During a recent hunt for young artists to advertise, I contacted an old friend who has, like me, just graduated from art college. Looking at a five metre tall wooden sculpture which he’s recently produced, I asked him where his studio space was “my mum’s living room” he said, “mine’s my mum’s conservatory” I replied.
Like many other budding creatives we both work in the capital, spend our evenings trying to climb the art world ladder by schmoozing, sipping complimentary booze and blurrily studying artworks at private views, and our weekends touring London galleries for inspiration; and the rest of the time running for the last train home and despairing over the Sunday service.
No one ever said the life of an artist was easy, but should we really be stuck starving in a garret just like the old days? It’s true that other cities – Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham – have impressive art scenes and are cheaper options, but London is ultimately the Mecca of the British art world and so we artists push on: bedding various sofas, setting up makeshift studios and using a child’s music stand as an easel – or is that just me?
The solution is of course affordable live/work property; however as warehouses have become so trendy that they attract the likes of Jay Joplin (see White Cube, Bermondsey) and, despite freezing floors and draughty windows, are more expensive than your average two-up two-down, the options for these renovations are limited. Yes, a cheap room is available through Gumtree or Spareroom – but how thrilled will the new housemates be if you start noisily constructing an installation in your box room, or painting in the galley kitchen?
It’s no secret that government cuts have slashed the wages of arty folk, but luckily our creativity breeds solutions which can both accommodate our empty pockets and geographical needs. For friends of mine these include living in affordable artist studios, or taking a property through guardianship schemes; still, the first is slightly illegal and both are short term and uncomfortable – two friends living in properties without running water, one investing in a tin bath to satisfy his personal hygiene needs.
It seems that currently only one side of the problem is resolvable – take a cheap studio space and you can’t afford a bed, get a room in a house and your practice suffers. Schemes such as Container City have tried to combat this, and if you have £750pcm spare you can go for a snazzy live/work space in the East End (marginally cheaper than a separate studio and home), but neither are permanent or prevalent.
Why, when the UK’s art world is one of its biggest breadwinners, are its contributors paralysed?
Even solutions to the housing crisis on a much broader scale have met with contention: the recent change in law allowing easy office-to-residential conversion criticised for threatening developers, and plans to transform Dalston garages into teensy ‘bijou’ homes deemed ‘unethical’.
Surely what is unethical is allowing those who are building creative careers to struggle so desperately; forcing parents to take in their recently graduated kids who aren’t going to take a job in recruitment consultancy; and driving artists to live illegally, unsafely or uncomfortably.
Jay Joplin stuck his new White Cube in a 1970s warehouse because he needed a big cheap space; a need mirrored by the entirety of London’s artistic community. Although Joplin has transformed it into the most successful White Cube yet, I can’t help but think that when he took that gigantic shed, he also took something from the little people.
We don’t need flat-pack homes or a stack of metal boxes to live in; we need to make responsible use of the empty spaces we have, to assess whose need is greater: swanky developers offering loft living to affluent hipsters; or talented workaholics set to support the arts, tourism and our ravaged economy.
The solution is simple: divide it up, create a community and wait and see what that community creates.