'Unfit for purpose': London's biggest artist studio provider accused of 'misrepresenting' landmark residency

Artists say their live/work spaces have become unliveable after major construction work at neighbouring sites, but Acme says this is outside its control

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Builders' vans outside the Fire Station building, which houses the live/work spaces

Builders' vans outside the Fire Station building, which houses the live/work spaces

Leading mid-career artists renting live/work spaces from Acme studios in East London say their five-year residency has been “misrepresented” to them by the organisation, which they say failed to alert them of major building works at neighbouring sites before they signed their leases.

Since they moved into the Fire Station building in July 2020, the 11 residents have suffered relentless and at times deafening noise disturbances, which has severely impacted their quality of life and ability to make work, they say. The noise pollution has been compounded by other issues including access to studios being blocked by workmen’s vehicles, security alarms going off late at night and early in the morning and violent brawls between workmen breaking out on site—as well as problems with the general maintenance of their building.

“Most of us cannot work from our live-work space anymore,” the artists wrote in a letter sent to Acme in September. “Due to the constant and gruelling noise pollution coming from the multiple construction sites surrounding the fire station—as well as recurring parties happening at RedBox studios, and Veolia who has now also undertaken some excavation work just next door—our home and studios have become unfit.”

Furthermore, the residents—Paul Maheke, Evan Ifekoya, Charlie Duck, Sarah Duffy, Zadie Xa, Benito Mayor Vallejo, Marianne Keating, Matthew Humphreys and Tamsin Clark—say Acme has responded to their concerns over the past 16 months with “hostility, disdain and a lack of empathy”, rather than with “compassion and with a commitment to honesty and openness”, as stated in Acme’s missions and values.

Acme says it “provides clear application documentation” about the residency and there has not been “any fundamental change from that published information in 2019”.

A video made by one of the Fire Station artists recording the construction noise

"We are all left dejected, hurt and traumatised"

Founded “by artists, for artists” in 1972, Acme is London’s biggest provider of artist studios, currently operating 16 properties across the capital. It launched its Fire Station residency programme in 1997. In publicity material from 2020, Acme says the residency “is one of the most directly supportive schemes for artists in the United Kingdom […] and includes secure, practical work/live studio accommodation alongside a programme of support and professional development”.

The five-year residency, Acme adds, “allows artists more time to concentrate on the development of their work and careers, and less time working to survive”.

However, as the artists write in an open letter published today: “We are all left dejected, hurt and traumatised by our experiences of living at the Fire Station. Precious hours and days have been taken away from our practice in order to advocate for ourselves and the impact that the nearby construction sites are having on our lives. The emotional, mental and physical toll of this experience—navigating extreme noise and pollution levels in our environment as well as the lack of care from Acme in the situation has impacted our personal and professional relationships”.

Crucially, the artists say Acme never warned them in advance of the construction works—neither verbally during open days on the 7th and 21st of September 2019 (which were not attended by all residents), nor subsequently in writing.

This was despite Acme being made aware of the development works the safe storage firm Iron Mountain intended to carry out as early as December 2019. Planning documents reveal that Acme asked to be “informed of noise, air quality monitoring and hours of operation”, but never formally objected to the works.

In response, Acme says it is “confident” it “communicated the forthcoming building works as clearly as we could at the time, at the recommended open day visits”, adding: “Of course it was not possible to know and hence communicate the extent of disruption that those building works would have.” In correspondence with The Art Newspaper, Acme’s co-director Lea O’Loughlin says that, “on reflection, it would have been prudent to restrict our residency offers only to those artists who committed to a site visit” and will take that policy forward, “should the programme continue past the current cohort”.

The studio provider notes that it has “advocated on behalf of our Fire Station artists with the various owners of the site and the relevant planning offices”. Acme says it met with Prologis, which acquired the site in mid-2020, but the property firm was “unable to provide clarification until planning was actually secured in February 2021”.

"No legal standing"

Noise disturbances from the adjacent site were first reported in August 2020, just weeks after the artists moved in. In the weeks and months that followed, several artists lodged complaints with Tower Hamlets local authority, whose environmental health team served written complaints to Prologis. The British self-storage firm SafeStore took over in early 2021.

In April 2021, construction work started up again without notice and has progressively worsened, with regular weekend work occurring from October onwards.

Of its power to contest or intervene in the building work, Acme says, with “no legal standing behind us”, its hands are tied. In a letter dated 21 October from Acme’s co-directors Lea O’Loughlin and Richard Kingsnorth and Paul Bayley, the head of residencies and awards, they say that, despite witnessing “first-hand the noisy, dusty and intrusive building works on your doorstep”, Acme has a “lack of power [to oppose] development in an industrial zone” and that, as long as builders act within the law, “there is no recourse to stop this work”.

Studio with a view—of the construction site

O’Loughlin notes that Acme’s “ability to provide such highly subsidised artist studio space is linked to the reality that our studio buildings are in locations that are ripe for development”.

As a “direct cause of remediating action”, the artists have proposed a six-month rent rebate, totalling £4,320, but Acme has instead offered a one-off payment of £1,500 each from its hardship fund as well as shortening its notice period. The artists have accepted the payment, though stress that the sum “is not adequate compensation for the level of disturbance and disruption that we have faced”.

Acme came under fire in April 2020 for pushing ahead with a 7% rent increase, above inflation and just as artists were beginning to feel the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, though it did offer three-month payment breaks to tenants. The previous group of residents left before this rise, in February 2020, and were paying £565 a month by the end of their residency.

