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Transience in the city (II)

Part 2: Cultivating the arts

Arts and culture are increasingly becoming an integral part of city planning. Whilst Part (1) of this post demonstrates how some urban theory has taken creativity as a means to advocate for growth, there are reasons to cultivate the arts beyond economic prosperity. The culture of a place is visualised through the arts. Like the built environment, these creative expressions often form the most evident identity of an area and its population. It is this collective identity which makes a place compelling, unique and diverse - and it's this identity which is made vulnerable in the face of redevelopment and gentrifying processes. Back in 1985, Loft Living drew those initial connections between art and urban change through theory and empirical data - today, those conversations remain prevalent and the social impact of pursuing art solely for urban growth is becoming ever more evident within cities.

Public art initiatives often make use of the public realm: streets, parks and squares, to showcase artwork with the hope of improving people's experience of the city. For example, the Art on the Underground initiative in London, which commissions contemporary artworks throughout stations, on trains and platforms to improve the experience of the journey. Privately funded initiatives, however, tend to make use of temporary spaces around cities to host events and showcase work. Exhibitions and music venues for short term events take advantage of the temporary spaces and low commitment to leasing property which allows their creative practices to thrive.

Brent Biennial is a prime example of how this concept can be adapted on a large scale where vacancy is embraced and artistic practices are exhibited. The biennial is scattered around the borough, making use of temporarily vacant and unused spaces; the event celebrates arts and culture as a way of exploring the meaning of home making. The theme asks how hostile environments, born through racism, climate catastrophe and political austerity, can be counteracted through home making as a form of resistance. This poetic marriage of artistic exploration of what makes a home within various vessels of buildings, challenges us to reconsider the way we use buildings and the identities and functions we attach to them. However, when looking at the list of artists included within the event, many of them aren't local to the area. Whilst this is not a criticism of the biennial - considered within the context of Part (1) of this post - the broader conversations of place identity and displacement though increasing creative practices resurfaces. If we are suggesting that it needs to be locals who utilise local meanwhile spaces, then, within the context of creative practices, we are also assuming that local artists have the facilities to exist within the area.

The spatial geographies of artistic practices around London in areas such as Deptford and Hackney demonstrate obvious creative agglomeration, but what kind of spaces allow artists to not only flourish, but to be birthed? There is a distinction between showcasing art through public art initiatives and exhibitions, and providing spaces and studios for creative practices. This contrast is evident within Hackney. Having recently unveiled two new sculptures as part of the Hackney Windrush Art Commission, the borough is simultaneously handing over the artists studios on Ridley Road to luxury residential developers. Over the span of 15 years the studios have housed about 60 painters, sculptors, ceramicists, designers, illustrators, photographers and printmakers. The market along which the studios are located, are a vital hub for the Afro-Caribbean diaspora which fears itself at risk of displacement through an invisible identity shift in the area through the redevelopment of the studios.

Back in 2019, the council granted the Ridley Road Shopping Village - which included the artists studios - an asset of community value (ACV). In doing so, the authority recognised the cultural and social significance of the site and the contribution it makes to the local community. It was this status which pushed the landlord to keep 10 percent of the studios at 60 percent of market value to allow artists to remain in the area. Despite this acknowledgement from the council, it was established that the council doesn’t have the capacity to manage individual units. Considering this redevelopment alongside a push for public art within the borough, a clear distinction emerges between the wanting to showcase artwork and actively fostering creative practices. As such there needs to be a better understanding of how to support local artists and creatives, so that the arts can be celebrated in a way which does not displace or drastically change the culture and identity of an area. Within the context of meanwhile spaces and transience in the city - can we do more than exhibit art in these temporary spaces - can we use them to cultivate creative practice and make spaces for local artists to create, commune and establish themselves within an area?

Meanwhile spaces are upfront in their temporary nature and tenants can utilise them with the foreknowledge that they are not forever spaces. In such a way, these sites allow for opportunities where workshops can be held which inspire the community and where inclusive events can be held which celebrate and embrace the local identity. A great example of this is Weston Artspace - A hub for the creative community of Weston-Super-Mare in the South West of England. Run by 6 volunteers, the space was transformed from a retail store to a multi-storey studio with space for writers, artists, photographers and dancers to hold workshops and use the space on a low cost membership basis. Whilst initially, the space was only leased for a year, Artspace took this as an opportunity to create a space which responded to a local demand for a creative community hub. In doing so they’ve managed to secure the building and are now in their third active year on the site.

A lot can be learnt from projects like this - We can challenge our understanding of building uses and the way in which we measure the value that the arts bring to an area. By understanding the local community and its needs, unused spaces can unlock the creative potential within an area and truly cultivate the arts through practice and participation.


  1. Sculptures outside Hackney Town Hall by Veronica Ryan OBE and Thomas J Price, 2022

  2. Art on the Underground, Joy Labinjo, '5 more minutes', 2021

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