Lofty Ideals

Studio space and living space, separate or combined, is essential and can be very difficult for visual artists to come by.

‘What kind of house is this, ‘ he said.
‘Where I have come to roam?’
‘It’s not a house, ‘ said Judas Priest,
‘It’s not a house . . . it’s a home. ‘ *

ACME and SPACE, to name but two artists’ service organisations in this country, have been wrestling with these problems for years, and have provided excellent though insecure short-term and very basic services to visual artists. It seems that there is a detectable change of approach being pursued by many artists who feel the time has come to make more permanent and secure arrangements for living and studio space.

There is a clear movement away from the traditional squat/licence/short-term-deal to occupy usually derelict or dilapidated property – often publicly, though frequently privately, owned. Individuals and groups of artists in increasing numbers are chasing (and securing) property on a permanent and sound basis. Of course, they still go for the neglected and not so obvious space/place which needs a lot of work doing on it, but these artists are more interested in security of tenure and a decent return on investment of capital used for acquiring the lease and doing up the place. In this way, artists are now becoming ‘business tenants’ under the full protection of the law, as opposed to squatters, licensees or interlopers with little or no such protection. Progress indeed.

Perhaps what is even more encouraging is that many such artists are coincidentally acquiring and earning both self-respect and the respect of others for their professional status. A silver lining indeed.

Aye, lad, but where’s t’ bloody cloud, as my northern granny used to say. Good question. The cloud really hangs over the often very rapid ‘gentrification’ of those areas and neighbourhoods which artists are now moving to. The new kind of spirit and feel that artists create with such projects is, more often than not, the cause of their own downfall. As the well-heeled speculators see the value of such property and neighbourhoods rapidly rising, they (not unnaturally) jump on the band-wagon; and, in the end, the first few pioneer artists leases run out first, and they cannot afford to compete with moneyed property speculators in paying the now jumped-up market value of their leases. The law gives the artists’ rights in their leases to renew but market forces disable them from exercising those rights. This is not the beginning of a dissertation on the sad realities (for some) of the capitalist system: there is much that can be done.

Three recent publications appeared almost simultaneously and, in a way, two of them prove the gentrification point. However, they contain very useful information and ideas, and a swift review, through an art lawyer’s eyes, might be even more useful.

July’s Homes and Gardens looks at Ann Pickford-Smith’s combined flat and studio in a disused Victorian warehouse at Oliver’s Wharf, at Wapping. Real coffee-table glossy stuff this, but two useful comments emerge. ‘Wapping caught on a little later when a few architectural students and other young creative people moved into warehouses with low rents and short leases. With their own hands they made them habitable, but many were driven away by the heating and maintenance bills. Bermondsey, on the opposite bank, is now beginning to interest others. Wealthier people followed the pioneers’.

Too true; ‘flats change hands at around £100,000’, it says. ‘People who rent are usually prevented from doing much to the property by restricted short leases or limited cash. Installing heating, a bathroom and a kitchen barely leaves much over for partition walls which, in any case may not be allowed’. And, finally, ‘however, all complain of running costs. One resident pays £600 a quarter for gas central heating in his 3,000 square feet flat in winter. Those with exposed wooden floorboards say these get very grubby and what a task it is to clean such big areas’.

The Sunday Times Magazine of September 6, 1981 reviews ‘London Lofts’ in its ‘Lifespan’ series. This piece contains useful information about how to do it, but first gives some good background information about the apparent birth of this trend in New York in the Sixties, referring to the forty-three blocks of SoHo in Lower Manhattan being colonised by artists short of studio space, commenting ‘The whole arrangement was strictly illegal: the buildings were often a fire risk, usually unfit to live in, and all designated solely for industrial use’; but that, ‘In 1971, New York bowed to pressure from the SoHo Artists’ Association, and reclassified artists as “light industry”.’ We all know of the resultant invasion of SoHo by the ‘well-heeled prevenus in the not-so-creative arts’, and how they painted AIR (artist in residence) on their doors, clubbed together to buy sites, and priced the real artists out of the market. (Incidentally, I have recently received an excellent new book which deals with this whole subject, SoHo, the Artist in the City, by Charles R. Simpson, published by University of Chicago Press, 1981.)

