Rosy Greenlees on the importance of makers in keeping our cities vibrant
According to recent results published by TripAdvisor, London is the top-ranked city destination in the world. The 2016 Travellers’ Choice Award was based on an algorithm that took into account reviews by the website’s users of accommodation, eateries and attractions. On the face of it this is very good news. Certainly the major Boris Johnson thought so, telling the Evening Standard: ‘London is undoubtedly the cultural capital of the world thanks to our iconic attractions, buzzing entertainment scene and amazing museums and galleries. Coupled with our abundance of top-notch hotels and restaurants offering every cuisine one’s taste buds could desire, it is no wonder London has been named the best travel destination. It is an incredibly dynamic city with something for everyone.’
However, there is a flip-side to this success, as the Crafts Council’s chair, Geoffrey Crossick, and I have discovered as we’ve conducted a series of round-table meetings with a variety of makers across the country over the past year. One of their prime concerns is the difficulty in finding, and the subsequent cost of, studio space. This is particularly true in the capital and the South East but also in cities such as Brighton and across the South West.
Work in the twenty first century has changed hugely. Many of us now can now tap away on our laptops miles from our office, sipping coffee in the local cafe while sending business emails. However, the vast majority of makers require their own space for equipment – be it kilns, looms or workbenches – yet as swathes of the country gentrify, studios are becoming harder and harder to find. The irony of all this is that very often it is artists, designers and makers who inhabit and transform areas of the city in the first place, only to find themselves being priced out as more and more money moves in. It’s an issue briefly touched on in the profile of Reiko Kaneko in January/February issue of Crafts. Here is a talented designer-maker who has realised that she could work far more effectively in a huge studio-cum-gallery space in Stoke-on-Trent rather than struggle to get by in Dalston.
There are some shining lights. Cockpit Arts is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and has been a beacon for makers during that time, as has Craft Central. But the fact of the matter is that tenancy remains a precarious, often short term, business. As a 2014 report commissioned by the Greater London Authority illustrated 51 per cent of artists’ workspace organisations are operating from rented space and as a result lack long term security. It also points out that nearly a third of artists studios in the capital are under threat during the next five years as operators don’t expect to be able to renew the leasehold.
One of the ways makers have attempted to combat the problem of space is by the rise of places such as the Blackhorse Workshop in Walthamstow, where everyone from hobbyists to professionals can come in and use the equipment. According to a report from NESTA there are now 97 such spaces across the country, whereas in 2010 there were just nine. Laudable though these initiatives are they are unlikely to solve the problem by themselves. Another idea might be to extend the SPA Special Policy Area status that has been granted to Savile Row – protecting bespoke tailoring and ensuring the craft isn’t elbowed out by other commercial uses – to other areas of the city such as Clerkenwell and Hatton Garden.
So why does all this matter? Well, as Boris Johnson correctly points out, London is such a vibrant and popular city largely because of its culture, of which making has long been a crucial element. Studios provide areas with a sense of character and help to define place – interestingly, with the public taking a renewed interest in making over the past few years, open studio days have rarely been as popular. Makers also connect us with our history and heritage – something that the up-coming Clerkenwell Design Week, for instance, is always eager to capitalise on despite that fact that the area is now dominated by office furniture showrooms.
Ultimately if the city’s makers follow Kaneko’s example and take flight it will be to London’s long-term detriment.