Alumni Communities of Practice: Maker spaces

This is a guest post by Sarah Birt, Senior Development Manager at Greater London Authority and FoL Alumni Rep. Following the success of the first Communities of Practice forum on workspace in June, alumni requested a dedicated forum to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on maker or ‘messier’ spaces and studios for artists.

Many artists have fallen through the gaps of government financial support during lockdown, placing those with precarious and vulnerable livelihoods in even greater danger, and posing a significant threat to London’s creative industries and artistic output.

Sarah Birt chaired the forum, with participants from a range of local authorities, housing associations and creative workspace studios. Guest speaker Anna Harding, Chief Executive of SPACE Studios, provided an insightful presentation that reflected on the impact of Covid-19 on artists at SPACE Studios and, more broadly, across London.

Alumni Communities of Practice forum - Maker spaces
SPACE Studios, Ilford. Image courtesy of SPACE.

Immediate impact: artists are holding onto their studios despite financial challenges

Affordable studio spaces for artists were already scarce and competitive so it’s not surprising that lockdown hasn’t resulted in artists vacating or giving up their studios – despite some artists losing significant proportions of their income as a direct result of the pandemic. Many artists need a studio to work; it isn’t feasible or desirable to move this to their home. So artists will make cuts in other parts of their lives to hang onto their studio.

Government funding has been made available, but many artists are ineligible and/or not able to navigate the red tape of registering for government support. In some cases, artists did not consider themselves to be ‘businesses’, and in other cases, their vulnerability and a lack of support acted as impediments. In response, SPACE – a charitable creative organisation, that provides affordable workspace to artists across London – offered a relief fund to their tenants. But even with this support, less than a third of SPACE’s artists accepted financial relief.

The importance of studio or maker spaces has been heightened by the pandemic. Many people have had a chance to reflect and reassess their careers during lockdown, and with more people choosing to pursue arts and creative endeavours, demand for studio space will increase. While this doesn’t appear to be a major issue, it raises the question of who will have access to these spaces.

Older and wealthier individuals may have the luxury of a career change but younger people or those from disadvantaged backgrounds do not, despite the benefit that working in the creative sector could have on them. Many are now at risk of being excluded from the creative sector going forwards.

Medium-term outlook: are declining high streets an opportunity for maker spaces?

Artists and creatives have had to move further and further out from central London in the pursuit of affordable studios that offer security of tenure. In recent years, areas such as Hackney have become gentrified and are now too expensive for artists seeking affordable space.

Given the decline in the retail sector, exacerbated by Covid-19, and with some high streets likely to suffer further, could cheaper rents from vacant units offer the opportunity for affordable studio space? Could empty offices and shops become new studios, and see artists returning to central London and setting up in more accessible locations?

Unfortunately, these spaces often have high fit-out costs and don’t offer sufficient natural light. So even if these spaces were offered for free, or for peppercorn rent, they may not be suitable. The same applies to ‘meanwhile spaces’ that provide workspace in vacant buildings during the construction phase of a new development. The short length of tenure, combined with high fit-out costs, make them unviable.

Local authorities need to understand what ‘affordable’ means for creatives

Local authorities can play a positive and important role by working with studio operators to make sure artists can take advantage of financial assistance schemes. Creative Enterprise Zones in London show how effective this can be. LB Hackney’s Hackney Wick and Fish Island workspace-providers group is a weekly meet-up to air common challenges and help target support for artists where it’s most needed. But local authorities and the public sector should have a greater understanding of what is truly affordable for artists, how workspace providers operate and what they’re able to offer as genuinely affordable studio space for tenants.

With the lockdown evolving and the government keen to restart the economy, the situation for maker spaces and studios is continually shifting. The alumni discussion touched on some of these emerging issues:

  • The impact of the government’s Planning White Paper. Changes to use classes may affect maker spaces – is this an opportunity for converting more space into affordable studios or a threat? Will we see studios converted into more financially valuable residential space?
  • The funds that have so far been offered to artists by the Government, and the barriers to their successful distribution to, and access by, artists.
  • The importance of artist-led support networks and their links with local authorities, to build greater mutual understanding of the challenges artists and the creative sector faces.
  • The importance of the creative sector and artists to the economy and to London.

This event was part of Future of London’s Alumni Communities of Practice forum, bringing together alumni to share challenges and ideas on some of the critical issues they face during the Covid-19 crisis and beyond. It was also part of FoL’s Learning From Crisis response and recovery programme.

Find out more about the Alumni Network and Learning From Crisis and get in touch with future Communities of Practice forum suggestions.