Uncover Young People Theatre’s show, Phenomena, at The Albany.
Last Summer I spent a glorious evening enjoying opera and a three-course meal in a South London car park. The tickets were cheap – much cheaper than they are in Covent Garden or at the Coliseum – and the less than glamorous setting removed many of the elements that are usually viewed as lending opera its air of exclusivity: wearing evening dress in a car park is just plain ridiculous.
I had high hopes, then, that I’d be surrounded by a different kind of crowd at the performance, a crowd that at least went some way towards reflecting the demographic of the local area. Then I got chatting to the people on my table: all were over 50, all were white, and all were very regular opera goers. They had travelled to the performance from their homes in Kensington and Notting Hill. “We’ve never been to Peckham before,” the lady next to me said “It isn’t too bad”.
The experience encapsulated a challenge that, in the face of the huge pressures on housing and the legacy of austerity, artists and arts organisations are facing perhaps more now than ever before: the question of how to negotiate the role their arrival in an area can play in presaging significant shifts in its demographic make up, a process often called ‘gentrification’.
It is clear that where artists go, developers, and rent hikes, will follow. The prevalent trend in town planning throughout the 21st Century has been for the construction of ‘creative economies’, inspired by Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class, which proposes that a strong presence of creativity will increase the economic strength of an area.
This introduces the troubling idea that artists are not only a signifier of the changing face of an area; they are an active part of the plan. Many of the ‘Pop-Up’ artistic experiences that have characterised London’s post austerity cultural landscape are staged in ‘meanwhile spaces’. As the name suggests, these offerings are designed to be temporary, before the buildings in question assume their ‘true’ purpose, and therefore by their nature must be superficial: as easy to get rid of as they are to drop in.
There’s no denying that a high street that is full of creativity and opportunities for self expression is a far healthier space to inhabit that one full of closed down shops, and many of these projects have been laudable in the way they reinvent high streets that have previously been defined by consumerism. But the fact that their presence increases the desirability, and therefore the property prices, in a given locality, is complex. The challenge for artists and arts organisations becomes: how to live and work in an area that is facing change, without becoming complicit in activity that damages the strength of its core communities?
It isn’t satisfactory to suggest that artists simply shouldn’t work in these contexts. Many artists wouldn’t be able to make work without the availability of cheap studio and rehearsal space, and more importantly, the idea that the arts, which at its best has such a profound role to play in making communities, should desist from operating in settings where communities are in their most dramatic state of flux, is troubling.
This conversation came up at What Next? South East London, a group I’m involved in facilitating, which seeks to explore and lobby for the role of arts at the heart of public life. It is a topic of particular interest to the artists living in the South East London, who are, perhaps more than anywhere else in the capital, having to deal with the challenges presented by living in a fast changing community.
In our discussions, I glibly posited the idea of ‘Guerilla Gentrification’. The notion seemed to resonate with the group, and I made a commitment to consider it more deeply after leaving the discussion. I wasn’t really sure what it was, but I thought it might have something to do with artists complicating the process of regeneration, using their acknowledged powers of gentrification in a subversive fashion, where they shouldn’t. The idea I came up with off the top of my head was for the creation of a chain of ‘Real’ Estate Agents, popping up on high streets across the country to proffer an alternative view of the communities into which home buyers are moving.
Little did I realise I’d been beaten to it by a group of 1980s New York artists who hosted The Real Estate Show, celebrating ‘insurrectionary urban development’. It was part of a movement, led by art collective Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D), which highlighted the transformation of the Lower East Side by displaying critical art in areas on the cusp of change.
But affluent arts consumers have a strong sense of irony, or perhaps absolutely no sense of irony, which means that even the most subversive artworks can swiftly be co opted into the systems they seek to challenge: take for example the substantial sums now being paid for Banksy art works. As a member of PAD/D later admitted: ‘we recognised that the (anti-gentrification) exhibit itself further the process of gentrification by advancing the neighbourhood’s artworldliness”.
Does this suggest that the arts are unable to play a positive role in these settings? Or is it possible for artists and arts organisations to inhabit spaces and operate in a meaningful way with the established community without becoming a magnet for culturally savvy middle and upper classes?
There’s been much discussion lately of the work of arts centres: arts organisations that frequently have a strong local community focus, and often play the role of ‘third space’ on our high streets. I work for one of them, as Head of Communications for the Albany in Deptford.
The Albany is currently partnering the national Fun Palaces project, a celebration of Joan Littlewood’s centenary which challenges cultural venues to consider radical new ways of opening participation, based on the principles that underpinned Joan’s art. There is clearly excellent work going on in many venues to increase engagement, but driving Fun Palaces is the belief that we are not going far enough truly to democratise culture. As co director Stella Duffy put it at the launch, if the £10 tickets are being bought by those that would have paid £25, it isn’t good enough.
When we talk about Fun Palaces, we talk about sustainability. The main motivation for the enterprise is increasing the resilience of communities through the networks that form around culture. Artists and the arts can resist becoming part of the gentrification process by using their work to build deepen understanding and exchange between established communities. Better networked communities are more robust: able to withstand the change they don’t wish to see in their areas, and support the change they do.
Of course, an artist or organisation that is embedded in its own community assures its own sustainability too. It’s difficult to close an arts venue that is used every day by the people that live close to it – as was demonstrated when the local council attempted to impose changes that would lead to the closure of Battersea Arts Centre in 2007. The Albany has been in Deptford for over 100 years, and it’s no coincidence, I think, that we were a community organisation long before we were an arts one.
In short, it is about creating work and framing it in ways that speak to local communities, rather than the cultural savvy middle classes that make up the majority of London’s audiences. This isn’t easy (I have to resist the compelling urge to give all our brochures the Farrow and Ball paint pallet finish that I personally would be driven to pick up) but it is the basis for an art that strengthens and sustains communities rather than changing them, and that, I’d suggest, makes it far more valuable as a consequence.