OPINION: Southwark Council’s Shameful Rejection Of 800 Artists’ Studios

After Boris Johnson recently called for new artists’ studios and cultural spaces it seems that little is changing for the betterment of London artists, or the capital’s cultural evolution. This important cultural plea came as the London Mayor published guidance for councils, planners and developers on protecting arts venues – and with good reason – as artists continue to be priced out of the UK capital, as developers move in, stripping London of its cultural capitol in order to line their pockets; and in doing so, sanitising and sterilising London’s creative diversity, all in the name of profit.

Shocking figures show that London is due to lose 3,500 artist studios in the next five years. This is a third of the capital’s creative workspaces. But even In light of this danger to our dwindling creative environments, it seems that no one is listening. Now Southwark council has rejected plans that would have transformed a multi-storey car park in south London into 800 affordable artists’ studios.

The council has instead opted for a rival proposal for the building in Peckham from a Mayfair-based property developer. Even though the project was backed by the directors of the Tate Modern and the Serpentine Gallery, who stood behind the Bold Home project, which would have provided much-needed cheap studios for artists at a time when such spaces are dwindling.

Instead, of course, Southwark council opted for Pop Community Ltd’s application, which will only offer 50 artists’ studios in alongside “multi-use event spaces, pop-up retail and cafe/bar”. This particular development is a partnership between Carl Turner Architects and multimillion property developers The Collective, a business which is likely to target “ambitious young professionals” according to the Guardian’s report.

Bold Home was a collaboration between Bold Tendencies, a cultural arts organisation operating from the south London car park and run by local gallery owner Hannah Barry, and Second Home, a cultural venue run by Rohan Silva and Sam Aldenton.

“Artist studios in London are now critically endangered, and we need to take urgent action,” Silva told the Guardian. “The creative industries are one of the main drivers of growth and new jobs in London – if artist studios continue to be decimated in this way, all this will be at risk. Artists and creative startups have no trade union representation, and no voice whatsoever. That’s why they’re being squeezed out of the city, and we simply have to do something about it.”

Bold Tendencies have in fact been credited as central to the cultural regeneration of the area in the past few years, since it began putting on art and music events at the multi-storey car park some nine years ago, attracting more than 900,000 visitors to the area. Despite the council’s assurance that they wanted Bold Tendencies to remain in the car park it would seem that the future of this art hub much more precarious.

Silva told the Guardian: “It’s really depressing … you would have thought that Southwark council would want to support this kind of initiative, but sadly that’s not the case.”

The project also had the backing of some of the most notable cultural figures in the art world, including the co-directors of the Serpentine Gallery, Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist; Tate Modern’s outgoing director, Chris Dercon, and Wentworth, a former professor of sculpture at the Royal College of Art. But despite voices of concern for the ongoing eviction of artists form their creative spaces all in the name of cash over cultural value – no one is listening.

The issue was made particularly stark last year when a former biscuit factory in Bermondsey, south London, which was home to 400 artists, was sold and converted into 800 flats.

“As London is eating itself, gradually becoming another Dubai or Mumbai, initiatives such as these are increasingly becoming vital to keep London alive,” stated Chris Dercon to the Guardian. “Artists are capable of steering a city away of becoming a ghetto for purely financial gain … Yet artists need spaces for living and working to lead a meaningful life in an otherwise meaningless city.”

Gregor Muir, director of the ICA, also spoke of his concern stating: “London is now cooling at the level of artistic production owing to a sharp decline in artists’ studio provision,” he said. “Without spaces in which to work, artists can’t make things. They can’t test their ideas or evolve their practice. Turning a derelict car park in Peckham into studios and exhibition spaces for artists would have clear and obvious benefits for the local community and beyond.”

But of course Southwark council defended its decision, stating: “We felt generally that Bold Home didn’t quite fit into the vision we had for the space, as a place that could be used by the people of Peckham. The whole point of this interim project was so we could create a lot more mixed and open spaces in Peckham car park that can be used by the community, and the plans submitted by Bold Home would have made it more into the style of an office block. The car park is a public space and we didn’t just want it to become just a closed artist commune.”

The time for talk is over; developers need to be made to recognise artists cultural worth to the capital, and stop damaging the future of contemporary art in London. If only this city had the respect that Paris has for its cultural and artistic practices and heritage. Artlyst thinks that the fact that these events are being allowed to play out in our great city is an embarrassment to the supposed sophistication of our culture, and it has to stop.

Words: Paul Black © Artlyst 2015.

Photo: © Alex Baldock.


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