Wanted: creative space

Each summer 3,000 art students leave London's colleges, ready to take on the world. But the search for a studio soon saps inspiration. Robert Bevan joins a sculptor in the hunt for a place to work
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The Independent Culture
Old Street roundabout on the decaying fringes of Shoreditch, near the City of London, is an unprepossessing place: grimy and grey.

But Helen Elder doesn't mind. At 26, she is a woman with a mission. Coming to the end of her sculpture degree at St Martin's College of Art, she's hunting for an affordable studio so she can continue her work after the course ends.

It is no easy task. Helen is one of more than 3,000 artists and designers graduating this summer from London's art schools - 1,800 from the London Institute. They're all on a similar mission. Although London is one of the art capitals of the world, one of the greatest difficulties for budding artists is finding affordable workspace.

Helen is trying to steal a march on other students by beginning her search before she has completed work on her graduation shows, using "leads from friends". If she waits any longer, competition for space will become intense, if not impossible.

Still, it's not an easy task. If you paint miniatures, finding the right property is relatively simple; but if your bag is dead animals and formaldehyde, the average bedsit just will not do. Many artists find themselves unable to work in anything approaching a professional or experimental manner. In Helen's case, her sculpture hinges on the relationship between the objects she casts and the space where they are displayed. Her chosen studiohas to have the right vibes.

It's also got to be cheap. "I work evenings teaching English, but the work is getting less reliable," Helen says. "There is no time off and nothing to spare for luxuries like clothes."

Armed with a tatty A-Z, Helen trots off in her faded blue mac to a cavernous Victorian warehouse in Curtain Road, undergoing conversion to studios by Glasshouse Investments, a company that specialises in providing basic space for designers and artists. At pounds 40 per week, it is just within Helen's reach.

The industrial spaces are huge but these are the pre-converted floors; the pinched 300 sq ft studio on offer has been sliced out of the ground floor of the building and the rent is only the start of it. Add on another pounds l5 for business rates, the same again for service charges, then VAT and we are looking at pounds 75 to pounds 80 a week.

Local architect Sarah Featherstone offers some advice. She moved into Shoreditch as a student three years ago, but the area has been rapidly gentrified and new graduates are being pushed further out into east and south-east London.

"Students see lots of estate agents' boards and get excited, but most of them are only interested in letting a whole building," Ms Featherstone says. "What students see here is what they thought they wanted, but people get scared when they find out what they're taking on; repairing leases, legal bills, heating costs. Business rates are a worry, especially if they are not collected for years and you're landed with an enormous bill.

"But artists are handy people and can do all sorts of work in lieu of rent. You go on a building site around here and the builders are sitting around reading Dostoyevsky and doing the crossword."

Helen digests this information in a greasy spoon round the corner. Studios have become a problem even before leaving college, with more students being crammed into the same space. "At college, they have put in a mezzanine floor to accommodate them," says Helen. "Last year, somebody built a six- metre high sculpture which just wouldn't be possible now." She shrugs. "Lots of people are working at home."

Space, an artist-led charity in nearby Hoxton Street, is a vital resource. Since 1968, it has provided cheap studios in 14 buildings, mainly in Hackney and Tower Hamlets, housing around 280 artists. There are hundreds more on the waiting list. As a charity, it benefits from an 80 per cent reduction in business rates, which means relatively cheap accommodation.

"The buildings are there but people can't afford them," says the studios' manager Fiona Furness. "A decline in the art market and art teaching jobs is affecting the development of artists. People have to work full time to pay for a flat and on a smaller, cheaper, studio which they can then only work in at weekends."

Most tyro artists put their skills to use in paid work as painters and decorators, building or carpentry, but bar jobs and cycle courier work are equally popular - wherever payment is cash in hand, in fact. Ms Furness says that those with privileged backgrounds or generous partners find it easiest to manage."Marry well," she jokes.

Other European countries are more systematic in their support. Antje Siebrecht, a German painter living in London, has experienced both systems. In Germany, the state supports a series of "art houses" - independent postgraduate studios - as well as housing artists in empty historic properties. However, the artists' work is vetted, which Siebrecht believes can be restricting.

"Here, the rent problem is enormous, but there is a wider horizon to people's work. In Germany, the concept of your work is important in being accepted."

A 20-minute bus ride from Shoreditch and we are in deepest Hackney looking at two Space studios. In a decaying Victorian piano factory. Helen is none too impressed with the first, where a partition is being built, dividing a long room into smaller, cheaper pounds 50 per week studios: "The whole room would have been great, but the ceiling is too low and a box is uninspiring. The narrow corridor would make it difficult to get large pieces in and out."

The next looks more promising: a high clear space with whitewashed brick walls and arching iron windows. A dark room has been built at one end. Helen is considering the possibility of sharing the rent with a photographer friend. She has a clear idea of what's she's looking for, however.

This time the room does not have a neutral enough character "and could unduly influence my work". More prosaically, sharing an unventilated studio is a problem: Helen uses resin. Resin has highly toxic fumes. And, as a woman, she is concerned about being alone late at night in a dodgy area which is a long, dark and expensive journey from her Kennington housing co-operative.

One answer would be living and working under one roof with only one rent to pay. The charity ACME, founded in 1972, used to provide living/ working space in short-life housing, including the thriving community of artists in Beck Road, Hackney - Coronation Street with more Bohemian characters. Generous housing repair grants and individual Arts Council studio conversion grants (now discontinued) made it all possible. But with the GLC gone and the Eighties property boom, ACME has had to hand back nearly all its houses to their public sector owners and recently, like Space, has concentrated on supplying low-rent studios.

With ACME's help, Turner Prize-winning sculptor Richard Deacon found his own studio after graduating in 1977: "When I got the space, the Arts Council provided individual studio conversion grants. These disappeared in the Eighties - which has been tough on young artists starting out. Of course, I had to work as well - nobody is asking for a free ride.

"Increasingly, people say they cannot afford anything and are having to let spaces go," says Mikey Cuddihy, an artist liaison officer at ACME and a long-term Beck Road resident herself. "One way forward is to think again about life/work space. We would like to see the Government investing in this through housing associations."

The recession has bitten hard though. "Increasingly, people say they cannot afford anything and are letting spaces go," says Ms Cuddihy. "One way forward is to think again about live/work space. The Government should be investing in this through housing associations."

ACME has begun to take the initiative itself: it has plans to convert a former fire station in Limehouse into living/working accommodation. Another project with the Solon Housing Association has created two studio homes in Clerkenwell.

It is an ideal but, at present, limited solution. Helen has more studios to look at. She remains optimistic, despite the costs: "I'm quite excited. Looking at places makes it real. But I'm hitting a reality that you're cushioned from in college.

"I know I'll find a place. It's out there somewhere." She gestures at the world of warehouses around her and makes a vow. "I'm not going to give up my work for anything."