is Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery which will exhibit his collection and is due to open in October. This seems appropriate – if any artist has showed the desire to cut out the middle-man and go straight to the business end of art, it’s Hirst. The redevelopment of Battersea Power Station into high-spec apartments and Hirst’s gallery seem like natural bedfellows – indeed the first exhibition at Newport Street is a solo show of John Hoyland titled ‘Power Stations’.

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The downside about all of this is that the ideas that local councillors and developers have about making an area ‘cultural’ are usually wretched. Expect some low-grade public art, a few attempts at participatory theatre, and public space that is signposted heavily as being good for your cultural hinterland. Aside from rising rents there is another reason why artists move out when the developers move in – the latter are largely barbarians entirely driven by the bottom line.

The only beacon of hope in all of this is that Cabinet Gallery are also opening up near the site of the Vauxhall Gardens, a place that for 200 years was a sort of cross of outdoor theatre, carnival and staged spectacles. Cabinet, now backed by Charles Asprey, is known for its unashamedly cerebral approach and stable of intellectually rigorous artists. Asprey is an unusual backer – a former gallerist who has recently been publishing a small, beautifully produced, high-minded art journal that is amusingly difficult to find stocked anywhere.

From all accounts, Cabinet and Asprey seem to have been drawn to Vauxhall through the history of Vauxhall Gardens and its role as being a site of public art, spectacle and, after dark, sexual debauchery (a combination not too far removed from some of their programme). Cabinet has always been an unlikely fixture in many ways and in the new scheme of Vauxhall’s new cultural quarter, it looks like playing that much-needed role again. With luck, its existence will be totally baffling to the new residents of Vauxhall.

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