As the cost-of-living crisis makes it harder for artists to pay the bills and earn a living, the availability of affordable workspace is an increasingly pressing concern. A landmark experiment in supporting artists in the community is reaching a turning a point in one corner of London, as the help offered by property developers and the mayor of London’s office to the city’s creative talent is coming under scrutiny.
A long-term cultural programme in Thamesmead in south-east London has provided artists with low-rent studios and access to affordable housing. Since it began five years ago, it has also produced more than 1,000 job opportunities. By contrast, across the capital in Acton, west London, a new multi-towerblock housing development with more than 1,200 new homes will have space for 30 artists. How genuinely transformative will such projects be—or are they just useful in securing developers broader planning permission?
Thamesmead was once known as “the town of the future”. It was built in the 1960s on reclaimed marshland. Architects imagined it as a Cockney riviera, a place of marinas and glittering waterways with a rowing boat moored at every front door. The reality turned out a little differently: blocks of low-rise housing in the Brutalist style, where Stanley Kubrick shot scenes for his notorious 1971 film A Clockwork Orange. That said, the town’s population of 45,000 includes families who have lived there for three generations and will not hear a word against it. They finally got a Tube station last year, at the end of the Elizabeth Line.
Peabody, a not-for-profit housing association, is a prominent landlord in Thamesmead and has ambitious long-term plans for developing the town, including desirable riverfront homes which will now be only three stops away from Canary Wharf. Peabody has also been supporting a community arts programme. After five years, it is taking stock of what that programme has achieved, as are the people of Thamesmead.
At the edge of a lake stocked with reeds to attract wildfowl, a Brutalist low-rise building, the Lakeside Centre, has been converted into 38 low-rent studios for artists, who can also apply for affordable housing. Nearby is a new library building which includes a performance area and offices, and an artists’ space, which doubles as a radio station.
Thamesmead has just celebrated its annual festival. In the seven years since this event was relaunched, attendance has gone up from 1,500 to 7,000. There used to be a handful of traders at the festival; this year it had 45. In the days leading up to this year’s festivities, young women artists were painting concrete light wells on the estate with bright colours and designs. Peabody says each festival costs £120,000, and it has spent the same sum funding 16 murals in the past three years. A project to put a hot air balloon into the sky above Thamesmead, with the story of the town told on its canopy by artists, came to £200,000.
Adriana Marques, the head of cultural strategy at Thamesmead for Peabody, said the groundswell of activity shows that the programme is having an impact. Peabody now hopes to take a back seat while local people become more active in running cultural activities.
How would Marques answer cynics who say Peabody are only doing the place up to make it more attractive to Docklands workers looking for apartments? “If we just wanted to sell flats, then there are much easier, quicker and cheaper ways of doing that. I could bring in somebody external to run a festival for a day; I could commission artists to come and do murals in a day and leave again. We are genuinely seeking the buy-in of local people. That’s complex and takes time. But if you have it, you have people who are invested in a place.”
Private developers who are building an estate called the Verdean, comprising 1,228 homes in Acton, in the borough of Ealing, west London (at another Elizabeth line stop), have agreed to provide 4,600 sq. ft of space for artists. One-bedroom flats at the Verdean are already for sale, with prices starting at just under £500,000. The estate’s developers, Mount Anvil expect the artists’ area to accommodate 30 individuals – which is fewer than at the old Lakeside building in Thamesmead alone, where 38 artists could have a studio each.
Spaces under threat
In Acton the artists’ space will be protected under a 999-year lease taken out by the Creative Land Trust (CLT), a body that brings together sources of money to sustain the future of artists’ studios. The CLT was set up after an influential 2014 study for the Greater London Authority found that artists’ studios were under threat. It stated that there were 11,500 studios in London but only 17% had secure freeholds, while “years of steadily increasing rents mean many spaces are becoming unaffordable”. More than two-thirds of sites identified in 2014 as “at risk of closure within five years” actually shut within three years.
A spokesman for Mount Anvil said, “We’re delighted to be working with the CLT to bring guaranteed affordable artistic spaces back into the heart of the borough.” Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, said, “Our city is bursting with innovative talent and this expansion of the CLT in the Verdean, Ealing, is a big step in the right direction”.
City Hall sources tell The Art Newspaper that a set of policies known as the London Plan encourages putting workspaces like artists’ studios in residential developments, but “the detail of the provision of affordable workspace is for the boroughs to determine”.
The mayor’s contribution to supporting artists also includes so-called “creative enterprise zones”, which were introduced across the city from 2018, with a brief to help artists find cheap workspace and offer creative skills to locals. City Hall put £11m into the first six zones. In their first four years, which included the pandemic, the zones supported almost 600 artists and cultural businesses, and boosted creative sector jobs by 14%.
The mayor announced this summer that the scheme would be extended to another half-dozen boroughs. In three years’ time, the 12 zones are due to deliver 71,000 sq. m of affordable creative workspace, according to City Hall. They will support 800 creative businesses, deliver 500 jobs and help 5,000 young Londoners to join the creative sector.