As part of their Art Night 2019 exhibition, I am sitting in a room, artists Roy Immanuel and John Thole have met with studio organisations Cell Projects, Acme and SET to discuss artist workspace in London.
This programme discusses the history and operations of the respective studio organisations, causes for the shortage of affordable artist workspace today and strategies to maintain artists in the capital.
In conversation – Milika Muritu and Richard Priestley of Cell Projects, Jack Fortescue of Acme and Roland Fischer-Vousden of SET.
Series produced by Roy Immanuel.
Artist Workspace – edited transcript
Richard Priestley, co-founder Cell Projects
Milika Muritu, co-founder Cell Projects
Roland Fischer-Vousden, co-founder SET
Jack Fortescue, property development, Acme
An introduction to Cell Projects, Acme and SET
PRISTLEY: I started within Cell as an artist making work trying to get a free studio, so we took on a bunch of a lump of a building, and built studios that we rented out, kept free studios for ourselves and a space to show work in as well. So, I’ve evolved from being a practicing artist really to somebody running the property side of Cell as that’s grown and sadly my practice has withered and died and been left behind and it feels very much like I have that latent itch that amputees talk about. It’s a missing organ somewhere on the inside.
MURITU: I co-founded Cell Projects with Richard Priestley, mainly through survival, in terms of looking for a studio, and it’s evolved through trial and error where we’ve taken on lease hold buildings, been relatively naive about contracts to begin with, realising that you really need to have a lawyer that looks over the contracts, so each time we made a mistake, we’d grow for the next building. Once you sign that leasehold the clock’s ticking; you are literally paying for every minute of the day that those buildings aren’t chopped up into units. So, the sheer infrastructure and the money involved in taking that on to put in the electrics, the plumbing the walls the cleaning, it’s a lot of money. All of those costs are taken into account for the building to pay for itself as well as make a small profit on each studio to make a project space.
PRIESTLEY: It’s not a good business plan. It doesn’t make business sense to set up affordable workspace. You have to have another motivation, which we do
MURITU: And ours is the gallery. If we were just business people, we would be considered idiotic. The point is that we’re building up our artist community. It just makes a good community to know that the people in your buildings are going to see the exhibitions and they’re part of that conversation.
FISCHER-VOUSDEN: We began in 2016. Essentially, me and a few friends when we were still at university opened an art space called Dig in Lewisham which was unofficial. It started off as a squat and then we had a contract with the landlord. After that ended, we wanted to carry on but in a more official capacity, so we set up SET and we opened our first site in 2017. That was in Southwark and that was on a 17-month contract, and we’re still there now.
Our structure generally is that we take on short term building to keep costs low and rent low and those who take on workspace become associate members of SET and they co-curate our progamme. We have a model in which we try and take on spaces without paying rent but paying some proportion of business rates. We don’t own any of our properties because we don’t have the capital to buy them. If we did, we would.
We did it because we wanted to get artist workspace for ourselves. We’re all artists, or writers in my case. We wanted somewhere to work but couldn’t afford to take on normal workspace. And the only way we could get a building was by taking on something short-term.
FORTESCUE: Acme was accidentally started I guess. It’s always been a challenge to get cheap space in London. It’s not a new thing. If you look historically at where artists were, they were in Fulham, the Kings Road in the 70s they were in Highgate in the late 19th century so there have always been bits of London that over time have changed and have been pushed out.
Acme’s story began in the early 70s when a group of graduates were looking for somewhere cheap to live. They’d been at Chelsea and West London was prohibitively expensive. They came to East London and saw lots of boarded up houses. There was a squatting movement that they were on the fringes of. They decided to approach the local authority and said there are all these empty houses – can we have a couple? And the guy said you can form yourself into a housing association and I’ll give you a grant to do it up. So that became the plan. They got a shop with a flat above it on Devons road near the DLR station. Being practically minded they were able to fix it up themselves. The guy was impressed and gave them another house and said I’ve got loads of these houses. They were called short live houses then. We’d call them meanwhile spaces now or pop-up spaces. But these were houses that were going to be demolished. Nowadays you’d get a guardianship scheme in. This was effectively a guardianship scheme. Within the space of two or three years, Acme had about three hundred houses in East London.
