Chronique londonnienne :: Sustainable Art as a Combat Sport :: Sophie Le-Phat Ho
These days, arts organisations increasingly have to justify their existence in economic terms. Long gone are the days where the benefits of âArtâ could only be spoken in terms of Kultur â that great (although problematic) invention born in the 18th century to signify the elevation of oneâs civilization via its Culture. While the notion contributed to the invention of cultural elites and is still much present today (take for example the existence of Departments of Culture in most governments of the world), it has become difficult to articulate the function of arts organisation solely in humanist terms, so to speak. Rather, in order to survive nowadays, arts organisations are required to specify what kind of contribution they make to society. The emergence of the concept of âcreative industriesâ is completely entangled in this development â a concept that perhaps is less familiar in Canada, given its relatively exclusive and rather heavy system of public funding of which artist-run centres and other types of arts organisations are dependent on. However, in the United Kingdom, and perhaps especially in London, âcreative industriesâ is a keyword when one talks about Culture. The UKâs Department of Culture, Media and Sport defines creative industries as âthose that are based on individual creativity, skill and talent [and] have the potential to create wealth and jobs through developing and exploiting intellectual property.â1 The definition is rather telling.
A recent event forced a London-based media arts centre to particularly confront aspects of this reality. SPACE (Space Provision, Artistic, Cultural and Educational) STUDIOS  was founded in 1968 by Bridget Riley and Peter Sedgley. The registered arts educational charity has its very history embedded in the notion of service provision, that is, mainly renting (much needed) affordable studio space to artists. It was more during the 80s that SPACE developed its gallery in order to further sustain itself, and during the 90s, its educational programs. At the moment, SPACE offers innovative programs in media arts, exhibitions, community development, collaborations, professional development and international residencies â most of the projects being anchored in the community, like the upcoming Media Cluster Network. Throughout these many (often challenging) years, SPACE acquired a distinctive role and âexpertiseâ as the first and largest London studio provider.
Based in Hackney (in the North-East of London) for the past few years, SPACE has recently been involved in an appeal case by Nellbush Ltd against the Council of the London Borough of Hackney. The appeal site is a 1930s former laundry building on Richmond Road, characterized by high ceilings and large windows. The second floor is occupied by affordable studio space rented out by SPACE to artists. The first floor is shared by Flowers East, for gallery storage, and Momart, a fine art storage and shipment company, which also occupies the ground floor. The Public Inquiry, held on 17-19 October and 9 November 2006, caused by the third and fourth appeal of the development agency (who first proposed the demolition and redevelopment of the building in 2005) had three main players before the Planning Inspector: the appellant, Nellbush Ltd, on the one side, and the Council and SPACE, on the other. It is interesting to note here that SPACE was represented by women — the only ones present, except for the Inspector. For various reasons, which are impossible to address here, Flowers East and Momart were absent from the Inquiry process. I had the opportunity to sit through the final day of the Inquiry and the following comments stem from my observing of a clash of clearly different worldviews and interests between the parties involved.
Let us start with the Council. The main grounds upon which it was able to oppose Nellbushâs development projects was the fact that the building in question lies within the Mare Street Conservation Area, which is characterised by late 19th and early 20th century factory and warehouse buildings of generally robust and simple design. The Council argued that the Richmond Road building had to be maintained as it made a positive contribution to the Conservation Area and represented a âvisual link with the history of the areaâ (e.g. historical land uses) as well as provided a âsense of place.â It also pointed out the uniqueness of the building â built pre-war, of a style distinctively of its time, and one that is likely to be associated with the 1930s by the public. Ironically, one of Nellbushâs main arguments for the demolition/redevelopment of the building was a critique of the fact that it reflected its original functional use — a point completely rejected by the Council, obviously. Nellbush proposed two different schemes: the first one suggested complete demolition and replacement while the second one proposed partial demolition, âmixed-useâ replacement and maintenance of the buildingâs faĂ§ade. In its closing statement, the Council asserted that the schemes proposed were ânot the only way could be redevelopedâ pointing towards a specific openness to the addition of contemporary design, but one that âshould reflect the scale, proportions and robust quality and details of the neighbouring buildings.â
In contrast, Nellbushâs position inscribed itself perfectly within a discourse of âmodernity.â It literally situated its rationale on the level of âmodernityâs requirementsâ â that is, the need for the building to serve better and âbeneficialâ use, and grounded its claims upon its observation that the site was being especially âunderused.â According to Nellbush, old buildings such as the one on Richmond Road were âreaching the end of their livesâ and thus were unable to meet âmodern expectations.â In order words, old buildings were of no use anymore. Their mission therefore was to âmaximize the useâ of these buildings, making that region of Hackney âa destination rather than a route.â It is also interesting to note here that Hackney will be the main site of the upcoming 2012 Olympics. In addition, it claimed that the current architecture did not provide adequate lighting for artists (a claim contradicted by SPACE) and emphasised that most tenants (namely Flowers East and Momart) were leaving the site because it did not suit their needs. However, obviously, the needs of SPACE artists and those of the other tenants are of very different nature. In the end, Nellbushâs attitude was one that largely denied SPACEâs credibility â even accusing the charity of using the Inquiry as a tool for rent negotiations since they could not possibly be opposed to redevelopment in principle.
