The head of a leading arts organisation has warned that London’s status as a world-class creative city is at risk because artists are being forced out of the capital.
Anna Harding, the chief executive of Space studios, which provides premises for nearly 800 artists including three Turner prize winners, blamed rising property prices and shrinking studios for dramatically squeezing the time and space available for creative activity. Artists now face a choice between working full time to pay the rent and fitting in a few hours in their studios at weekends, or giving up entirely, she said.
Harding’s stark warning comes in a book, Artists in the City: SPACE in ’68 and Beyond, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the organisation set up by Bridget Riley and Peter Sedgley, leading proponents of Op art, who were frustrated that London’s artists had to work in cramped garden studios. The pair renovated a warehouse in St Katharine Docks which allowed them and others to create art on a much larger scale. Space now operates 17 studios in London and Colchester, a model used by similar organisations like Acme and Bow Arts. Tenants include the Turner prize winners Laure Prouvost, Mark Leckey and Tomma Abts, as well as Heather Phillipson whose work will occupy the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in 2020.
In her introduction to the book, Harding writes: “Lack of affordable living and working space for low-waged people in London is forcing many to reconsider their future in the capital. Increasing rents underpin the story of artists living and working in London, and the challenges of affording a studio and making work have worsened considerably.
“Practices, studio sizes and lifestyles have had to adjust to the challenge of living in a congested and increasingly expensive, yet stimulating, city. Vital resources, such as studio space and alternative arts venues, should not be taken for granted. Without them, London’s preeminence as a creative city is at risk.”
Arts and culture contribute about £11.8bn to the UK economy, according to the Arts Council, but the majority of artists earn less than £10,000 a year. An EU-funded Space initiative called London Creative Network, which has been mentoring and helping more than 400 artists to use technology, found that 83% of them earned less than the London living wage of £10.20 per hour. Many have gone to seaside towns like Margate and Whitstable, while others have simply left the UKfor cities like Berlin.
Speaking to the Observer, Harding said: “People forget that you need a whole ecosystem to create [London’s preeminence as a creative city]. You need 800 people to create eight famous names. There’s a perception that artists are rich because of a few people. But underneath, there is all this research and development going on.
“ In the early days of Space, artists might have needed a teaching job for two days a week. Now it’s five days and you hope you can get in at the weekend. Their creativity is being wasted and that’s really bad for the economy as well.”
She said Space has been working with developers and landlords to find studio space in new developments, but “it’s much more difficult to find spaces – we are competing with residential properties, too. Yard spaces are disappearing, so you can’t find the large spaces, you can’t get a car or van in to deliver things, or you can’t make noise because there’s residential property next door.”
The book, published this weekend, includes contributions from Riley and Sedgley, as well as some of the 3,000 artists who have used Space studios since it was founded. Riley’s essay recalls how she and Sedgley searched for disused buildings. “One of the most memorable of these was Marshalsea prison, a debtors’ prison on the edge of the Thames,” she writes. “The building was too far gone to rescue, and so Peter’s search continued further along the Thames. Near Tower Bridge, he saw the gates to St Katharine Docks.”
They found the ivory warehouse and with the help of the Lord Admiral – Admiralty House was at the other end of the docks – persuaded the council to grant them a lease. “Once we had the keys, a small party set to work cleaning out the warehouse. The pigeon shit was at least six inches deep throughout.”
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