There were a number of very specific housing associations in that period. There was a Jewish housing association, there was a black housing association all sorts of different groups. We were an artist housing association. To start with these were all residential houses. It all changed round 83 under Thatcher with the closure of the GLC which was the pre-runner to the GLA, the Greater London Corporation, which was run by Ken Livingstone. And the housing stock was starting to disappear through right to buy, starting to disappear because projects were being realised.
As houses started to disappear we started to move into studios only. An early one was a meat pie factory in Brixton which had a recording studio where they kept the cold meat. It was called cold storage. A lot of pioneering early electro stuff came out of there.
Housing associations are a quirk in that they’re charitable but are not charities governed by the charity commission. What it means is that we don’t have the funding and public scrutiny that an organisation that’s a charity under the charity commission might have. Our charitable purpose is to relieve artist’s poverty.
PRIESTLEY: There are a number of things that a workspace provider can do to get charitable status. We happen to do those things anyway and that meant that becoming a charity was a very easy glove to wear. We have two companies if you like. One is a charity, one is a not-for-profit, which means that there is no shareholding in it, so it’s like a charity also. There are a few other financial freedoms – it’s not quite as regulated as a charity. That’s what we formed 20 years ago, and the charity came later, but the two work together. To become a charity, you have to meet certain criteria.
MURITU: Your objects have to be accepted by the charities commission. There are four objects – the main one is that we run a public space that’s free of charge and then the other is as a studio provider. And there’s an education part of it as well.
PRIESTLEY: There’s something about benefit to human kind
MURITY: Benefit to the community. Within each of your objects you have certain criteria that you need to cover and one of them is that we’re open to the public and work with community groups.
PRIESTLEY: But just to be clear, all artist workspace providers that are charities have become a charity to get an 80% mandatory rates reduction. You almost couldn’t exist without that.
The guardianship model
MURITU: You asked us about the guardianship model – when you’re younger and you’ve just left college and you see a space that’s very cheap or even free – of course it’s great and it’s serving a purpose. It’s really good as a testing ground for graduates that have just left – they can keep making work. But as a long-term situation, I just think it’s completely unrealistic.
PRIESTLEY: Developers will title it meanwhile use and hand it over to guardianship. It saves them a lot of money on security, because buildings will very quickly get squatted and security costs a lot of money, and after six months you’ll get hit with business rates as an owner, even if the building’s empty. So, if you get guardianship in you’ll get round both of those issues. The problem is about longevity. As an artist, once you’ve moved your studio six times in three years it starts to be less amusing.
MURITU: We’ve lost buildings and seen how disruptive it can be. Someone might be installing in another country and this is their big show and they’re just about to go abroad and they get two months’ notice. It’s great that you get space for little money and you can test things out, but I’m aware that developers are falling to artists to fill that gap and it’s a loophole for them. They don’t have to spend a lot of money on security or even give proper terms.
FISCHER-VOUSDEN: I want to be clear that we don’t view ourselves as a guardianship company, and we want to be separate from that, mainly because guardianships by definition offer living space as security for landlords against squatting and vandalism, and we don’t offer living space generally. Also, most guardianship companies are profit driven. We’re slightly different in that we take on short term contracts and we speak of ourselves as a security option, because if you frame it in that sense you can essentially get a better deal from landlords.
A lot of institutions take on meanwhile use contracts, but with meanwhile use you pay rent for the time that you’re there, meaning everything gets more expensive. Whilst if you say we’re offering you a security deal, the standard is that you don’t pay rent and sometimes some property companies even pay to put people in there. So that’s why we’re in between what traditional art spaces do, which is take on short term leases for buildings, and property guardianship companies, which is the other end.
It has happened once that we left a building before we thought we’d have to. We thought we’d have another nine months, but they enacted a break clause. I’m sure people were upset about having to leave, but because we’re honest about what we’re doing I think people understand that that’s just what’s happened. It’s obviously far from an ideal situation.
Now we’re at a stage where in six months we’ll be in a much easier financial situation. We won’t have massive reserves, but we won’t be scrambling around each week. Things happen with buildings. Suddenly you need to pay a plumber and that’s a massive problem and you need to ask members to pay rent early to cover that. It’s quite embarrassing to ask people for rent early, but at the same time everyone’s happy to do it, so it feels like we’re all in it together. Essentially, if we were to lose all our sites tomorrow, we have loans to repay which wouldn’t be covered, so in a sense we’re forced to keep moving.