It is fascinating to observe the various claims to a certain kind of expertise by Nellbush. Their argument of under-usage rested mainly on they visiting the building and seeing no artists using the space. However, as noted by SPACE, artists have very flexible schedules (shared with teaching jobs, etc.) and their livelihood depend on being able to rely on a permanent space. Nellbushâs argument was also rejected by the Planning Inspector. On the other hand, SPACE also emphasised its area of expertise as a major part of its argument, as suggested by their opening statement which said: âSPACE have provided affordable studio space for artists since 1968, we are experts in knowing market need in this sector.â Indeed, SPACEâs defence rested on the argument that they play a substantial role in the area, providing for over 600 artists and creative businesses (406 of which are in Hackney) and thus are âessential to the infrastructure of creative industries in the borough.â Furthermore, they convert their premises as economically as possible, keeping management costs as low as possible so that units can be passed on at rates which the creative sector can afford. SPACE also pointed out the âhigh demand for these productsâ with 1600 current registrations.
The second main argument was that SPACE contributes to the âregeneration of the borough.â An important note here is that Hackney faces one the highest levels of unemployment in London â a fact that all parties involved recognised and modulated their arguments according to. SPACE thus detailed their inward investment to Hackney of ÂŁ630,000 for programmes to benefit the community, their educational programs focussed on youth, their employment training in the creative industries, their co-production of a youth led broadcasting channel, and their set-up of free wireless internet access for small businesses in Hackney â all services being not-for-profit and provided by artists. Although SPACEâs lease runs until 2017 and that policy is supposed to protect them, they were nevertheless forced to justify their position in blunt economic terms â for instance, that the studios fall into the developmental requirements of various reports (e.g. Atkins Hackney Employment Report, Mayor of London’s Cultural Strategy, etc.) which promote rejuvenation via the creative industries.
SPACEâs third main argument rested on their focus on affordability, pointing out that Nellbush has no track record in providing studio space and the lack of evidence that their management proposal will guarantee creative industry use, whereas SPACE has been a sustainable creative workspace provider since 1968. The opposition of the studios stemmed from they being offered floorspace at a rate of 342% to their current one; SPACE was initially open to learning about the scheme, but this was a non-starter for them. In that context, they claimed that the projected flats would suit absent city workers who contribute little to the area, in contrast to artists who both live and work in the area, thus leaving a small eco-footprint. Finally, they mentioned that âartists put Hackney on the map and bring in tourismâ and denounced Nellbushâs plan to use the expression âstudiosâ for the new building (as a key selling point while displacing artists) as cynical.
Well, so what was the final decision? Nellbush won its last appeal. My suspicion is that âsection 106â (handed in at the very last minute) made all the difference. Mainly, it included provisions for replacement accommodation for artists as well as âaffordable rentsâ (their own quotation marks). The Inspector also judged that their second design scheme made sufficient compromise with regards to the conditions of the Conservation Area. In fact, Nellbush specified that their second scheme was at the very limit of a balance between âresponding to housing needs in Hackneyâ and conservation interests, stating that âfurther increasing build costs by seeking to retain an even greater portion of the building, which is no longer fit for purpose, will result in a further proportional reduction in the level of affordable housing which can be supported by the redevelopment.â
In sum, the Inquiry showed how completely different worldviews and interests come to collide, as demonstrated with the contradictory discourses about âsuitabilityâ between Nellbush and SPACE. The experience of the studios suggests that a major challenge in the development of a sustainable art will be characterised by a competition of expertise. In the world of âcreative industriesâ (where the concept does no more guarantee sustainability, as suggested by the Stateâs definition), not only do artists have to become good administrators and business people, they also have to prove that they are better positioned in leading the development and rejuvenation of neighbourhoods. The Executive Summary of the Sustainable Development Strategy of the Olympic Delivery Authority begins with the statement that âOne of the central reasons London won the right to host the 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games was its long-term vision of the far wider role the Games could play in encouraging young people to participate in sport and regenerating east London [and] to achieve this in a sustainable manner, provide value for money, and to leave a lasting social, economic and environmental legacy for east London.â It is clear to me that the outcome of the Inquiry contradicts these high aims. In contrast, SPACE was built on the very principles of community involvement, affordability and sustainability. The message sent by the decision then is that the people who have the means to pursue âalternativesâ will win. Unfortunately, they rarely coincide with the same people who have undeniable experience in using their creativity and dedication as a way of building a sustainable form of artistic life.
I would like to thank Victoria Browne and Anna Harding from [ space ] studios for their generous help in providing me with the written statements of all the parties involved.
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Sophie Le-Phat Ho
Sophie Le-Phat Ho
Brooke van Mossel-Forrester
Brooke van Mossel-Forrester