The Manhattan Effect

London's studio-space crisis

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.

is head of programmes at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, UK.

Issue 174

First published in Issue 174

October 2015

Most Read

With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The museum director, who resigned last year, acted with ‘integrity’, an independent report finds
In further news: study finds US film critics overwhelmingly white and male; woman sues father over Basquiat
With the government’s push for the controversial English baccalaureate, why the arts should be an integral part of the...
From Bruce Nauman at the Schaulager to the story of a 1970s artist community in Carona at Weiss Falk, all the shows to...
Sotheby’s and Christie’s say they are dropping the practice of using female-only staff to pose for promotional...
For the annual city-wide art weekender ahead of Basel, the best shows and events to attend around town
For our second report from BB10, ahead of its public opening tomorrow, a focus on KW Institute for Contemporary Art
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
In further news: declining UK museum visitors sees country fall in world rankings; first winner of Turner Prize,...
The Icelandic-Danish artist’s creation in Vejle, Denmark, responds to the tides and surface of the water: both artwork...
In further news: Emperor Constantine’s missing finger discovered in the Louvre; and are Van Gogh’s Sunflowers turning...
The opening of a major new exhibition by Lee Bul was delayed after one of the South Korean artist’s works caught fire
The LA-based painter’s exquisite skewing of Renaissance and biblical scenes at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
Lee Bul, Abortion, 1989, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and PKM Gallery, Seoul
In a climate of perma-outrage has live art self-censored to live entertainment?

A tribute to the iconic New York journal: a platform through which founder Andy Warhol operated as artist, hustler and...
A distinctively American artist who, along with four neighbourhood contemporaries, changed the course of US painting...
From Assemble’s marbled floor tiles to Peter Zumthor's mixed-media miniatures, Emily King reports from the main...
From Ian White's posthumous retrospective to Lloyd Corporation's film about a cryptocurrency pyramid scheme, what to...
Kimberly Bradley speaks to ‘the German’ curator on the reasons for his early exit from the Austrian institution
In further news: #MeToo flashmob at Venice Architecture Biennale; BBC historian advocates for return of British...
German museums are being pushed to diversify their canons and respond to a globalized world – but is ‘cleaning up’ the...
Sophie Fiennes’s new film Bloodlight and Bami reveals a personal side of the singer as yet unseen 
‘At last there is a communal mechanism for women to call a halt to the demeaning conventions of machismo’
The German artist has put up 18 works for sale to raise money to buy 100 homes
The novelist explored Jewish identity in the US through a lens of frustrated heterosexuality
Artist Jesse Jones, who represented Ireland at last year’s Venice Biennale, on what is at stake in Friday’s Irish...
‘I spend more time being seduced by the void … as a way of energizing my language’: poet Wayne Koestenbaum speaks about...
To experience the music of the composer, who passed away last week at the age of 69, was to hear something tense,...
In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018