Creatives, artists and co-working spaces
FISCHER-VOUSDEN: There was an argument made to try and justify the need for artist workspace in London around the time that the artist workspace study came out in 2014. Part of the argument then was that we need artist workspace in London because the arts or the creative industries contribute a certain amount of money to the London economy. It deliberately conflates the creative industries with fine artists in order to make fine arts more important economically, because the creative industries make more money. The flip side of that is the minute you conflate the creative industries and fine arts you immediately drive up what affordability means because people that work within the creative industries can afford much more than fine artists, who don’t make that much money. And so, what started off as kind of argument to get more artist workspace in London has in some sense meant that you can charge much more money and that is driving artists out of London.
I think Ideally, although it can sometimes be good to have a mix of people working within a workspace, you want to reserve most of your affordable workspace for people who actually work within the arts and then make it really affordable.
In finding spaces to set up SET buildings, one problem we have is people are circumspect about artists generally. Landlords, not all by any means, but a significant proportion, would think – do we want peace artists in and can we and legislate, can we be sure that they’re not going to try and stay in the building when we want them to leave? But actually, most of the time I would say landlords you speak to are aware of artists working in temporary buildings and are keen to have artists in their buildings. The other problem that we come up against is the planning departments of some large developers get concerned about us turning buildings into cultural assets, which then would be difficult to get a planning on, so we sometimes get to very late stage negotiations, and then the planning department says – ok, how are we going to make sure this doesn’t turn into a cultural asset and then we can’t redevelop it? And that’s a funny thing because the legislation around cultural assets in boroughs is set up to try and protect art spaces, but in some sense it’s stopping more temporary art spaces from coming up in certain situations.
PRIESTLEY: Talking about working with property developers, there are benefits, because they’ll be told you can build apartments, but you have to build x amount of workspace. There’s something called a section 106 agreement, which is what the planners, when they give consent for a building to be built, will roll out. There are a bunch of conditions that the developer has to meet. In order to make sure the developer does it, the council says – we won’t sign off on your property until we see a lease with that workspace provider. So, it’s a way of giving back workspace that’s been lost when a developer’s bought a building that’s, for example, been an ex-Victorian factory building that become used as artist studios.
I do a lot of consultation meetings within the GLA, and they’re continually bringing in organisations like us, and we’re sat round with other founders, directors, CEOs of workspace providing organisations, and there’s a lot of talk about – yes, London needs to keep its artists, but there’s never a really good concise and clear ‘why’ actually. There’s sort of an assumed – we know amongst ourselves. You can print big posters that say that, and someone drives past it on the top deck of a bus and doesn’t really get why though. Why should they have a cheap space. What do I get out of it?
MURITU: Maybe because I’m closer to exhibiting artists, I feel like there’s a lot of resistance to this almost corporate identity of what an artist is and artists are very much aware that it’s been hijacked by big business co-working spaces, some very close to here. Corporate entities are actually hijacking that gesture and I feel there’s a lot of resistance from artists to be part of it. It’s sad, but because it’s been hijacked by these corporations, it’s become a lifestyle, so I feel that artists really want to get away from that. There’ll be situations now where artists have to perform. They’re offered studios but there’s this other entity like a rooftop terrace or bar. You know it’s all very nice, but at the end of the day, most artists just want a secure studio. If you give an artist a studio, they will stay there forever. They will stay there till they die basically, if they have the opportunity to, because it’s all about making the work rather than the environment itself. What often happens with this new idea of studio space is it’s become a lifestyle space.
PRIESTLEY: Affordability to artists is a number per square foot which has come out of research from the GLA. It moves every couple of years as rents go up. The most recent report that came out of the Mayor of London’s office suggested it was between £19-20 per square foot. It used to barely change. The last five years it’s gone through the roof and that’s because the market for commercial property has jumped.
MURITU: It’s to do with co-working spaces as well. The tech industry and the way people work, and right next door we have the most massive workspace provider, Wework.
PRIESTLEY: Wework interestingly are a big problem in terms of raising rents because they will typically pay the asking rent and not negotiate downwards, so when it comes to a rent review, the landlord will ask the owners of buildings around what they charge and they’ll be told that Wework is paying this, so I can charge this to you.
