Whiteread's art studio may be torn down to build city academy

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The Independent Online

An arts charity that has helped the careers of successful British artists, including Rachel Whiteread, Anthony Gormley and Julian Opie, is under threat following pressure to build a government city academy on its site.

An arts charity that has helped the careers of successful British artists, including Rachel Whiteread, Anthony Gormley and Julian Opie, is under threat following pressure to build a government city academy on its site.

Tannery Arts has nurtured the work of several eminent British artists, including Whiteread, the Turner prize winner who had her studio at the charity's east London premises for six years.

Whiteread produced some of her best known pieces at the studios, including plaster cast of the inside of a room, and Vienna's Holocaust Monument, a cast of the inside of a library.

But the charity is likely to be evicted from its canal-side site in Brunswick Wharf, Hackney, which would be demolished to create space for The Bridge Academy, one of the Government's new quasi-independent schools which is backed by £2m of sponsorship from the Swiss investment bank UBS.

That would mean the loss of studios for 16 artists and the charity's gallery which is run on a voluntary basis by curators from the Contemporary Art Society and Tate Britain.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, could be forced to issue his own ruling if the site's owner tries to overturn any compulsory purchase order issued by the council.

Hackney Council wants to buy the site from Russell Gray, managing director of property restoration company Shiva, which owns the premises but has rented it to Tannery Arts since 1996, allowing them to provide cheap studios and gallery space to aspiring artists.

If a price cannot be agreed, Hackney says it will be forced compulsorily to purchase the site and demolish the buildings, including a Victorian warehouse, to provide recreational facilities for the new school.

The Bridge Academy is due to open in September 2006 as a specialist school focusing on music and maths. It will be built on the site of a former Victorian primary school adjacent to the Tannery Arts site.

Max Caller, chief executive of Hackney Council, insists that he does not want the artists leave the borough but argues that the shortage of secondary school places means that the school must have the land. He argues that if Mr Gray agrees to sell the site the council will do all it can to relocate the artists.

"It is not that I have any desire to destroy a thriving community of artists it is about a competing set of priorities," he said. "We want them to stay in the borough as we value their work. But we have a chronic shortage of secondary school places which means that a huge number of Hackney children are travelling a quarter of the way round London every day. We had hoped that everyone would recognise this and that we could work together. We will make every effort to reach an agreement with Mr Gray. But at the moment he seems to be saying he will fight us so we will start the statutory process for a compulsory purchase order in September."

Although Tannery Arts recognises the need for more secondary schools in Hackney it argues that the council should find another site. Chris Pauling, of Tannery Arts, argues that the site offers such exceptional studio space that it would be practically impossible to find a replacement elsewhere.

"These studios are unusual in that they are much larger and cheaper than anything else an artist could find this close to central London," he said. "That means that they appeal to artists who do work on a very large scale, like Rachel Whiteread. It has fantastic light and being on the canal has amazing space around.

"Our fear is that we lose the site and do not find anywhere else to go. Then we, and the local community, would lose the studios, the gallery and the educational programmes." Mr Gray accused the council of trying to acquire his land at a "knockdown price" and that he does not want to sell as he wants to preserve the "architecturally interesting" buildings not see them demolished.

"This raises serious questions about the Government's academies programme. Every taxpayer should be asking who are these people who are running these schools and why should they have the power to do this. I think they are trying to frighten me into selling.

"The Government obviously believes that the way to improve school standards is to demolish Victorian schools and replace them with steel and glass structures that look like Swiss banks. But I think it is criminal that these fine buildings are to be demolished."

A spokeswoman for UBS said that the new secondary school was desperately needed in Hackney but there would not enough land for a 1,150 pupil school without acquiring the Tannery Arts site. She said: "The wharf site, initially favoured by our advisors, is one option under discussion and investigations continue to look at ways in which alternative land might be added to the Laburnum site in order to accommodate the educational need. We are talking to Tannery Arts as part of this process."

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