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Where will London’s artists work?

21 December 2015

From the January issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here

The cycle of gentrification, whereby artists inhabit run-down buildings in run-down areas and through their efforts make them desirable and safe for the gentrifiers who follow in their wake, is now so familiar as to have become a cliché. Artists and creatives as the vanguard of gentrification, rather than the avant-garde of art is old hat. Luckily, big cities, with their cycles of fashion and change, always have another down-at-heel neighbourhood, another half-abandoned factory or leaky repair shop or industrial quarter ready for adaptation. Except  for London.

Something has recently gone very wrong with the capital. The novelist and critic John Lanchester has called it ‘Peak London’, the point at which the explosion in cost and desirability of the city seems unsustainable. There is no cheap space left. Hackney, Dalston, Peckham, New Cross, and Deptford are all gone – all now the domain of low-hanging light bulbs, artisan coffees and bespoke estate agents. Artists are moving to Glasgow or Margate, or further afield to Berlin or even Detroit. The city is squeezing out the artists, architects, and designers on which its reputation as a creative city depends. And nothing seems able to stop it.

In November last year, a serious proposal to convert a parking garage in Peckham into 800 affordable artists’ studios was rejected by Southwark Council. It was a blow to any hopes of maintaining and developing significant artists’ communities in the city. The proposal was a joint venture between Hannah Barry’s Bold Tendencies gallery and Second Home, the Shoreditch-based co-working and cultural space currently expanding to Los Angeles and Lisbon. The design to convert the Peckham parking garage to studio spaces was conceived of as an ‘artists’ favela’ by Selgas Cano (the Spanish architects of the 2015 Serpentine Pavilion and Second Home’s offices); studios would be rented for as little as £100 per month and occupants would be able to design their own spaces.

The plan to turn Peckham car park into artists' studios

The plan to turn Peckham car park into artists’ studios © Selgas Cano

The idea was to build on the success that Bold Tendencies has made of its Frank’s Cafe atop the car park, which has become the de facto centre of the South London summer arts scene. The council advertised the design competition referring to Peckham’s ‘iconic’ car park. But of course its iconic status sprang from the success of the rooftop bar. The studios proposal would have generated less rental income from the site than the eventual winner (which does include 25 studio spaces as a sop). But it represents a severe failure of imagination on behalf of the council. This was a scheme which could have made a real difference and the opportunity was missed. Although we understand that councils are struggling with budget cuts – and it must be difficult to reject a huge wodge of cash coming their way – the lack of longer-term thinking is a real concern for a city desirous of maintaining its status as a cultural capital.

The ongoing redevelopment of the city’s industrial heartland around the Olympics site is also pushing artists out of their last refuge. Ironically here it is partly the huge cultural site of Olympicopolis (embracing new outposts for the V&A, UCL, Sadlers Wells, and the Smithsonian), which is making the future for studios so uncertain; the consumption of culture is driving the production of culture out of the city.

Hackney, which boasts the densest concentration of artists’ studios in Europe (an estimated 600) is feeling the squeeze. Space Studios, which runs 18 studio buildings for artists across London, but is focused on the east of the city, is renting out affordable space to 700 artists – but for much longer? Those big buildings make ideal loft apartments. At least 35 per cent of all artists’ studio buildings are said to be under threat over the next 10 years.

There is no respite in the suburbs, either. Rocketing real-estate prices and the Conservative government’s loosening of zoning has made the city’s peripheral industrial and commercial properties irresistible to developers:  these spaces can be more profitably converted to residential use, whereas they might once have languished a little to provide space for creative uses.

New York still has its hinterland. Sure, artists have long ago been forced out of SoHo and Chelsea, and the Meatpacking District – and even Brooklyn – but there’s always Queens and the Bronx. London, with its constrictive green belt, has only a tight band of commuter housing and nothing beyond.

There is nothing new in this history of artists inhabiting a down-at-heel neighbourhood, making it cool and, ultimately, forcing themselves out. It doesn’t just reach back to the lofts of SoHo or Shoreditch. It goes right back to the fin de siècle when Montmartre and Chelsea, in their respective cities, were the most fashionable haunts for artists before they were gentrified over a century ago. Some artists have managed to stay behind: the rich and the successful, from Renoir to Whistler, hung around – though Whistler’s financial problems meant that he had to move several times within Chelsea.

There are still a number of wealthy artists living in London – Antony Gormley in his David Chipperfield-designed King’s Cross Studio or Anish Kapoor’s Casey Fierro-designed Camberwell cavern. You could argue that the scale of these studios – and the salaries they pay assistants who are usually aspiring artists themselves – are a critical part of London’s art infrastructure and if the super-successful artists were not here, that support would be lacking. And those big-name artists are here only because London is a place of such wealth and interest. Just look at Damien Hirst’s new gallery-cum-museum in Newport Street, in south London – a private space to match anything the public sector has delivered in over a decade.

The Newport Street Gallery is not, however, a studio space. It is exactly the kind of large, light building (a former stage-flat painting studio), which might once have provided cheap artists’ studios. There are residencies galore in London – at the Delfina Foundation, for instance – and at many public institutions.The Victoria and Albert Museum’s outpost at Olympicopolis is promising up to 25 studios for artists in residence, but these programmes, and others like it, are all carefully controlled, top-down initiatives. Where are the opportunities for artists to make their own communities?

Sometimes, too much success can strangle a city. If you think of the punk, new wave, and art scenes in New York, they reached their zenith in the 1970s in a city close to bankruptcy. London’s last great moment may have been with punk, and its aftermath in the 1980s – against a background of huge unemployment figures and the beginnings of the end of a generous welfare system that enabled artists and performers to experiment without starving. The issue is not space alone – it also touches on the nature of the city, its economy, and on immigration and politics – but also the spaces in-between.

London’s success has led to every crack between buildings, every builder’s yard, and every pub and scuzzy bar now being viewed as a potential residential development. There is no longer any real scope for improvised appropriation of the forgotten spaces of the city, and there has been a massive crackdown on squatting (once the last resort of artists and musicians), even though it often kickstarts a sense of community in long abandoned places.

London was once an industrial city. You could argue that its industry is now finance – but as we know, the financial industry doesn’t produce anything, it sucks out margin from financial transactions, the point of which is to generate revenue. Today, London’s real industry is culture. In 2014 it contributed over £21bn to the city’s economy, with one in six of all new jobs in the capital being created in the cultural industries. Each year, a staggering 35,000 students graduate from arts courses in the capital. Where will they go? The Artists’ Workspace Study published in 2014 by the Mayor’s Office suggested that a target of 3,500 artists’ spaces should be maintained or grown over the next five years. It is unclear whether these are new or existing spaces.

The report and its recommendations were well intentioned, but at its heart is the conflict between a city government keen to reinforce its status as a hub for artists, and a national government desperate to demonstrate that it is building. London’s housing crisis has prompted both local and national government to sell the sites they own, which are often precisely the kind of marginal, heavily zoned, and difficult to develop plots that artists would formerly have flocked to – everything from railway arches and transport storage depots to warehouses.

No city’s status lasts forever. The greatest cities end up as tourist attractions, mired in their own lack of ability to adapt to change – Venice, Rome, Paris – now, perhaps, London as well. Art in the city has arguably become too successful, too sexy. London needs its artists to stay, in order to stop it atrophying, but if it wants them to stay, the city’s administrators will have to adopt a more intelligent, more flexible, and less capital-oriented way of understanding the city – as a cultural centre and not just as a commodity. There is precious little sign of that happening.

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