Let’s keep creativity close-by

By Matthew Swann, CLS Chief Executive

MatthewheadshotThere has been a lot of talk in recent years and months about musicians and artists of all hues finding it more and more difficult to survive in London. This has prompted the Deputy Mayor for Culture to announce dedicated “Artist Zones”, where artists and organisations would be given help to purchase unused spaces. A great idea, but I think we can go further…

Some context. Music venues are closing across the country, but especially in the capital, where a conservative estimate suggests that a third of London’s gig venues have closed in the last 10 years. The low earnings that afflict many artists and musicians, especially those starting out, are incompatible with London rents, let alone mortgages. Conversely, part of what has made London a magnet for so many people and so much investment is the incredibly diverse cultural offerings available. We see this in microcosm as bold, risk-taking artists establish themselves somewhere cheap and forgotten like Shoreditch was 20 years ago, only to be priced out as those who want a slice of vicarious ‘cool’ follow them. The artists get chased north up the Kingsland Road into Dalston, then east into Hackney, now south into Peckham. Even in Peckham, young artists and local populations are being squeezed out as more vicarious cool is sought. Decades ago the same happened to Soho and Notting Hill – once down at heel but culturally vibrant, now beyond the means of artists beyond a handful of outlier megastars.

Classical music is by no means immune. The CLS office is in Brixton, having moved from (a very grotty and cheap) office in the City five years ago because Central London was beyond our reach. Now Brixton is becoming too expensive – in Autumn 2018 we will likely have to look further afield for office space. Our landlords have seen what is happening in the centre of London, have invested in the building’s infrastructure and are attracting bigger companies who can pay higher rents.

Just as bands and visual artists are losing performance spaces, so is classical music. Already, one of our favourite venues has had to hike its hire fees in a bid to keep up with rents. One church we would love to perform in more, close to one of the ‘cool’ areas above, has seen its commercial potential and priced itself beyond what we think is reasonable. Affordable venues are all oversubscribed. Rehearsal venues are a particular issue, in that London simply does not have enough of them of a big enough size, and they are very expensive. It is even becoming an issue for our Meet the Music programme. Our education team have spent the last few days desperately trying to find a suitable, and importantly, available and affordable, East London venue for a schools project later in the Autumn. At a time when so many London orchestras, including our own CLoSer series, are attracting new, young and cross cultural audiences, we are in danger of becoming victims of our own success as the venues we champion fall to encroaching speculative development.

If all this sounds like a moan, it’s not meant to be. One of London’s joys is its ever shifting cultural tectonic plates. When I first moved to Camberwell in South East London a dozen years or so ago, telling people I lived there usually elicited a sharp intake of breath. Neighbouring Peckham was a no go zone after dark. Brixton a generation ago was a by-word for inner-city violence. Now, I can drink cocktails on top of the multi-story car park in Peckham, and take my kids to the cinema on its ground floor. Brixton is a by-word for outstanding food (and home to CLS towers!). Camberwell is the epicentre of scruffy artistic chic. Problems and poverty still remain in those areas and in many ways are more entrenched, but there are opportunities which did not exist 10 years ago.

But like the Mayor’s office I do think that we need to guard against London gaining investment but losing its creative soul. The Deputy Mayor’s “Artist Zones” are a great idea, but require capital investment and a long term leveraged commitment which doesn’t suit everyone. I think we can go further, and help both artists and businesses at the same time.

It’s been mooted before, but why don’t we create an English Heritage style Grade system for cultural venues, preventing them from change of use and unsustainable rent hikes. The business of development and investment could continue around them, still benefitting from having creativity nearby  that would otherwise up sticks for the next cheap and forgotten area of London. But let’s extend this to rehearsal rooms, artists workshops, independent theatres, the lot. Any venue that has been in continuous use for creating music, art, etc for five years is protected. That way artists and musicians are not constantly pushed around, and eventually out, of London.

Second, any new office development in much widened “artist zones” has to provide at least 5% of its space to non-profit creative organisations either free of charge or well under market rates. Then the music, performing arts and visual arts organisations (and Orchestras!) that fuel London’s creative infrastructure, and in turn fuel investment, can concentrate on empowering artists, rather than spending exponentially increasing portions of their budgets on rent

I think that businesses and investors stand to benefit as much from these ideas as artists and the organisations that support them. Some businesses already understand the benefits of keeping creative organisations in their developments, but unilateral altruism isn’t going to solve the problem.

“Artist Zones” are a great idea, but let’s go further and benefit everyone by keeping creativity close.

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