With the Olympic Park next door, the artists inhabiting Europe’s densest arts hub face immense pressure. We spoke to some of the people working to secure Hackney Wick’s uncertain future
‘I caused Hackney Wick to become gentrified. Now where is my 10 per cent?’ The street art in Hackney Wick is on point: 15 years ago, before artists came in search of cheap rent, there were few reasons to go there. But now, rising property prices mean the same artists are being squeezed out at an alarming rate.
Hackney Wick in east London has over 600 studios, making it the densest concentration of artist studios in Europe. But their numbers are diminishing. This September, the hub lost Vittoria Wharf after a high-profile battle with the London Legacy Development Corporation, which will demolish the building to make space for a footbridge. This autumn also saw the closure of Mother Studios, one of the first to open in the area in 2001. These defeats are demoralising to the people living and working in the area, contributing to a feeling that they’re fighting the inevitable.
But that doesn’t mean the fight has stopped. Local artist Aida Wilde is the curator of the upcoming ‘Save Yourselves’ exhibition at Stour Space. This is a continuation of this summer’s takeover of the Lord Napier, the art-covered pub near the Overground station. ‘It’s about getting people together,’ says Wilde. ‘The street work has shaped the environment – it’s more visual. You don’t necessarily see the people in their studios, so [people’s impression] of the Wick starts with what you see when you get out of the station.’
‘Save Yourselves’ aims to deliver an immersive visual and historical experience, working alongside community organisation Save Hackney Wick and festival organiser Hackney WickED. ‘Locals have been submitting photos, some going back 100 years,’ says Wilde. ‘The response has been phenomenal. It’s a show for everyone.’ This is the sort of story you’ll often hear when talking to people about the future of the Wick: the prospect is gloomy, but the community spirit is unparalleled.
In part because it’s squeezed between the canal, the marshes and a busy road, Hackney Wick has long felt a little isolated. Even though the area has a long history of change, the Olympics triggered a wave of gentrification that’s unprecedented, and is threatening to undermine the unique attributes that made the Wick so attractive in the first place. Though the problem of rising property values squeezing out low-income creatives is pervasive all over London. As she announced plans to create so-called artist zones by helping artists buy workspaces, Deputy Mayor for Culture Justine Simons said she expects London will lose 30 per cent of its artist spaces over the next five years.
‘Hackney Wick and Fish Island [the adjoining neighbourhood] have a vibrant sharing economy. Personal relationships are the glue that keeps this place going,’ says William Chamberlain, founder of Creative Wick, a social enterprise working towards a permanently sustainable creative community. Traditionally this has meant that artists share resources, but Creative Wick has extended this collaborative spirit to also include working with commercial interests.
Creative Wick is one of the forces behind the Béton Brut Gallery, whose current show is by big name Wick artist Gavin Turk. Some of the proceeds will support Creative Wick’s work, which focuses on boosting resilience by helping artists develop their practice, both in terms of art and business. Gavin Turk’s show ‘Transit’ is sponsored by Currell, perhaps an odd choice; estate agents in the Wick could be seen as agents of gentrification. But Chamberlain says it’s been relatively easy to get the businesses arriving in the area to agree that Hackney Wick’s creative community should be preserved. To that end, Currell will be showcasing local art in their Wick offices when they open in the new year.
‘What we need to do is demonstrate value – not only economic but also social value,’ says Chamberlain. ‘[The art community] has to become stronger. People have to be able to develop their practice, but commercialism is very difficult to embrace for lots of artists. It’s a very fine line: to find commercial opportunities through the development sector, that can then assist the long term survival of the creative sector.’ Chamberlain says this feels like it’s a path that hasn’t really been trodden in the Wick before: ‘This is the experiment!’
‘Save Yourselves’ runs from 14–31 October at Stour Space in Hackney Wick.
‘Transit’ by Gavin Turk runs until 10 December at Béton Brut Gallery in Hackney Wick.