Nick Hackworth

Why Saatchi goes shopping in Deptford

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

On a sunny Friday afternoon in an office in Old Street, from which you can see into Hoxton Square, Steven Cope tells me he’s seen it all.

In the 25 years he’s been dealing property for Bailey, Cox and Edwards he’s seen the cloth and fabric trade fade and then disappear, seen whole swathes of property stand empty and derelict, seen gentrification mushroom in Clerkenwell in the mid-Nineties and then sweep east into the Shoreditch triangle, north into Hoxton and creep, now, further east into Bethnal Green and Hackney. He used to walk down Old Street at night and it was empty. Now it feels more like Oxford Street.

Dealing in industrial property, Cope has been in a perfect position to judge the social changes that have swept over east London, as so much of the gentrification has relied upon the conversion of old industrial properties to residential use. The same properties that artists require for conversion into studio space which is why, again, he knows all about the probable decline of the East End’s artistic community, which is now looking for cheaper space nearer the Old Kent Road than Whitechapel.

When asked whether artists are being forced out of the area by property prices, his answer is a swift yes followed by a list, off the top of his head, of properties, some in Old Street, some in Hoxton Square, some in Shoreditch, which, until recently were occupied by artists and which now house less creative but more profitable tenants. Then he points me in the direction of two of his clients who should know best, Space and Acme.

Space and Acme take much of the credit for sustaining east London’s artistic community in the past three decades and are the stars of the final section of the Museum of London’s current Creative Quarters exhibition. Both organisations, though slightly different in background and style, are dedicated to finding and maintaining low-cost studio space for artists and run about 900 studios between them.

Space (founded in 1968) and Acme (1972) sprang up to enable very particular groups of artists to live and work in London but were so over-whelmed by the abundance of cheap (mainly council) property that they ended up catering for the artistic community at large.

As both mainly operate through securing a mixture of low-to-medium term leases on property suitable for conversion into studios they are particularly vulnerable to the recent, massive rise in East End property
prices. Tower Hamlets has seen them rise by 155.6 per cent since 1995. Islington saw a comparatively modest 112.6 per cent rise, while Redbridge, in the far east of London, saw only a rise of 67.5 per cent.

Charlotte Robinson, director of Space, agrees with Cope. The situation is pretty grim. There are, she estimates, 3,000 studios in east London; of these around 10 per cent are likely to disappear in the very near future as leases run out and are too expensive to renew. While most of the Space studios are safe for the moment, being on 15-20-year leases, securing further studio complexes in east London is becoming increasingly difficult as the stock of suitable ex-industrial property shrinks and deep-pocketed developers weigh into the market. And, as Robinson is at pains to point out, artists are among a section of the urban poor earning £5,000 a year on average, according to a survey by the London Arts Board. In other words, they need all the help they can get.

However, Jonathon Harvey, cofounder of Acme, is suspicious of horror stories about the death of creative east London. The artists who are here, he says firmly, are staying put. But he can speak a little easier as Acme has secured the freehold on three large properties, partly through Lottery funding, and has an asset base to fund further purchases.

Despite Harvey’s determined stance, the slow dilution of east London’s artistic community seems inevitable and everyone, not least the media, seems hellbent on predicting where the next artistic community will spring up. The one area that keeps being mentioned is Deptford. Seeing as it cropped up, rather surreally, in the February issue of Italian Vogue as a hot new travel destination, it seems that Deptford’s time has come.

Down in Deptford there seems to be a clear consensus that the area is seeing a steady stream of artistic rent refugees from the East End. From his gallery on Deptford High Street, The Museum of Installation, Nicholas de Oliveria tells me about steady growth of the local art scene. Steven Pippin, a Turner Prize nominee, has just moved in over the road; Deptford X, a local arts festival, has just started up; a couple of commercial galleries are likely to be opening in the area and, over by Deptford Creek, Herzog and de Meuron, architects of Tate Modern, are busy building the Laban dance centre. Charles Saatchi, already a regular buyer of pieces from Hales Gallery, the first gallery to set up in Deptford, is likely to be stepping up his shopping trips to the area if another rumour is true: that Goldsmiths College is going to open a gallery for its students’ work in a dis- used warehouse on Brookmill Road.

D E Oliveria is himself a rent refugee from Clerkenwell. Around the middle of 1995, just when the gentrification process was getting into full swing, he moved the Museum of Installation down to Deptford to escape rapidly rising rents and unscrupulous landlords. Now he tells his friends in the East End to come and check out property prices in Deptford, while they’re still low.

A little further down the road, Paul Hedges, a well-known figure in the art world, director of Hales Gallery and a resident in Deptford since 1984, confirms the steady rise in the number of artists fleeing the East End. But then he fixes me with a steely gaze and tells me that he’s sick of articles proclaiming: “Deptford is the new Hoxton”. I firmly promise him that I shall not revert to type. Outside on Deptford High Street the Saturday market is in full swing and the local community, generally Vietnamese, Chinese and West African in origin, is milling around and going about its business blissfully unaware of the future sketched out for it by glossy property supplements that proclaim hopefully: “Deptford is the new Hoxton”.

Creative Quarters is at the Museum of London, 150 London Wall, EC2 until 15 July, Mon-Sat 10am-5.50pm, Sun noon-5.50pm; 020 7600 3699