Visual arts: Final departure from King's Cross?

The artist-run Cubbitt, a rare free spirit among galleries and a nursery of talent, is under threat.
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The Independent Culture
BARNETT NEWMAN, one of America's boldest, brashest American Expressionists, once observed that "Where art goes, property follows". And so it has proved in London in the past few decades. Artists, being poor and in need of space to paint and sculpt, have sought out old, unused industrial buildings in unloved inner-city areas that no one else would touch. Landlords accepted them as caretaking stopgaps while they decided what to do with their white elephants.

Now, however, some of the "unlovely" parts of the capitol are becoming fashionable, loft dwelling is all the rage, and the artists who kept the fabric of the buildings together are finding themselves surplus to requirement.

One of the artists' co-operatives which is currently under threat - possibly the most dynamic of them all - is Cubitt. Nestling behind the notoriously nasty King's Cross station area - soon to undergo a multi-million-pound refit - Cubitt has always stood out. Run by artists for artists, rather than by management committees, it has, since its foundation in 1991, made a number of successful innovations, such as creating a gallery and a billboard to exhibit work by other artists, and also organising enterprising programmes of talks and events.

Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that Cubitt's rise has mirrored that of Brit art, while its roster of artists has included many of the most fashionable of the Saatchi pack, from the Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili and runner-up Peter Doig, to the notorious figurative sculptor Dinos Chapman, the curious child painter Nicky Hoberman and the sculptor of ice-coated furniture, Jane Simpson.

Now all these achievements are under threat, as its current site (and third incarnation) - an old Victorian laundry - is being reclaimed by the landlords as part of a mammoth development. Unless Cubitt can find a new building in the next month or so, one of London's few central studio spaces - housing some 40 artists - and even fewer non-commercial galleries will be lost.

Cubitt is a rare free spirit in a sea of good intentions harnessed by the establishment. While many such enterprises began adventurously enough, it has achieved the far harder distinction of maintaining a high level of chaos, creativity and experimentation over a period of time. Chisenhale is another example of artists' studios with a gallery attached, but what is unusual about Cubitt has been the way its artists have managed to keep control of the gallery's programmes, always on the cutting edge, never tipping over into the merely predictable.

When Cubitt was first set up, Britain was going through a recession, the gallery system had collapsed, and there was little chance for up- and-coming artists to show their work. Cubitt led the way by enabling artists to be curators themselves, in particular of new work with little chance of being seen in commercial galleries. Instead of showing its own artists' work, it decided only to invite outside artists. The curating was done on a voluntary basis by a changing panel. Artists proved they were as capable of producing exciting and thought-provoking exhibitions as any West End gallery, and many of the shows were critically acclaimed.

Cubitt's novel and empowering format was the model for other artist- run spaces, but at the time it was unique. The list of its past exhibitors reads like an alternative Who's Who of the Nineties art scene - everybody from Ceal Floyer and Adam Chodzko to Siobhan Hapaska and Tacita Dean. It has also been influential in other ways, for instance as one of the first British galleries to show this year's Venice Biennale star Doug Aitken and Gunter Forg's work.

There is still a pressing need for spaces that reflect the art production of today and are not limited by commercial needs alone. This was the reason Cubitt was so acclaimed, and why it became internationally known.

Cubitt has only survived through sheer determination, and one of its strengths has been the resourcefulness - and vitality - of its members. They have become good at fund-raising from public bodies such as the London Arts Board, the Arts Council of England and Camden and Islington councils (it falls between both of them). While one artist declared early on that "when this place gets a noticeboard it will be the end", it could not have survived without a degree of (unpaid) professionalism. Which was why, four years ago, after tremendous efforts, it succeeded in attaining charitable status.

Cubitt and King's Cross have been good for each other. While the presence of artists has been positive, protecting the building and giving the area a focus other than drugs and prostitution, the unsavoury nature of their surroundings has invigorated the artists, many of whom have responded with raw and dynamic work.

Cubitt has become identified with the area, and the King's Cross Partnership, which is in charge of overall development, would like the studios to stay nearby, although no alternative site has been forthcoming. It would be a shame, if all this good work was allowed to fall away.

It's a long shot, of course. But I wonder if anyone knows of a building of 15,000 square feet or so - preferably in the King's Cross area - in need of some not-so-tender but loving artistic care?

Urban Islands: four projects reflecting the social and cultural condition of the King's Cross area:

n `24 hours secure space', 24-hour occupation of 7 Caledonia Street, London N1 by Christian Jankowski, 15 and 16 October 12pm-12pm

n `Cubitt as Commune', billboard project by Nils Norman, 15 October until Cubitt closes

n `King's Cross', film by Julian Emans, 29 October until Cubitt closes. Thursday - Sunday 12pm-6pm

n `Fashion in King's Cross - signs of resistance', publication by Cathy Skene, from 26 November, Thursday - Sunday 12pm - 6pm

Cubbitt, 2-4 Caledonian Street, London N1 (0171-278 8226)