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An Art-World Capital, With Few Places for Artists to Work

LONDON — Francis Bacon sits facing the camera in a spacious studio littered with newspapers, paint cans and tattered rags, a large unfinished canvas directly behind him.

The black-and-white photograph was taken by Bruce Bernard in 1984 in Bacon’s London atelier, a former coach house in the upscale South Kensington district of London, which he bought in 1961 and lived and worked in until his death in 1992. The image is one of the very first displays in the Whitechapel Gallery’s new exhibition “A Century of the Artist’s Studio,” a look at the evolution of artists’ creative spaces since the 1920s, running through June 5.

When Bacon bought the place, artists could still afford to rent or own spaces in desirable areas of central London. Today, soaring property prices have led even formerly impoverished neighborhoods to gentrify, pricing out the artists who made them fashionable. In the past couple of decades, artists have migrated from the East End — where the Whitechapel is — to Peckham and various other spots in southeast London. Some are now settling in coastal towns such as Margate and Folkestone.

The exodus poses a threat to London’s status as an art-world center.

Without artist studios, “there isn’t a pipeline of the next generation to provide art for galleries and museums,” said Iwona Blazwick, the Whitechapel Gallery’s director and the exhibition’s lead curator. “It’s part of our cultural patrimony. We cannot lose that.”

As it stands now, London-based artists and creative individuals contribute more than $70 billion annually to the British economy and account for one out of every six jobs in the capital, according to the Mayor of London’s office. Each year, some 35,000 students graduate from London’s art and design colleges, and start looking for affordable work spaces.

Yet London art studios have been shutting at an alarming pace. The Mayor’s office puts the total number of studios in London at 11,500. A 2018 study found that a quarter of London’s studios were at risk of shutting down by 2023. And two-thirds of the spaces which a preceding study, in 2014, had identified as at risk of closure were no longer in use.

In response, Mayor Sadiq Khan has set up the Creative Land Trust, a partly tax-funded body that seeks to establish 1,000 affordable artists’ work spaces in the capital.

“London is overflowing with talent and innovation, but our creative community is under constant threat from rising rents, and the pandemic has left many artists on a cliff edge,” the Mayor said in March 2021, as the Trust announced the acquisition of a space for 180 studios in Hackney Wick, a rapidly gentrifying area of East London.

East London’s first artist studio complexes were established in the late 1960s, when the painter Bridget Riley and fellow artists moved into one of the many warehouses left vacant by the closure of the docks on the River Thames. The derelict site was converted into the SPACE studios, which exist to this day (though in a different location).

Another derelict dockside warehouse was taken over two decades later by a gang of intrepid young artists led by Damien Hirst, who in 1988 put on a groundbreaking exhibition called “Freeze” that catapulted them to fame and turned the East End into an artist colony. By the late 1990s, there were more than 2,000 artists working in an area of roughly eight square miles.

Meanwhile, a forest of office towers went up in what became known as the London Docklands. Well-paid white-collar workers moved into expensive new apartments nearby, pricing out the East End’s artists.

For individual British artists, the last few decades have been tumultuous.

In her 35 years of practice, Sonia Boyce — who is representing Britain at the Venice Biennale this year — has moved, on average, every two and a half years, she said in a video posted on the Creative Land Trust website.

Young artists nowadays are often moving even more frequently, filling ever more temporary spaces.

Around the corner from the Whitechapel Gallery, some 50 artists have, since August, been working out of the Caprica Studios: classrooms and study spaces in a former design school. The multistory building is mainly used for film shoots; the artists were called in by a location scout who was “looking for something to fill the dead space,” said Stephen Draycott, the artist and writer who runs the studios.

“The only reason the studios exist is because the building is currently on the market and waiting for planning permissions to be filed” for its conversion, probably into residential space, Draycott explained, adding that the process could take longer for properties with an educational mission.

One artist based there, the painter Gaby Sahhar, said it was the first private studio they’d ever had. Sahhar’s previous work space was a shared warehouse where artists had to take turns working because of their different uses of the space: the fumes emitted by their paints, and the noise they made.

The coronavirus pandemic has also bought artists time.

Ingrid Berthon-Moine, a visual artist, has been working out of an empty office building near St. Paul’s Cathedral for the last three years. Had it not been for the pandemic, the building would have been converted into a luxury hotel, and she would have been expelled along with the several dozen other artists also working there. Her studio is a corner of a carpeted open-plan office with only two walls, so she closes it off with shelves and a curtain. It has neon lighting, false ceilings and no heating or air conditioning. But it’s affordable and centrally located.

The artists who require large spaces with full amenities are heading for the edges of London and beyond.

Rosie Hastings and Hannah Quinlan, who are due to show work at a major London museum later this year, have just moved to Thames-Side Studios, a site with 550 fully equipped ateliers in Woolwich, on the city’s southeastern fringe.

Hastings said she was happy there, but that her main frustration was “lack of choices: that we didn’t choose to come here, it was forced onto us, and we’ve changed our life to accommodate it.”

Quinlan added that people were “so unfamiliar with this concept of just letting something exist, even if it’s not the most profitable thing.” That had to change, she added.

Blazwick, the Whitechapel Gallery director, expressed a similar hope: that some of the London buildings and department stores shuttered in the pandemic would turn into ateliers.

“Is this the moment when we can seize that back, when we can actually start having an artistic presence back in the heart of the city?” she said. “I’m trying to make this exhibition a bit of a clarion call to developers and local authorities everywhere, to say: if you push art out of the city, do so at your peril, because it means those cities will be dead.”

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