MURITU: And that’s happening to us with next door, which has only been up 3 months. When we get to a rent review in four years’ time, we’ll be compared to this place.
PRIESTLEY: And they charge £65 per square foot there.
The future of artist workspace in the capital
FORTESCUE: The GLA did a study in 2014 to look at studios and those studios that were under threat, and they redid it again last year to see where are they now. It was mixed news really. For every space that had been lost another space came on board, but whereas beforehand they’d been predominantly full of artists, now only 60% of those space were artists and the other 40% were other wider creative practice. I think that’s a reality of the fact that, if you’ve got to pay a landlord a certain rent, you’ve got to fill it. You can’t have empty spaces. So you have to up your rents and you have to broaden who comes into those spaces.
That traditional model of a painter having their own studio, there’s very few people that can afford to do that, so people share studios a lot, people come as groups or collectives. We’re adapting our polices to accommodate that. Increasingly, people want a time share. The idea of paying rent on your home and paying another rent on a space that you only have time to get into several times a week, and only for a few hours at a time, seems crazy and also unaffordable. So, can you share that cost somehow?
Central Saint Martins have done a two year research programme around how studios are used by artists coming out of that establishment, which doesn’t have dedicated studios, but has bookable spaces. So that led to this model – we’ve now got two schemes – what we call transitional studios. They’re large studio spaces. One’s got eight artists, one’s got twelve artists in, and these are graduates who’ve come out of Central Saint Martins, and they keep contact with the college in terms of tutors, mentorship around building their career.
We do offer some live-work spaces. It’s something we’re keen to explore but it’s a mine field legally because you’ve got a space where you pay both business rates and council tax and how you divide the two gets very complicated. A lot of the live work stuff offered by other providers flies under the radar and a lot are starting to go as the rules have changed. Live work used to be a way to get residential through the back door. You’d let people use it as a live work space and after a while you’d approach the council and say you’ve been collecting council tax from your tenants for the last five years, so surely it’s a residential property, and the moment the council agreed you’d kick everyone out and turn it into luxury flats.
So, we’ve always tried to be honest and forthright about what we do. We’ve used planning to secure artists into an area rather than to art wash an area.
FISCHER-VOUSDEN: It could be a good way of moving forward that artists are involved in the beginnings of development plans for an area. On the one, there’s something quite natural about the movement of artists into an area that if you try and pre-plan maybe makes it less organic, but at the same time I think there’s a problem which I don’t think is the artist’s fault in of themselves. People act and move to places where it’s cheap because that’s a natural thing to do, but that’s driving up local prices which also forces local people out of an area.
Maybe a good way of doing things with developers would be to say that we will keep a certain amount of the development as truly affordable Workspace. If that were possible, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be, that could be a good means of making sure we had artist workspace in London which is really affordable for the future.
MURITU: In a way, because artists have colonized areas, there’s an element of gentrification which seems more palatable for the design industry, so then it’s the whole Shoreditch effect where it’s spreading further and further out. And in a way it’s like the artists are paving the way for gentrification in not necessarily a knowing way.
PRIESTLEY: We’re our own worst enemy in that respect. The only way round it, to short circuit it, is to buy the building. And that’s harder and harder because there are developers that will turn big old buildings owned by someone – this one was rag trade – we lease it. We’ve been here 15 years. The owners worked in here on sewing machines when they were really young. So, there’s buildings like this around East London and South East London and those owners aren’t necessarily born as developers or landlords and developers are offering enormous amounts of money. And that means that these buildings will stop being workspace. They’ll become residential. Or the council, through the planning process, might say – you have to put same amount of workspace back, but we’ll let you build a load of apartments above it, but the nature of the workspace will change and of course it will be much more expensive.
There are some things that are starting to happen which will help. One is the creation of the Creative Land Trust, which launched a few weeks back. What they’ll do is help entities like us – they might just buy a building themselves and lease it directly to a workspace provider. We’re taking to them about lending us the deposit part of the value of the building. Say we’re buying this building for £3M and we didn’t have the 30% deposit, but we had a bank that would lend us the other 70%, the creative land trust will come in and lend us the other 30%. So, it means that organisations that haven’t got a lump of capital can get hold of a building. It’s a way of beating the developers at their own game.