Artists: there's life beyond London!

The capital is a great place for creatives who can afford it, but for those who can’t, the rest of the country is full of low-cost places where artists are flourishing

Let me start by saying what this article isn’t. It isn’t a celebration of east London’s blink-and-you’ve-missed-it gentrification. Shoreditch, Dalston, Hackney and, more recently, Peckham and Walthamstow have seen communities eroded by Shard-high rents and property prices.

Neither is this some dig at London as a home for creatives; I love it. It’s my home and – until recently – the place I worked as an artist for more than 30 years. It’s got all the ingredients of a successful art capital. World-renowned museums and a booming gallery scene? Check. Art fairs and plenty of other artists? Check. Affordable spaces for practitioners to work and live? Hmm…

London’s great for those who can afford it – but it’s not news that more and more of us can’t. So what’s the solution? Well, there’s leaving. That’s what we did in 2012, when it became clear that Kinetika, the not-for-profit outdoor arts company I founded in 1997, would never be able to do half of what we wanted to if we stayed in the capital.

Our company is split in two. Our design studio creates and produces large-scale carnival-style events and silks (costumes, flags, puppets). The money we make from this goes into Kinetika People, our community outreach and engagement charity, where we train people of all ages in silk painting and other crafts.

Our commissions are big, so we need a large space to make everything. Working on the 2012 Paralympics closing ceremony, we discovered that we didn’t have enough room to do it all at our Brick Lane studio. But there weren’t any affordable alternatives nearby.

In our new home at Thurrock’s High House Production Park, a 14-acre site to which we moved 15 months ago, we get three times the space for roughly the same rent. There are similar stories across the country, where rent is, on average, two-thirds that of London.

Many of my contemporaries fear they’ll become isolated if they leave London, but our moving away hasn’t meant severing links with the arts community. In fact, the country’s creative community outside the capital is flourishing.

Take High House Production Park, about a 50-minute drive from east London, in Essex. The result of a long-term collaboration between the Royal Opera House, Acme Studios and Creative & Cultural Skills, it’s been designed as a new international centre for the creative industries. Here, we’ve found ourselves part of a growing network of partners, supporters and collaborators that are far stronger than anything we ever experienced in E1.

High House isn’t one of a kind either; it’s just one example of a growing number of artist-led organisations throughout England offering cheaper studio space for creative professionals, including Ocean Studios (in Plymouth), S1 Artspace (in Sheffield) and Cornwall’s Krowji to name just a few. That’s to say nothing of the proliferation of recently established and internationally important art galleries outside of London, such as Margate’s Turner Contemporary, the Hepworth Wakefield, Tate Liverpool and more.

Then there are the benefits of a change of scene. While I don’t agree with the notion that London has suddenly become boring, much of what made east London attractive to me as a young, emerging artist – different classes and races rubbing shoulders; the strength of community identities; enough free space for a person to be enterprising and spontaneous creatively – is lost, or in danger of being.

In Thurrock, however, we’ve rediscovered these elements afresh, all bound up in the area’s surprising, distinctly non-metropolitan idiosyncrasies. Robert Macfarlane recently wrote of a growing tendency in culture and the arts towards the eeriness of the English countryside. From our spot on the Essex side of the Thames estuary, this sense of a strange and rich landscape is palpable.

Of course, we can’t ignore the pitfalls of artists upping and leaving London. The idealistic notion of “artist-led regeneration” has recently come to be seen as a code word for back-door gentrification. The argument that where artists go mass wealth follows is old hat (and according to some compelling arguments, unfounded). But even so it’s one we must be mindful of.

Like many other socially driven creative enterprises, our intent is to involve the local community in our work. We employ and train local residents while also developing programmes that foster community involvement, such as our Thurrock 100 walk. We want to grow with the community, not erode it.

Outside the capital creative life is as rich as ever and the opportunities for artists greater and greater. Come join us.

Ali Pretty is an artistic director and founder of Kinetika

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Ali Pretty

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