Staying on

London Essays – Issue 4: Culture

Staying on

As artists decamp to cheaper cities, we profile three London organisations that have years of experience in helping creative people live and work in the capital.

By Louise Jury

Bankers may bring in the billions, but it is artists like Antony Gormley or Tracey Emin who have given London its recent buzz and driven regeneration from Hoxton to Peckham. But even as new generations continue to follow the Dick Whittington road to the dealers, buyers and galleries of London’s global art market, artists are at risk of becoming the victims of their own success. The Shoreditch effect sees wealthier businesses moving into artists’ districts, leaving the pioneers struggling to find studios and pondering a move to vibrant – and cheaper – cities such as Berlin and Glasgow.

I spoke to three organisations that have been confronting these problems for a long time – Artsadmin, Bow Arts and SPACE – to explore what they have learned about keeping artists in the capital.

SPACE is the oldest of the three, dating back to 1968, when artists, including Bridget Riley and Peter Sedgley, recognised the dire need for affordable studios for visual artists in the capital. Partly inspired by similar spaces in New York, they identified old riverside warehouses as offering a solution – and landlords struck cheap deals for these then-unwanted spaces. Today, SPACE has 722 tenants, from Turner Prize winners Laure Prouvost and Tomma Abts to recent graduates, occupying just over 500 studio spaces totalling 256,000 square feet in 18 buildings. The properties include three freeholds, recently acquired with what chief executive Anna Harding calls a ‘hefty’ mortgage, to provide longer-term security. SPACE also provides professional development for another 750 people a year and learning programmes with schools, young people and the local community that are supported by the Arts Council and Bloomberg.

Bow Arts is a relative newcomer, having rented its first building in east London in 1994 from sympathetic developer Marc Schimmel, who also helped a young Damien Hirst. Bow Arts was incorporated as a charity the following year and now manages 12 buildings, housing around 500 artists – including at its headquarters in Bow, which is also home to a gallery and the head office. The organisation invests £750,000 of its revenues from artists’ affordable rents in cultural and education services, including placing artists in schools. Chief executive Marcel Baettig says the aim has always been to offer the stability and support that artists, with their portfolio careers, often lack.

But it is not just visual artists who need support. Judith Knight co-founded Artsadmin in 1979, both to produce her own work and to help other performers, particularly more experimental and cross-disciplinary ones, who were working without office facilities or management support. ‘Those were the dark ages. People were booking spaces from call boxes in dusty halls,’ she says. Initially working without public funding, Artsadmin progressed through different premises before arriving at Toynbee Studios in Aldgate East in 1994. It is now their home until at least 2038, thanks to Lottery funds and £6 million they raised from a mix of sources including the Arts Council, the then Local Development Agency, and Europe.

Now Artsadmin operates around 15 artist offices, plus a theatre and five rehearsal spaces large enough for sizeable site-specific or outside projects, continuing to be both arts producers and offering shared resources for other arts organisations. They also disburse seven or eight bursaries of a few thousand pounds every 18 months. They receive around £500,000 Arts Council funding and have a staff of 24, including in the all-important café. The idea remains as it did at the start: ‘sharing resources, sharing expertise, sharing knowledge’, Knight says. The model has proved highly successful: Artsadmin houses and collaborates with companies such as DV8, Artichoke (creator of shows such as The Sultan’s Elephant) and LIFT (the London International Festival of Theatre).

The Shoreditch effect

Yet SPACE’s Anna Harding says all three of these artists’ support organisations have become victims of their own success, as businesses pay higher rents to move into the areas they have made attractive. ‘The industrial properties we’ve developed for many years don’t exist any more. They’re either being demolished for flats, or converted into flats. With the city moving east and a blossoming tech industry in Shoreditch and Hoxton there are fewer locations for us.’ SPACE is now seeking gifts of buildings as one solution to the problem and donors to create a £1m fund for their 50th anniversary in 2018.

Marcel Baettig agrees the situation is getting tougher. ‘The leases have been for set periods of time, usually 10 to 15 years. At the end of it, the agreement is you will move on and the developer gets the opportunity to do something else with the site. And now the spaces where you can do that are becoming rarer.’

An Artists’ Workspace Study in 2014 suggested that the capital is set to lose 3,500 studios in the next five years, escalating fears of the loss of talent. But Baettig is more worried by the government than by landlords. The move to ease the change of use from offices to residential is causing major problems, he says, given that it can triple or quadruple the value of a site – a worry also highlighted by London MP Zac Goldsmith during his mayoral campaign. Baettig says: ‘There’s no real planning sense in London: areas that used to support and hold jobs will suddenly be blocks of flats.’

Anna Harding thinks that the GLA could step in to protect sites. On their own, council planning departments are struggling to preserve artists’ studios. ‘Local authorities haven’t got the budgets or the legal teams of the big property developers,’ she says, adding that there have been some shining examples of good practice, such as the London Legacy Development Corporation, which has been implementing policies to protect workspaces around the Olympic Park.

