Can London’s Next Mayor Save the City for Artists?
Next week, Londoners will go to the polls to vote for the city’s next mayor. Can either candidate make the ever-more-expensive city affordable for artists?
The building, in East London, is inauspicious, a 1960s industrial edifice with an anonymous entrance, bands of glazing, and drab brickwork. But for almost two decades, over 100 artists—painters, sculptors, ceramists—called it home. In March, Cremer Street Studios closed its doors for the last time to make way for a new residential development. Now, those artists’ futures are uncertain. Along with thousands of other artists, they are the latest examples of London’s property boom squeezing those reliant on affordable space out of the capital.
On May 5th, artists face another pivotal moment. Slated for that day, the impending mayoral election in London will almost certainly see one of two candidates, Zac Goldsmith or Sadiq Khan, take charge at City Hall. It’s a crucial juncture given the mayor has power over “strategically important” planning decisions, ones that may impact London’s major artist studio providers—key players in helping artists maintain a presence in the capital. Those in London’s cultural sphere have varying takes on the artist studio sector’s financial and political needs, from making leases for studio providers more accessible to cementing partnerships with the private sector.
So what do they think the future holds? To understand that, one first needs to get to grips with the mayoral contenders themselves. Sadiq Khan, the candidate for the center-left Labour Party, and the election’s clear favorite, has outlined a detailed cultural strategy through 2030 in his manifesto. The most relevant part outlines the creation of “Creative Enterprise Zones,” which would effectively serve as dedicated areas with live-work units for “creative industries, artists, and the fashion industry.” (Details on exactly how he will achieve this are, so far, absent.) He will also seek to protect small workspaces from redevelopment, he says.
On the flipside, Khan’s competition, the center-right Conservative Party member Zac Goldsmith, has said very little about creativity at all. At a March event organized by the arts membership organization, the Creative Industries Federation, Goldsmith said he would not have a “specific arts policy,” and would instead focus more generally on creating affordable housing and workspaces. “If we don’t create an environment where people can live and work, there will be no creative sector,” he said.
Those words will be of little reassurance to artists being pushed out of London. A September 2014 report by the Greater London Authority (GLA)—the top-tier administrative authority for Greater London, of which the mayor is a part—reported that 3,500 artist studios are likely to be lost by 2019. Given such a loss will be compounded by rising living costs and spiraling rents, what can be done? Duncan Smith, artistic director of studio provider ACAVA (the Association for Cultural Advancement through Visual Art) and acting chair of the National Federation of Artists’ Studio Providers says he “doesn’t know what will happen with a new mayor,” but he does warn against the lumping together of provisions for artists with other creatives, who may quickly outgrow the need for this kind of support.
“The majority of artists not only require subsidy at the beginning, but need it to be sustained,” he says. “Artists either don’t hatch very quickly or perhaps never do but still their practice may be valuable, because they convey the value of their research through their teaching, curating, or through writing. It’s why they need very affordable space.” He also warns that unless something is done, London’s status as a global artistic hub might be undermined. “Once upon a time, Paris was an important visual arts center,” he adds. “Look what happened to that.”
Anna Harding, chief executive of SPACE studios, the oldest operating artist studio provider in the city, says she is “impressed” by Khan’s manifesto. As well as supporting over 700 artists across 18 buildings in London, SPACE also organizes residencies and exhibitions. Harding says the key to supporting artists in London is the backing of “sustainable” projects, investment in new buildings, and recognition that artists contribute to the wider economy.
“The key is working with experienced partners, like SPACE, who know what the issues are, where you don’t end up with something that’s too expensive to run, or where people don’t want to rent because it’s not affordable,” she says. “There’s a risk of projects being developed by local authorities without the expertise of experienced partners.” She sees rising property prices in London as market failure. “We’ve done a lot of work supporting small creative business over the last three years,” she adds. “They are self-employed sole traders with flexible portfolios. It’s the future of employment.”
Acme Studios, which manages 573 studios across 15 buildings—with space for some 700 artists—was founded in 1972. In that decade, its artists famously helped regenerate warehouses, boarded-up houses, and factories in East London destined for bulldozers. Acme’s chief executive Hannah Corbett believes we should be more proactive about the future, in order to deal with a crisis facing artists that is entirely solvable. “The numbers of people we are talking about is in the thousands, it’s not like the housing crisis, it’s much smaller-scale,” she says. “You could design a policy that built artist studio space into more housing developments in London moving forward.”
She also advocates for facilitating access to credit and long-term loans to help studio providers buy their buildings, as well as access to affordable accommodation, from which artists will necessarily benefit. “Most artists receive very low incomes from their art, less than £14,000 per annum, so there does need to be direct support to allow artists to continue working in London,” she says.
Still, steps are being taken to help artists. The GLA has overseen extensive research into studio space, with that work partly prompting the creation of the “Open Workspace Providers Group,” a collection of expert individuals hoping to lobby the new mayor on behalf of “open workspaces,” including those used by artists. The GLA’s London Regeneration Fund launched in January with some £20 million to finance new places of work, including artists’ studios.
New studios at Meridian Water, a major new development in Enfield, North London, will create space for 34 artists. SPACE is helping provide new studios at Here East, a large complex at London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. And philanthropic organization Outset Contemporary Art Fund—co-founded by new Serpentine Galleries chief executive Yana Peel—has teamed up with the GLA, among other partners, to launch the Studiomakers initiative, which hopes to help facilitate affordable space for artists in new developments, by acting as a bridge between the public and private sectors.
Outset co-founder Candida Gertler, who thinks both mayoral candidates “have different things to offer,” says that “developers need to be made comfortable with their obligations.” She adds: “They are obviously people who are interested in architecture, and you find open-mindedness among them. It has to be a joint venture between the developer and their community.”
The solution for artists in London seems to lie between protecting existing spaces, making studio provision easier for those who hope to do it, or getting developers on board with existing providers to help create new places to work. For the sake of artists across London, the outcome of these initiatives is more pressing than ever, however the election pans out.