London artists: how to find affordable studios

Pic: Odan Jaeger

London artists face upheaval as studio rents rise. Pic: Odan Jaeger

With 3,500 artists and designers on waiting lists for studio space, London’s creative practitioners currently face a particularly threatening crisis. One of: rising rents, property development, and constant upheaval.

East London, which has long been a centre for creative industries in the capital, is the main battleground for this struggle.

Graphic designer Alex Knowles has been priced out of two shared studio complexes in Shoreditch in just four years. “It was a real blow for the studio being forced out,” he explains, “we’d only been there for two years, and we’re a small studio we need to be working.”

“All the other studios were in a similar position and it doesn’t help when you have six or seven companies all looking for spaces of a similar size so you’re in direct competition,” he adds. “I know that one guy ended up working at home because it just became unfeasible for him as a solo artist to have a studio.”

Now based at Holborn Studios, tucked away on the backstreets by Regents Canal, Knowles faces further challenges.

“We’ve ended up having to move to an area that is not as accessible, the transport links aren’t particularly great and for clients that can be annoying,” he explains.

“Everyone ultimately has concerns about the future – immediately here. We are in a position where the land owner wants to knock down the building and turn it into luxury flats.”

While Knowles has managed to relocate within the inner-London boroughs, other practitioners are seeking studios with longer-term sustainability.

Caren Hartley, an artist and jewellery designer and maker who works mainly in metals, has just made the move the Walthamstow. She blames the recent crisis for artists not simply on rising rents: “It’s mostly because of property developing; the buildings are actually being taken away rather than just rents going up.”

“We’ve just had to move out of Hackney as our old place is being bulldozed and turned into flats, and we couldn’t afford anything else in the area,” says Hartley. “The landlords know that Hackney is such a desirable area that they can make more money out of flats than studios.”

Hartley’s studio group also looked in Tottenham, Leyton and Lea Bridge Road, but many of the properties they saw were earmarked for development, the issue they had faced back in Hackney. “We were scared that the same thing would happen again,” says Hartley. “Which is why we didn’t go there.”

It is not just artists in trendy Hackney facing crippling pressures. Gillian Best Powell recalls how Core Gallery / Cor Blimey Arts Studios, based at Deptford’s once buzzing creative hub, the Faircharm Estate, were forced to shut in 2011, “after a long running battle with the landlord”.

“It wasn’t so much the actual rent as the service charges they whacked on top”, explains Best Powell, “in particular a heating bill which landed out of the blue.”

One Friday afternoon, the studio was simply presented with an ultimatum: “To sign a financially constricting and binding contract to remain in our studios – or get out”. The artist community of seven years moved out over the course of one weekend. The Faircharm Estate is currently undergoing redevelopment which includes partial demolition of the site and the building of four high rise residential blocks.

Just over Deptford Creek, Victoria Rance, of APT studios, is part of a group who found a solution to this issue of property developers. They formed a limited charity (the Art in Perpetuity Trust – APT), which purchased an old engineering works in Deptford, with a mortgage at an affordable rate.

The charity owns the building, so regardless of the flux of artists moving in and out over the years, it will remain a creative studio space. As Rance says: “The point is, that it will last. Every exhibition has to have an educational element to it, open studios are part of our lease – we have to do them – things like that are written into our contracts.”

Other artists are leaving London all together. Lowell Stearn-Marsh, an artist from Peckham, says: “A load of London artists I know have moved to Hastings. They just can’t be bothered with fighting to keep studios in London anymore.”

Rance, of APT studios, does not see this as necessarily a negative thing: “If there are enough connections with what’s going on, enough people together, there will be a community.”

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A stacked-up studio space solution in Tower Hamlets. Pic: Magnus D

Elsewhere in East London the live-in practitioners of Container City, Trinity Buoy Wharf, Tower Hamlets, are taking advantage of rent deals and flexible terms for artists.

David Gridley, who runs a video production company in the units, says: “I’ve moved here from premises that were bricks and mortar and that was more expensive. Here, it is cheaper to construct. Once you’re inside, it’s the same as being anywhere else, but there are interesting people and it’s an interesting place.”

ACME, the UK’s leading affordable studio provider, has a total of 265 spaces across the ELL boroughs.

Jack Fortescue, of the London-based charity, says: “We own a lot of properties so we can set our own rent levels and those buildings we don’t own and we therefore rent, we rent on long term contracts. Tying landlords into long term leases, sometimes 10, 20, 25 years long, allows us to control those costs.”

Click on the icons in the map below to see the number of studio spaces at each location across Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Lewisham and Croydon.

“When you sign a lease with us it’s always for at least seven years and at the end of that we’ll give you first refusal on the next lease. That gives a huge amount of security and stability for artists.”

However, Fortescue recognises that this solution will not be viable for everyone:

“If you’re a recent graduate and not sure if you’re going to stay in London it might feel like a bit of a bind. We rent per square foot which will push those prices up, so unless you share with someone they’ll be beyond the means of most graduates.”

But if artists can afford the rents, ACME offer stability – rare in an ever-changing city.  “If we find a building in an area that’s being gentrified we will tie that property down,” explains Fortescue.

“So no matter how much the area gentrifies and prices rocket through the roof, our prices stay low and if artists do stay in that area we have that understanding that their incomes don’t increase at the same rate as that areas.  As an area gets more expensive, studios can’t because there’s a limit to what people can pay.”

The charts below show the different size ACME studios and their price ranges across the ELL boroughs.

Number of Studios sized between 0-400f in the ELL boroughs

Number of Studios sized between 400-1600f in the ELL boroughs

Studios bigger than 1600f in the ELL boroughs

Studios priced between £0 - £9 per f in the ELL boroughs

Studios priced between £9 - £11 per f in the ELL boroughs

Studios priced between £11 - £13 per f in the ELL boroughs

While it is clear that urban development and rising rents continue to create instability in creative circles, it is also clear that East London artists are rising to the challenge and finding new solutions.

Whether it’s through persistently chasing cheaper rents, buying space, leaving the city entirely, relocating to a live/work initiative, or seeking security through charities, like ACME, creativity will continue to find a way to thrive.

Tweet us your studio dilemmas and success stories (and pics!) at #Sharingstudiostories

By Lou Boyd, Kitty Knowles and Emma Finamore

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