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Artists are taking over old supermarkets and derelict buildings. Can they escape artwashing?

Urban arts organisations are reclaiming urban spaces in a bid to make art more accessible to the public. But do they risk 'artwashing' and raising prices?

A sculpture exhibition attended by lots of people

Sainsbury’s repurposed. Image: Carlo Zambon (supported by Get Living & East Village London)

Go to Stratford, East London, come out of the station and you’re presented with the Westfield shopping centre. Across over 2.5 million square feet, nearly 300 retailers submerge you in the horrors of life in a modern city. But in June if you turned the other way and stepped into an abandoned Sainsbury’s, you’d have found something else. On old parquet flooring scratched by years of shoes and trolleys, 31 artists put on a show, 2 For 1, filling the space with sculptures and paintings. In a city as expensive as London, a show like this can be a pipe dream for young artists. 

“You’re renting a studio that costs almost the same as your room in a house share,” says Nick Stavri, one of the exhibition’s curators. “It’s difficult to make art to a similar scale and production value you would have had at university.” 

So in the old Sainsbury’s, they showed how art can breathe life into places. As a sculpture exhibition, the empty supermarket became a focus of attention. 

A man dressed in red hat, coat and trousers poses on a chair on a black and white floor. Image: Rose Leahy
Battersea artist Luca Bosani of Hypha Studios. Image: Rose Leahy

Stavri, part of the Thorp Stavri duo, and his fellow artists used the space for free, thanks to the charity Hypha Studios, which takes over empty spaces from landlords and uses them as studio spaces. It’s part of a growing trend of artists taking over empty and derelict spaces in towns and cities. Can they save the high street, buffeted by Covid and the cost of living crisis? Are we destined to live in vibrant town centres overflowing with art? 

The issues are twofold. Firstly, life is hard for artists, with affordable and secure studio spaces harder and harder to come by. Second, towns and cities are suffering. As of 2020, 16% of shops on the country’s high streets were empty, while communities have been starved of funding. The cost of living crisis is further draining the vitality from towns, with endless tales of pubs, chip shops, and post offices closing. 

Wouldn’t it be neat if there was a way of fixing both problems at once? The old Sainsbury’s is not the only disused space Hypha has managed to repurpose. Since being set up by artist Camilla Cole 18 months ago, its projects have included a shopping centre in Bristol and an arcade in Penrith. 

Hypha puts out an open call for applications from local artists, which are judged by somebody from the area. Artists get a free workspace for the time it takes to put the show together, and the public gets a free programme of events. 

These events have been a success, with twice as many locals as expected coming to some sessions at the old Sainsbury’s. Instead of an empty space on the way to the station, an everyday walk became something engaging. 

Two women drawing on a blackboard
Hot Desque (Lizzy Drury and Neena Percy) of Hypha

“It does something for the soul. We miss our community spaces where it’s not just a pub or something,” says Cole. “Every time I leave the door it seems like I’m spending money. It’s just nice that you can actually go somewhere and meet people, and have shared interests, and learn something without having to fork out. 

“We’re not a solution to the housing crisis. But we hope to bring culture and fun to communities for free. The events are always free. We try to remove that barrier to access in case people don’t feel like they are allowed to go into galleries.” 

Cole adds: “My end of it is showing the value of the creative sector without monetary terms. It’s sort of saying, look, it’s obvious everyone loves to live where artists live. So let’s bring that out and value this instead of charging them.” 

However, the solution is not as cut and dried as this. Artists have long played an unintentional but well-documented role in gentrification. When rents are cheap and studio spaces are affordable, artists move in. They make an area ‘desirable’, ‘cool’, or ‘interesting’. Investors come, prices rise, and before long communities and artists alike are priced out. “Artwashing”, as it’s known, has seen developers accused of using public art as cover for dev-elopments that ratchet up prices.

Hypha is mindful of this, says Cole, while acknowledging the exhibitions wouldn’t happen if there was nothing in it for landlords. 

“We are conscious of artwashing as a problem,” she says. “We’re always really careful who we work with. There’s a huge amount of due diligence on the client. Why are they using us? What’s the purpose?” 

Exhibition of sculptures and paintings
A Hypha group show at Conduit Street, London. Image: Carlo Zambon (supported by Get Living & East Village London)

The benefits to artists and communities outweigh the benefits to landlords, Cole argues, adding: “It’s mutually beneficial. Artists get a huge amount out of it and communities get a lot out of it. If we’re realistic about it, if landlords didn’t benefit in some way, it wouldn’t happen. It obviously has to be
considered as a risk.” 

For others, the tension with artwashing is inevitable. Ross Walker is the director of Bon Volks, which provides studio space in Margate for below-market rent. For its 23 members, it is not just a service provider – they are expected to participate in the care of the building. 

Margate, which Walker says has “turbo gentrified”, is often held up as a classic case of art being the catalyst for gentrification.  

“The accepted view of arts-led regeneration being universally good, is a myth,” he says. “In my experience organisations such as ours and many others often widen the gap between demographics and people of different income levels. Generally, the ‘breathing of life into a place’, is merely a superficial one – privately funded renovations, cafes, lifestyle shops,” he says. 

Arts organisations are well-meaning and create value but should be wary. Like Bon Volks, they also need to grapple with the problem and think how they can mitigate it. Walker adds: “Artist-led regeneration is used, whether intentionally or not, to sell property and raise prices. Arts organisations do contribute to that, just by their existence. That’s something, if you run an arts organisation, you have to take on board and sit with.” 

So how can artists break the cycle of artwashing? One answer perhaps lies in more permanent solutions, like ownership. Following on from a similar scheme in London, a creative land trust has been formed in Margate. The town lost 11% of commercial spaces in 20 years, while the number of creative businesses has grown by 158% since 2009. Backed by £6m in funding from central government, its goal is to purchase land to protect spaces as rents rise. 

It’s in a similar vein to ideas like Hastings Commons, which has been buying up buildings in the Kent coastal town and putting them in public hands. It means landlords and developers can’t boot them out when the town gets more expensive. 

“The issue, I suppose, is whether it’s OK for artists to be used ‘to light the touchpaper for gentrification’ and then be kicked out when the prices go mad,” says Jess Steele, chief executive of Hastings Commons. 

“The Hastings Commons came from a desire to ensure that those who create the value get to share in it by having capped rents.” 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy!

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