Rent for the current group is £720—a 27.4% hike. “In any circumstances, this rent increase would be incomprehensible, but particularly given all that we have suffered over the last sixteen months,” the artists say in a letter to Acme.

Noise, jolting lifts and no hot water

Acme says that it is unable to offer “significant additional and ongoing financial subsidy” by lowering rent until 2025. The studio provider points out that rent was set at £720 a month when residency was advertised in 2019—a fixed amount “without rent increase or inflation until 2025”.

Rent is set at the “maximum charitable subsidy that Acme can sustain”, it adds. “As a charity with finite resources, any reduction in income […] needs to be made up elsewhere.”

The artists have also raised numerous other problems with their studio provider, including issues with the general maintenance of the Fire Station building such as the switch frequently tripping in the laundry room, extended periods without hot water, rotten window frames and problems with the lift including it “jolting quite violently” and stopping short of floors. More recently, the lift has malfunctioned on two separate occasions, trapping tenants inside with the lights cutting out.

Acme’s response to one unit being without hot water for three weeks was to apply a “goodwill gesture” of £128 to the artists’ electricity account. Access to use hot water in an alternative unit was offered, though it was recognised this was “not ideal” given the neighbouring building works.

“There was no real acknowledgement or apology or explanation,” the artists tell The Art Newspaper. “It’s not just about compensation, it’s about how we have been treated. We see this across the art world, that institutions don’t treat people with dignity or respect.”

They add: “It’s also about accountability. Acme obfuscates through language. The residency is presented as a prestigious, five-year, unique opportunity for mid-career artists. All of us were in pretty dire straights before, but it has been worse since being here and it’s impacted our ability to work.” One of the conditions of the residency is that artists have to prove they are in a precarious financial situation. “Acme took us on knowing that we were all at extremely vulnerable points in our career, and that acceptance on the Fire Station Residency was make or break in terms of moving forward with our practice in London,” the artists write in their open letter.

Registered under the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014, Acme is a registered society, which is regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority but not by the Charity Commission. According to its latest accounts, three board members who are also executive officers were paid £190,397 in 2019 and £166,350 in 2020.

O’Loughlin points out that Acme is “not a commercial landlord”. She adds: “We embrace our charitable mission and provide advocacy and support to artists and to the affordable studios sector.”

Dear Slumlords of the Art World:
An Open Letter from the Acme Firestation Residents 2020-25

In addition to the article posted by The Art Newspaper on 20 December 2021, we the current residents of the Acme Fire Station Work/Live Residency want to elaborate on our position as it stands today.

Individually and collectively, we have experienced a great many challenges, frustrations and difficulties since being awarded the Fire Station Residency. We have faced constant disturbance and disruption at a level never experienced by any previous recipients of this award. The reality of being woken up every morning (and frequently on weekends) by an onslaught of noise pollution and vibrations caused by intensive construction work surrounding our building has led to an unprecedented amount of physical and mental distress. This is not just our home, but also our place of work - we have felt trapped and our ability to produce and make a livelihood has been severely impacted by the high level disruption we have faced.

Despite numerous attempts to alert Acme’s management to our situation and the role they  played in it, they deny, still to this day, any responsibility for the issue. Acme’s directors claim that we moved in knowingly. In truth, none of us received any written or verbal notice of the extensive refurbishment and redevelopment of the neighbouring building, either during the application and interview process or prior to moving in. This was in spite of the fact that Acme had received notice from the planners in early 2020 - months before we moved in.

Today, we publicly speak as a group about the reality of the Fire Station Residency Award and the vast discrepancy between the wider public’s perception - as well as our understanding of the residency on application - and our actual lived experience. We question Acme’s charitable mission and whether the values stated on their website are being upheld in the delivery of the Fire Station Programme in terms of rent, artist support and duty of care. Part of the process for being awarded the Fire Station Residency involved applicants being asked to demonstrate and disclose vulnerable housing and precarious financial circumstances to Acme in order to meet the selection criteria. Alongside this, we had to prove the quality of our work justified the “transformational impact the residency would have on [our] career”. Acme took us on knowing that we were all at extremely vulnerable points in our careers, and that acceptance on the Fire Station Residency was make or break in terms of moving forward with our practice in London.

We each entered into this residency in good faith, but have been met with hostility, disdain and a lack of empathy thus far, rather than with “compassion and with a commitment to honesty and openness” as stated in Acme’s missions and values. We are all left dejected, hurt and traumatised by our experiences of living at the Fire Station. Precious hours and days have been taken away from our artistic practice in order to advocate for ourselves and to deal with the impact of the nearby construction sites. Indeed, navigating extreme noise and pollution levels in our environment on a daily basis, has taken an emotional, mental and physical toll on us all. These circumstances, along with Acme’s continued disregard, have greatly impacted our personal and professional relationships. 

Many of us continue to stay on, not because we want to, but because we have little other choice than to leave London, or in some cases the UK. This is a continued shared reality for us as artists for whom visibility and exposure do not equate to financial stability.

In Disappointment and Rage,

The Fire Station Residents 2020-25

Tamsin Clark

Charlie Duck

Sarah Duffy

Matthew Humphreys

Evan Ifekoya

Marianne Keating

Paul Maheke

Benito Mayor Vallejo

Zadie Xa

  • A slumlord (or slum landlord) is a slang term for a landlord, generally an absentee landlord with more than one property, who attempts to maximise profit by minimising spending on property maintenance, often in deteriorating neighbourhoods, and to tenants that they can intimidate. Source: Wikipedia.
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