As for London’s ‘loft scene’, the article hits on the two main reasons for its slower growth: the vast number of run-down Victorian properties which were cheaper and easier to convert or use than warehouses; and the planners who spent the past ten years trying to get businesses out of London, and who now want them back.

The big trick is to get the planners to allow residential use in part of the building (which attracts many more potential purchasers) whilst preserving the industrial use for the rest (the speculation). Two good examples are shown: Oliver’s Wharf at Wapping, and Neckinger Mills at Bermondsey.

Oliver’s Wharf is said to be ‘London’s first legal condominium’, purchased in 1972 for £100,000. It was then divided into 23 units, the most expensive being sold for £12,500; they now sell at £250,000 each. A management company runs the building and each resident owns a 99-year lease plus a 999-year share in the management company. Each prospective leaseholder bought in for a 10 per cent deposit which paid for conversion costs at £2 per square foot. Rates on the largest lofts (2,000 square feet) were £1,700 per year. Grants from central government funds were refused by Tower Hamlets, the local authority responsible for deciding such matters, but with the new Docklands Development Corporation, the condominium is hopeful of some financial assistance to complete the finishing touches at street level.

The same kind of deal was conceived by Michael Baumgarten when he was at Butler’s Wharf, and foresaw its imminent collapse as a scheme, largely through unlawful use of lawful workshop space as residential studios. He found Neckinger Mills, which was a tannery built in the 1860s, and bought the freehold. He leased the ground floor for £10,000 a year, and this money will apparently pay the conversion costs over the next 10 years, and then provide the building with further income. After six months conversion work, the other floors were sold to artists and artist craftsmen at around £27,000 each, which was the cost of each conversion.

Baumgarten’s beast is a marvellous example of how imagination, guts and sheer hard work can achieve the kind of thing many artists are looking for nowadays. You find a suitable industrial building, decide the number of units it is to be divided into, find interested partners in the scheme, work out overall conversion costs and other relevant expenses (legal fees and so on), and create a management company. The company is formed by the initial group and is joined by all the other purchasers who put in their deposits to get it moving: every member gets, say, a 99 year lease on their unit and a 999 year share in the company.

A reasonably-sized unit is let out as straightforward industrial/business premises at commercial rates, to produce both income for the building and also to keep the planners sweet, and the rest is residential/light industrial (i.e. studio space) combined.

The beauty of it is that all the costs of conversion, maintenance, heating and lighting, can be borne by the company (as a tax-deductible expense) and those living there have only the rates to pay (plus loans or mortgages they may have secured to raise their initial capital).

Obviously, a key factor in such a scheme is trust: the initiators will have to put a lot of their own time, energy and almost certainly, money in at first, with no really certain prospect of any return during the initial investigations and negotiations. The rewards, however, can be very great. Good legal and financial advice is essential, and this leads on to the third publication: The Artist’s Studio Handbook.

Published in August jointly by ARTIC Producers (who publish the Artists’ Newsletter) and Artlaw Services Limited, it is an excellent and really useful book. (And here I must declare a personal interest, without qualification, since I am associated with Artlaw and the Handbook’s editor.) It contains: notes on funding; five case histories; a nationwide directory of studios; practical legal guidance on finding and taking on studio space; a glossary of legal terms and phrases; and a special Scottish glossary. (Available from ARTIC Producers, 17 Shakespeare Terrace, Sunderland, SR2 7JG, at £2.)

All in all, then, perhaps not so much clouds with silver linings, as fresh and welcome winds of change.

© Henry Lydiate 1981
* © Dwarf Music 1968.

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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.