A world art capital, with few workplaces for artists

LONDON — Francis Bacon sits facing the camera in a spacious studio littered with newspapers, cans of paint and tattered rags, a large un...


LONDON — Francis Bacon sits facing the camera in a spacious studio littered with newspapers, cans of paint and tattered rags, a large unfinished canvas directly behind him.

The black and white photograph was taken by Bruce Bernard in 1984 at Bacon’s London studio, a former coach house in London’s upmarket South Kensington, which he bought in 1961 and where he lived and worked until ‘upon his death in 1992. The picture is one of the very first showings in the new Whitechapel Gallery exhibition “A century of artist’s studio” a look at the evolution of artists’ creative spaces since the 1920s, until June 5th.

When Bacon bought the place, artists could still afford to rent or own spaces in desirable areas of central London. Today, soaring real estate prices have driven even once-poor neighborhoods to gentrify, putting a price on the artists who made them fashionable. Over the past two decades, artists have migrated from the East End – where Whitechapel is located – to Peckham and various other locations in south-east London. Some are now settling in coastal towns such as Margate and Folkestone.

The exodus threatens London’s status as the center of the art world.

Without artist studios, “there is no next-generation pipeline to deliver art to galleries and museums,” said Iwona Blazwick, director of the Whitechapel Gallery and senior curator of the exhibition. “It is part of our cultural heritage. We cannot lose this.

Currently, London-based artists and creators contribute over $70 billion a year to the UK economy and account for one in six jobs in the capital, according to the office of the Mayor of London. Every year, some 35,000 students graduate from art and design schools in London and start looking for affordable workspaces.

Yet art studios in London have been closing at an alarming rate. The Mayor’s office puts the total number of studios in London at 11,500. A 2018 study found that a quarter of studios in London were at risk of closing by 2023. And two-thirds of the spaces that a previous study, in 2014had been identified as being at risk of being closed were no longer in use.

In response, Mayor Sadiq Khan implemented the Creative Land Trusta partially tax-funded body that seeks to establish 1,000 affordable workspaces for artists in the capital.

“London is teeming with talent and innovation, but our creative community is under constant threat from rising rents, and the pandemic has left many artists on the precipice,” the mayor said in March 2021, as the Trust announced the acquisition of space for 180 studios in Hackney Wick, a rapidly gentrifying area in east London.

East London’s first artists’ studio complexes were created in the late 1960s, when painter Bridget Riley and other artists moved into one of the many warehouses left vacant by the closure of the docks on the Thames. The abandoned site was converted into SPACE studios, which exist to this day (albeit in a different location).

Another abandoned dockside warehouse was taken over two decades later by a band of fearless young artists led by Damien Hirst, who in 1988 staged a groundbreaking exhibition called ‘Freeze’ that propelled them to fame and transformed the East End in an artists’ colony. By the late 1990s, over 2,000 artists were working in an area of ​​approximately eight square miles.

Meanwhile, a forest of office towers rose in what became known as London Docklands. Well-paid white-collar workers moved into expensive new apartments nearby, at the expense of East End artists.

For individual British artists, the past few decades have been tumultuous.

In her 35-year practice, Sonia Boyce – who is representing Britain at the Venice Biennale this year – has moved, on average, every two and a half years, she said in a video published on the Creative Land Trust website.

These days, young artists often move around even more frequently, occupying increasingly temporary spaces.

Around the corner from the Whitechapel Gallery, around 50 artists have been working since August in Caprica Studios: classrooms and study spaces in a former design school. The multi-storey building is mainly used for film shoots; the artists were called by a scout who was “looking for something to fill in the dead space,” said Stephen Draycott, the artist and writer who runs the studios.

“The only reason the studios exist is because the building is currently on the market and awaiting the filing of planning permits” for its conversion, likely to residential space, Draycott explained, adding that the process could take longer. for educational properties. .

An artist based there, painter Gaby Sahhar, said it was the first private studio they ever had. Sahhar’s previous workspace was a shared warehouse where artists had to take turns working due to their different uses of the space: the fumes emitted from their paintings and the noise they made.

The coronavirus pandemic has also bought artists time.

Ingrid Berthon-Moine, a visual artist, has been working for three years in an empty office building near Saint Paul’s Cathedral. If not for the pandemic, the building would have been turned into a luxury hotel, and she would have been evicted along with the several dozen other artists who also worked there. Her studio is a corner of a carpeted open-plan office with only two walls, so she closes it off with bookshelves and a curtain. It has neon lighting, false ceilings and no heating or air conditioning. But it is affordable and centrally located.

Artists who need large spaces with all amenities head to the edges of London and beyond.

Rosie Hastings and Hannah Quinlan, who are due to show their work at a major London museum later this year, have just moved to Thames Side Studiosa site of 550 fully equipped workshops in Woolwich, on the south-eastern outskirts of the city.

Hastings said she was happy there, but her main frustration was ‘the lack of choice: that we didn’t choose to come here, it was forced on us and we changed our lives to accommodate it. “.

Quinlan added that people were “so unfamiliar with this concept of just letting something exist, even if it’s not the most profitable thing.” That had to change, she added.

Blazwick, the director of the Whitechapel Gallery, expressed a similar hope: that some of the buildings and department stores in London closed during the pandemic will turn into workshops.

“Is this the time when we can take that back, when we can actually start to have an artistic presence in the heart of the city?” she says. “I’m trying to make this exhibition a bit of a call to promoters and local authorities around the world, to say to them: if you push art out of town, do it at your own risk, because it means that these cities will be dead.”

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