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Anna Harding on the evolution of London’s artist studios

SPACE, since 1968, is one of the leaders in providing affordable artist studios in London. For over fifty years, the organisation has lobbied with government over making the city more conducive for artists and engage through art and creative communities where its buildings are located. SPACE was founded by artists Bridget Riley, Peter Sedgley and Peter Townsend who recognised the need for affordable studios in London for professional visual artists - realising abandoned and empty warehouses might offer a solution to the problem. Since this time, the organisation has permanent studio sites: Deborah House, Hackney (opened in 2010), Haymerle Road, Peckham (opened in 2012) and Brickfield Studios, Bow (opened in 2015), and even a site outside of London in Colchester (opened in 2016).

Run Riot spoke to Anna Harding, Executive Director of SPACE on 50 years, London’s housing and living crisis and how the organisation stays intact in a rapidly evolving city actively centred on real estate profiteering.

Jareh Das: Artists in the City: SPACE in ’68 and Beyond, aside from being a publication charting 50 years of SPACE in London, its origins and evolutions, highlights how London (and other international cities) continue to combat the effects of gentrification. How can artists continue to live and work in this city? 

Anna Harding: It’s very tough as everything is so expensive, finding a place to live before you even consider a studio, or the cost of public transport, a pint of beer and food. Artists always aspire to sort out a comfortable groove where they can operate - for instance having a job close to home, having fewer possessions to move around, which is hard if you make objects and need storage. In the past, squatting was a viable option for many, and it was possible to sign on at the DHSS or apply for jobseekers’ allowance, but there’s nothing like that anymore, although there are more barista and bar jobs available, while the art market creates lots of jobs in art handling etc.

Jareh: As the oldest continuously operating artist studio organisation in London, how does SPACE continue to expand, reflect upon and further its original mission after 50 years?

Anna: We are constantly considering new property options, although there are far fewer industrial buildings left and property prices have risen exponentially. When I started at SPACE 13 years ago, after stabilising the organisation, we started saving up to buy a freehold studio building. Our first big break was securing Deborah House freehold in Hackney in 2011. Since then we have bought two more large buildings, one in Peckham and another in Poplar. This means that now approximately one third of our artist tenants are fortunate to be in studios that we own (or part-own with the bank who we pay large mortgage payments to). Ownership reduces anxiety and the stress of constantly needing to move studio, although with costs in London going up, we are still having to increase rents across all sites, but we manage to keep costs to artists well below open market. It’s a real challenge to keep rents down to a level that artists can afford. In addition to freeholds, another way we address this is by setting up graduate bursary studio awards which give a recent graduate a 12-month rent-free studio. These bursaries are supported by a variety of partners including SPACE Patrons & Friends and we try each year to support the most promising graduates who would struggle most to sustain their practice without a studio. You can visit some of them at our forthcoming Open Studio Weekend, 22 - 23 September, or visit the current solo exhibition by studio bursary artist Jungyoon Hyen at the Korean Cultural Centre London.

Jareh: What are your thoughts on the label of ‘artist as gentrifier’ and the move of some artists to places like Margate and Hastings to combat high rental and living costs in London?

Anna: The label ‘artist as gentrifier’ is apt since SPACE’s first studio site at St Katharine Docks in 1968. We have always played that role through supposedly ‘discovering’ and ‘gentrifying’ areas of London previously not on the radar of genteel followers of art and thereby by default making them more palatable areas for middle class people to visit and maybe live. This is a side effect that artists are part of. However, we have had studios in Hackney since 1971 and the big wave of gentrification with coffee shops, microbreweries and fancy restaurants is more a ‘00s phenomenon. Moving to cheaper “cluster” locations, such as Margate or Hastings, makes sense for some people, particularly young families looking to buy a house. However, if you have to commute to London for your paid work which supports your practice, such as teaching at an art school, this can be a real challenge, as it’s just too far for a daily commute and the train ticket isn’t cheap either. Some people also need to be close to their supply chain from printers to fabricators and other suppliers. In a place like Hackney you have that all close to hand.  A lot railway arch tenants are now being priced out, impacting on these small businesses and creating a loss of suppliers, from MOT garages to metal fabricators and carpenters. Campaigns such as “ Guardians of the Arches” addressing the national sell-off of railway arches are vital to London’s infrastructure.

Jareh: One could argue that lack of affordable housing is the great scandal affecting Britain today and artists some of the victims. How do you see artists you come in contact with navigating this grave issue in London against the need for creative spaces?

Anna: Of course, this is a major scandal! We see new flats being built constantly while the proportion that are “affordable” is extremely small. The definition of “affordable” at 80% of market value excludes most couples, even when both earn a full-time professional salary, from buying a property, let alone artists whose earnings in London are on average below £15,000 per year gross. *[ SPACE LCN survey 2014]

Developers are challenged to build both affordable housing and affordable workspace, and often.

Jareh: What drove SPACE to establish a studio in Colchester and how has this output developed since it opened?

Anna: This project was developed by Colchester Borough Council and Essex County Council. They had tendered the opportunity to manage a business hub in a beautiful old building in central Colchester, but had not found an operator. I was alerted to this by Steve Mannix, formerly of Hackney Empire, who thought that SPACE would be ideal for the project and so we bid and were successful. The refurbishment by Ash Sakula architects was to a very high spec and the tenant mix is a far wider range of creative businesses than our London studios, which works very well for Colchester. We also recently opened a café on the premises, Dice and a Slice, where you can play every board game imaginable. This has been a big hit with families over the school holidays, and potentially a great way into creative pathways, with game design a growing industry in Colchester, which has amazing superfast broadband infrastructure.

Jareh: Are there plans to expand even further outside London?

Anna: While we always keep our eyes open for new opportunities, we are currently still piloting remote management in Colchester. This is an affordable commute, so we can offer extra programmes such as SPACE Toolkit professional development workshops. There are arts organisations setting up their own studios outside of London who don’t seem to think they need the expertise of organisations like SPACE. However, we have experience, efficiencies and access to a huge number of artists who trust SPACE, which could be really useful to regional providers. I hope we will be able to develop more regional partnerships in future and perhaps even buy a building outside London.

Jareh: What have been the highlights and or challenges in your time as CEO? And what are your hopes for the future of creative London?

Anna: Challenges at SPACE are the increasing price of London property and people moving on, great staff going on to greater things. Losing talent to other European countries is particularly depressing. I worry about Brexit and the impact of the right-wing media on artists, freedom of speech and the future of young people growing up in a racist society.

Highlights have been the pleasure of working to support artists, who face constant challenges staying afloat while also making their best work. I can’t imagine better colleagues than the dedicated creative people I’m surrounded by at SPACE. I hope that SPACE and art will continue to be relevant to creative people over the next 50 years and that art doesn’t become an irrelevant plaything for the elite. This was never the case at SPACE and as a charity we are committed to ensuring that creativity is a fundamental human right accessible to everyone which in turn is crucial to a healthy society.

SPACE Artists’ Open Studios Weekend
Sat 22 Sep, 12 – 5pm:
Studios in and around Hackney

Sun 23 Sep, 12 – 5pm:
Studios in and around Tower Hamlets

Free & all welcome