Duncan Smith and Kirsten Dunne: the city problem, or, how artists can benefit from urban regeneration

What part do artists really play in the regeneration of cities – and how might they combat being priced out of studios and homes?

With Duncan Smith and Kirsten Dunne. Read an edited transcript of the talk here (PDF).

More worrying than the loss of spaces is the loss of talent. We risk a city filled with wonderful, world renowned institutions and buildings, but no living, breathing artistic community to keep them alive.

Munira Mirza, Deputy Mayor for Education and Culture, Greater London Authority in Artists’ Workspace Study, September 2014 (PDF)

The relationship between artists and urban regeneration is long and contentious. In London, the activities of developers, businesses and governments have worked for hundreds of years to move poorer residents – often including visual artists – around the city. Whether artists are the avant grade of regeneration or merely its unwilling pawnsremain the subject of divided opinion, but surprisingly little hard research.

What seems more certain is that artists have been both benefitted and hindered by regeneration’s inevitable march. Unfashionable or insalubrious quarters of town – starting from Soho to Covent Garden, then to Clerkenwell, Shoreditch, Dalston and other parts of Hackney today, alongside south and south-east London – have always been cheaper for low paid workers like artists, but are eventually replaced with luxury developments that sometimes return again to decay. Artists, as low paid workers, tend toward areas of low rent for accommodation and studios, and are priced out when development begins again. But the difference today is that London as a whole is undergoing enormous regeneration at a faster pace, with whole-scale redevelopment happening quicker than any proposed public interventions.

Many organisations seek to stem the flow of artists out of the capital with increasingly novel schemes. Acme Studios’ much-lauded regeneration programmes in partnership with developers, such as Matchmakers Wharf above, ensures that artists studios are permanently maintained within new developments. But at £12.85 per square foot, this is still around three times the rent on artist studios in Berlin – anecdotally, artists report near-empty studios during the week, as artists struggle to maintain rents with full-time work in Europe’s most expensive and least affordable city. As a result, artists increasingly move out of London nationally and internationally – a trend likely to increase with around a third of affordable artist studios predicted to disappear in the next five years. If London remains the site of so much artistic practice, perhaps it has more to do with available easyjet flights to Barcelona and Oslo than the efforts of central or local governments.

Among the problems in how we speak about regeneration is the complex legal definition of ‘affordable’. Strictly speaking, this is when a property is offered at 20% below the local market rate. In London, the ‘market rate’ for everything – average house prices are around £500,000, with average studio prices £13.73 per square foot – is so above the average UK income of £26,500, let alone the median artist income of £10,000, that the word has become all but meaningless. How can we refocus the conversation toward more meaningful arithmetic?

Developers have long suspected that artists help regenerate urban areas: recent talks we have attended have suggested that ‘artists pave the way for artisan coffee for the rest of us’, yet little research has been done to test this theory. Despite the lack of evidence, developers continue to lend buildings to studio groups for short-term use, both for studios and accommodation. The rise of ‘guardian’ accommodation, where low income, often creative individuals provide security in return for a place to stay is sure to continue, withArt Guard perhaps the most recent manifestation. But inevitably developers will want property returned, making artists either homeless or without a work or exhibition space. How can we build truly affordable and sustainable property into London’s fabric, ensuring that artists – and other low-paid workers – can continue to benefit the city?


Duncan Smith founded ACAVA studios in 1983 to provide artists with studios and resources, and to provide educational benefits to their communities through workshops, residencies and training facilities. ACAVA now has studios for 500 artists and works with a wide range of other bodies such as local and health authorities, trusts and foundations, arts and educational institutions, regeneration agencies and social landlords, engaging the skills and creativity of its members to promote public benefit. ACAVA also provides a consultancy service, supporting the development of studios and services by other groups and organisations. He is also Chair of the National Federation of Artist Studio Providers(NFASP). Duncan has been teaching in art colleges and universities for over 40 years, and has exhibited installations and digital work internationally since the 1970s.

Kirsten Dunne is the Senior Cultural Strategy Officer at the Greater London Authority, who have just launched the London Regeneration Fund, a £20m capital fund for artist studios, creative workspace and production spaces, responding to research that London is set to lose at least 30% of its affordable workspace in the next five years (deadline 2 October 2015). Previous roles include market development at Arts Council England and senior roles in South London Gallery and Frith Street Gallery.

This talk was originally part of System Failure, a series of in-conversations looking at the systemic failures of the art world in its wider context. Held on Wednesday 11 November 2015 at Block 336.

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