Bow Arts chief: we must ensure affordable places for artists to work

Marcel Baettig on affordable rent, the future of London’s cultural workspaces and the issues facing the next generation of working artists

1. Hi Marcel, what can you tell me about Bow Arts?

Bow Arts’ mission is to provide affordable studios for practising artists and creatives. We currently house about 400 artists in seven studio buildings around London. Our latest project is the Rum Warehouse in Wapping, formerly the News International offices where Rebekah Brooks was based. There’s a massive demand for affordable space in the capital, while crazy property prices drive artists out of town.

We run a digital platform called Artists Studio Finder, which is like a dating service to match artists with available space across London and the southeast. It gets an average of 10,000 hits a month. We find economical properties not being used for a period, convert them to provide affordable spaces and create communities of artists.

We build links between artists and local neighbourhoods: we place artists in schools, bring skilled people and add excitement to changing places with our events and exhibitions. In return, artists become known as good neighbours and quite a few get work to support their practice.

How have you applied your experience as an artist to your role as chief executive?

I was an artist; now I am really an arts administrator – well, that’s what I say on my car insurance. My experience as an artist was really an education in how to survive. Like many artists, I did this by being adaptable to many different situations and by being able to turn these situations to my advantage. Many people now call this a portfolio career; others say it’s having a strong identity with a healthy diversification to reduce risk. Whatever it is, the ability to survive is the biggest achievement in my book – and if you do it long enough.

If there is anything else it’s probably my lack of time for prima donnas. Creativity is fantastic, but it is not magic and those who think they are, I find boring. Personality on the other hand is great!

How vital is it that senior leadership positions at charities or organisations that support artists are filled by ex or current artists?

It’s probably not important at all as long as you have empathy. What’s important is that arts organisations afford the best people for the right jobs, and to do that you have to offer those people proper career options and salaries. This is unfortunately very hard for many organisations to achieve as they think they can’t afford it.

My attitude is we can’t afford not to afford it. You must prioritise and invest in the right places if you are going to progress, and in my view that investment is in people. Bow Arts now has an excellent team with a really broad range of professional experience, as this is so valuable to the organisation. Our team’s specialisms include property management and development, education and learning, arts management, finance and law, planning and regeneration as well as artistic practice.

Why is subsidised accommodation and studio space so important for artists?

It comes down to the benefits artists get from interacting and sharing ideas with one another. It’s the same in most sectors – individuals make much faster progress when they work in a collective or collaborative environment. I also believe that a healthy creative sector is absolutely vital to a healthy London economy. This means we need to ensure sufficient affordable places for artists to work. London is growing, so we should be growing – not shrinking.

We must address both the property issue and that of the professional role of the artist within our communities. We need to look at ways to support and equip artists to survive theses early and hard years – and make them as short as possible. Bow Arts is always looking for new, inventive ways to deliver “affordable” spaces, but the pressure on us is massive. Where once we were routinely offered 20-years leases, we now get three years. This means we have to work harder and faster at a greater risk just to stand still.

I am not saying there’s no crisis or that these calls to arms are not important. What I’m saying is that the problem is a permanent challenge that gets more complex every year – and every year more talented young artists leave art school to start their careers. Somehow, we need to turn London’s investment in arts education into economic growth and recoup the investment.

To do so we must create an environment for creatives to stay in London, work and become successful. We also need agencies such as the GLA and Arts Council England to work together to address capital investment in London’s cultural workspaces. We also need to address artist’s ability to afford space that is becoming more expensive. At Bow Arts we have worked hard to avoid being an organisation dependent on grants. So we work equally hard to improve the professional standing of artists, investing in professional development and training, developing networks that deliver properly paid jobs and opportunities, improving visibility and creating platforms for artists to sell their work. All of which is as important as affordable rent.

What would happen if all the subsidised space dried up in London?

Artists would find alternatives – they would work in bedrooms, hallways and on kitchen tables. Studios don’t make artists, but do we want London’s supply of innovative and creative talented artists to be restricted like that?

Are the economic challenges associated with being an artist putting off the next generation?

The next generation? Art schools are becoming more middle class again, as the cost of education means that many students from poorer areas will perhaps think twice before entering into such a career path. We’re also seeing a migration by many artists out of London to places such as Margate and Hastings because they’re more affordable. It’s vital that organisations such as ours support young artists and keep artists in the heart of our cities and economy.

Housing is a massive issue long-term for artists and we can only provide a temporary fix with our Live/Work spaces, but one which is hopefully beneficial for a few years. If artists can’t afford to live in London they won’t be able to afford to travel to the capital to work. We’re always actively looking for new partners and new ways to provide affordable housing.

Finally, many artists have to take low paying jobs to sustain a basic living. One of the ways we help artists survive is by giving them access to freelance teaching work, but with the current administration putting so little emphasis on art in the curriculum, we’re having to work increasingly hard with schools to piggy-back on other subjects and come in through the back door.

What three top tips would you give to a budding artist reading this?

Always be active and resilient. The arts are a very competitive place. There are many artists and fewer opportunities, so don’t dwell on the rejections but move (without baggage) into the corners and gaps that open up.

Be generous; it comes back in droves. Most galleries say that personal recommendation by another artist is still by far the very best way for them to find new artists to represent.

Finally, be polite and friendly: every career and every business is built first on people liking and wanting to work together.

Marcel Baettig is chief executive of Bow Arts

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