Artists Fairs Analysis United Kingdom

Artists battle to find space

Rocketing property prices in London are making affordable studios increasingly rare, with some artists being forced out of the capital

High House Artists’ Studios in Purfleet, on the Thames Estuary, opened this summer

London’s artists have been drifting eastwards for decades in search of affordable studio spaces, pushed from Chelsea to the former factory spaces of the capital’s de-industrialising poorer districts—Clerkenwell, Shoreditch, then Hackney Wick. Developers have followed fast in these pioneers’ footsteps. Today, however, the gentrification that artists unwittingly unleash is accelerating to the point where estate agents are treading on creative heels, demolishing factories and turning Victorian warehouses into residential lofts. Live-work has become live-live.

A project that opened this summer is seeking to resist the trend. High House Production Park features 43 affordable studios that have been built from scratch in Purfleet, an area of scrappy ports and scrappier suburbs on the Thames Estuary, 30 minutes by train from London’s Fenchurch Street station.

Its architects, HAT, built the critically acclaimed Jerwood Gallery in Hastings. Here though, construction costs have been pared to the bone to allow the smallest 13 sq. m space to be rented from around £89 per month. It is one of a handful of projects showing that new-build affordable studios are still possible. Just.

How many practising artists there are in London is anyone’s guess but there are around 50,000 art and design students in the capital’s colleges at any one time, while the supply of studios is dwindling. The YBA generation might have paid less than £50 per month for an inner-London studio, but £500 a month is now commonplace. The 2006 report Capital Studios identified 72 buildings in London housing 2,000 artists with around 3,500 more on London waiting lists. Matters have only got worse.

As Acme, the affordable studio provider that established High House, celebrates its 40th anniversary with an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery about its first decade, are London’s artists in danger of being priced out of the city altogether?

Acme’s chief executive Jonathan Harvey says it is still not understood that standard creative industry models of cheap space for start-ups who go on to be successful companies do not apply to artists: “There are brilliant artists who still operate on the breadline. There are very few permanent spaces in London and it is so disruptive for artists to move. Short-life pervades studio provision now and the days when artists could afford large studios have gone.”

Harvey co-founded Acme in 1972 ­with fellow art graduate David Panton, utilising then extensive empty properties in London as a self-help solution to affordable space that was an issue even then. The now defunct Greater London Council gave Acme 21-month leases on two derelict shops in Bow and, later, the famous arts community in Hackney’s Beck Road. The voluntary group became a housing association that went on to develop its own permanent studios as well as managing others on long leases. Acme was helped by substantial Lottery grants in the mid-1990s, and it now has an asset base against which it can borrow to develop further studios.

With London property prices now at eye-watering levels, it is not a model that other organisations can readily replicate, with new studios tending to appear as part of “planning gain”—built when developers have to provide workspace that has been lost. They are not always suitable. The Association for Cultural Advancement through Visual Art (Acava) was one of the first to design purpose-built studios but it is not a common response. Other less conventional solutions can be found at places such as Village Underground in Shoreditch, where artists and designers work out of repurposed tube carriages elevated on a viaduct.

The earliest provider was Space, founded in 1968 by Bridget Riley, Peter Sedgley and Peter Townsend. It now runs 17 studio buildings housing 700 artists in London but follows a different model, relying on long leases on vacant industrial building rather than ownership. These are the very type of buildings that now command high prices as flats. “In the early days, we wouldn’t have had much competition for rents, as other industries were moving out,” says Anna Harding, the chief executive at Space. “Now the second and third wave creative sector can pay more and the stock is being demolished or making way for residential.”

Space is increasingly looking at properties further out in Newham, Haringey, Brent and Enfield. “The real challenge will be artists getting their clients to visit them there,” says Harding. “The whole point of living in London is that you will be able to meet your collectors.”

Harvey says artists have become victims of their pioneering spirit: “What artists have brought to the economy of east London is extraordinary. The area now has international importance.” There would be equally profound consequences if artists moved on to, say, cheaper Berlin or Brussels, but that is difficult to predict: “Artists do move to Berlin,” agrees Harvey, “but what’s amazing is that, however expensive London is, it is so important to live and work here that you get on with it.”

Harvey accepts, though, that there is a psychological barrier to an artist relocating to somewhere like Purfleet. There is also the day-return train ticket of more than £10. But for any artist, argues Matthew Essex, the head of regeneration at Thurrock Council, who drove the High House scheme forward, “there is a basic question: ‘Can I whack a nail into the wall and hang a 50kg piece off it.’” At High House you can and, a month after opening, the building is 60% occupied with a mix of artists from the Thames Estuary area and east London.

It is a model that has potential for other publicly owned land, but High House and similar ventures are minnows in the face of London’s property sharks. “It is all very grim, but artists are endlessly imaginative and will find a way to survive and work,” Harding says. If artists were to be forced out of London altogether, she says, the art world’s flexible workforce would also vanish. “The whole art economy of London would be in ruins.”

“Supporting Artists: Acme’s First Decade 1972-1982”, Whitechapel Gallery, London, until 23 February 2014

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