But much more could be done, especially with live/work spaces, which, Harding points out, have a long history in the capital, dating back to the homes of East End silkweavers and to old inns and public houses. ‘I’ve tried on a number of occasions to convince planning authorities to support live/work but they’re very cautious about it.’ Instead, residential tends to be zoned in one area and commercial in another.

One of the moves Bow Arts has made is to broaden its client base from fine artists to a broad cross-section of the creative industries – theatre designers, fashion designers, craftspeople who, he believes, often bring other businesses with them and help create an attractive community. ‘That brings in a very interesting new dynamic to these creative spaces, making them more diverse and better used and encouraging other businesses into the area.’

Bow Arts has also opened up conversations with councils and developers about how to create ‘a proper community presence’ in new developments. ‘It’s not just about building new spaces and running away with the money – it’s how to build a better local community’, Baettig says. Property developers have discovered they like having some artists in their developments, such as young textile designers exporting worldwide from a cheap pod cubicle amid the £1 million apartments. ‘Artists set the culture of a place – people doing real jobs at the heart of your community.’ Bow Arts is working with major West End developer The Berkeley Foundation, on putting artists into its new conversion of the former News International site in Wapping – and Baettig hopes this will lead the way to future collaborations.

Still where it’s at

For all three organisations, there is a strong sense that artists of all varieties want and need to be in London. SPACE undertook a mapping exercise last year. ‘There’s a whole supply chain of printers, framers, fabricators, galleries: a very effective ecosystem’, Harding says: ‘you can’t just pick out an element and move it to another town. Our tenants desperately need to be in London because this is where people buy their work, where collectors come to visit.’ It concerns her that the Arts Council is under pressure to devolve to the regions rather than supporting the infrastructure in London: ‘Lots of good infrastructure is going to be lost.’

This alarms Judith Knight, too. ‘I can see why rebalancing is important but I think it’s a bit simplistic. We’re a London funding organisation, but 75% of what we’re doing is out of London.’ There’s now a sense that there’s a greater likelihood of securing grants for work that’s not based in the capital.

In response, new and creative approaches are being tried to support artists. SPACE, with partners Cockpit Arts, Four Corners and Photofusion, has just completed a three-year programme called New Creative Markets, helping 600 artists become more resilient and earn more from their practice through better marketing, using social media, diversifying products and making editions of work. The programme increased the total income of those involved by more than £2 million.

A key part of Artsadmin’s work is its advisory service, which includes help to set up tours and make grant applications. And the importance of making connections should not be underestimated, Knight says: ‘Solo artists can be quite isolated. They really welcome the opportunity to talk to each other. Keeping the café going is a really important part of our building’s work – it’s the place where people bump into each other and collaborate.’ Having enough time to do things properly is also a major challenge. ‘Money often equals time to develop work and ambitious ideas. We were relieved that we didn’t get cut in the last spending round; but 10 years ago we could have raised the money more easily. Everything still happens, and I’m so proud of the things we all produce, but sometimes it feels a bit stretched.’

A fabulous place to live

Marcel Baettig says artists face the same financial battle as most Londoners, with the double whammy of needing workspace as well as a home (on an average income, unchanged for two decades, of around £10,000). Studios are not only becoming more expensive but also getting smaller. Around 300 square feet was typical when he started but now 150 square feet is more common.

Artists who move out of the capital do so for the same reasons as other Londoners, usually because they want to buy a home. But many who are buying in places like Margate are still commuting to work in London. The annual turnover of SPACE tenants is 13%, which Anna Harding says is not significant. SPACE’s tenant survey indicated that if artists leave London, they are more inclined to go to another creative capital – Berlin, Athens, Lisbon, Los Angeles, New York or Brussels – than elsewhere in the UK.

International initiatives consequently pose risks to London. Harding notes that in New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio is acting on rent controls and building live/work spaces for artists. As research by the Creative Industries Federation has highlighted, San Francisco increased public spending on arts by 50% last year, to combat artists being pushed out of one of the most aggressive real estate markets in the world. ‘There’s a lot of talk at the GLA about how to finance art’, Harding says. ‘They have to put their hands in their pockets. They can’t just show us how to get bank loans.’

Baettig believes there is an interesting debate underway between the GLA, local authorities, bankers and funding institutions about preventing the spread of the Shoreditch effect. ‘Can we work with planning authorities to create zones that are rent-controlled and retain artists?’ he asks. ‘Currently, the only way developers and banks can meet demand is through density. They’re not evil; they’re just fitting the numbers together. So we need a different, broader approach.’

City Hall could, potentially, be the artists’ champion. Baettig cites one unnamed borough mayor who turned down the opportunity for around 250 creative workspaces on the grounds that the area concerned had ‘enough artists but needed jobs’, demonstrating a profound misunderstanding of what artists do. ‘Artists are a vital and important part of the economy – an incredibly valuable, hard-working, highly-educated professional group of people.’

The arts and artists, many observers believe, are what has made London special in recent decades. ‘If you lose them, you will get another generic city’, Baettig says. Harding agrees: ‘It is artists who make London the envy of the world. A lot of cities want to be London. London needs its artists to make it a fabulous place to live.’