The event was presented by Frieze Academy and hosted by creative landlords Second Home as part of a series on art and architecture curated by writer and architect Edwin Heathcote whose 2015 essay in Apollo Magazine provides a good introduction to the dynamics of gentrification and short-sighted redevelopment.
Bold Tendencies and its failed bid for the Peckham multi-storey car park it had helped make ‘iconic’ was one of the examples cited in the article. Its founder Hannah Barry was one of the panellists. She was joined by David Adam, a globalisation expert who provides advice to cities and major organisations, and Candida Gertler, who runs public-private initiatives for safeguarding affordable and sustainable work spaces for creatives.
The overall tenor of the discussion was rather corporate as opposed to from an individual artist’s point of view. Examples of untapped potentials for the appropriation of existing spaces seem limited to empty garages and car parks which are predominantly owned by local councils. TfL and the NHS are other major landowners of underused spaces.
The conversation soon moved on to new-builds and how to best work with developers. In order to stand a chance of a proportion of developments to be made available to artists, the relevant decision makers need to be influenced at an early planning stage. Developers deal with huge costs and need to be persuaded that a sense of space, homeliness, sexiness - and community – can only be achieved with a truly mixed offer on ground floor level that goes beyond branches of Tesco and Metro Bank.
New York and Berlin were stated as international success stories. Both cities recognise artists as agents of neighbourhood stability and vitality – as opposed to the more commonly held perception of artists as agents of gentrification. The latter is particularly true in London where artists have been replacing light industry before in turn being replaced by luxury flats, while local governments lack the funds or vision to oversee complex infrastructures and the Mayor of London’s remit appears limited to transport.
A major factor contributing to this major difference between London and other global cities is its patchwork of individually governed “villages” and gated communities in contrast to an urban planning model of zoning that includes dedicated creative industry zones. As a result London’s commuter towns are now screaming out for culture while there is a real danger of people deserting the city. As a general rule area plans with the direction for development are fixed for approximately 15 years and there is currently no nationwide approach for aggregating opportunities.
London’s population is rapidly increasing beyond its M25 boundaries and is joining other mega regions like New York’s tri-state area or China. The significance of the sector is still underestimated here even though the UK’s creative industries contribute £84.1 billion to the country’s GDP of which more than £5m are attributed to music, performing and visual arts. According to a recent report the capital generates 22% of UK GDP, this is likely to be even higher when looking at the creative industries.
While it is difficult to quantify the contribution of artistic activity to a development’s success, the positive effect on people’s wellbeing is undisputed. Organisation like David Adam’s Global Cities and Candida Gertler’s Studiomakers make the case for the inclusion of artist studios and galleries at reduced rents. Artists are positioned as model tenants who hardly ever default on rent and who come with a universe of friends, peers and collectors who give new developments a certain flair.
Good management agents were stated as key to successful public-private partnerships. Clerkenwell Studios, the Harringay Warehouse District and the Yard in Hackney Wick were given as examples of successful negotiations with developers that resulted in mixed economies of people paying market rates and those on subsidised rates. A further example included successful negotiations with a Canadian developer who bought the street opposite Goldsmith’s and will integrate an annual street festival and a curated programme in a cafe.
I was probably not the only audience member leaving Second Home slightly deflated that evening. Very little reference was made to individual artists, especially those not yet established enough to even make it onto the radar of the few specialist management agents. Or the fact that the number of subsidised studios falls dramatically short of the artists made homeless by large-scale developments.
Sadly the picture is just as bleak when looking at exhibition spaces. While there are a number of entrepreneurial approaches to hosting pop-up events in commercial environments or the remaining opportunities for meanwhile spaces (i.e. those earmarked for development but not yet under construction), small galleries in particular are suffering in view of the steep increase in business rates (up to 45% in some London boroughs), alongside independent shops and grassroot music venues.
And as I was writing up my notes, I received an email from Re-Title that this independent information resource and promotional tool for emerging contemporary art was no longer sustainable due to the competitive nature of the digital market place and the dominance of big players like Google or Facebook; thus in a way mirroring the money-driven dynamics of the real estate market.
This post has now been sitting on my computer for several days as I hesitate to publish such dystopian observations without ending on a more optimistic note. While urban planners may not have factored in creative spaces on their blueprints, art has a habit of prospering even under the most adverse conditions and will search out opportunities away from the mainstream. So perhaps this is a salute to artists as agents of resilience and hope.