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6. Private ownership: Thames-side Studios

Thames-Side Studios Gallery, New Relics, curated by Tim Ellis and Kate Terry, preview 1 June 2018. Image courtesy Thames-Side Studios, photo: Phil Ashcroft
Thames-Side Studios Gallery, New Relics, curated by Tim Ellis and Kate Terry, preview 1 June 2018. Image courtesy Thames-Side Studios, photo: Phil Ashcroft

Many artist studio providers in London lease their premises from property developers or other landlords who, for whatever reason, cannot develop the site immediately. Sometimes this is because property prices are too low for a profitable project; sometimes developers are biding their time to wait for planning consent or use-class changes to use the building for different purposes.

These leases specify a time period and set of terms under which the building is licensed for occupation. As the property owner, the landlord can evict studio groups when they need the building back (often on very flexible terms requiring minimal notice), or raise rents within the terms of their agreement. Studio providers often have low levels of financial reserves, meaning they must pass on these rent increases direct to artists – some of whom report fourfold increases since 2017. As leases draw to an end and expire, studio providers sometimes have to close sites down as landowners opt for more immediately profitable developments.

In this landscape, we speak to Terence Abbott (TA), Studio Manager at Thames-Side Studios, an artist studio provider, and Adelaide Damoah (AD), an artist with a studio in their complex.

Thames-Side Studios is the UKs largest single-site artist studio, with over 500 studios on site, considerable investment from the site owner and plans for continued development. We talk about how the needs of artists have changed in relation to studios, new ways of thinking about artists’ workspace, and the investment required to help studio providers meet artists’ needs.

NK
Can you give us a bit of background to Thames-Side Studios, the history of the site and how it came to be in its current form?

TA
The site Thames-Side Studios occupies is an old Siemens factory that was responsible for many significant achievements in the telecoms industry. Originally it was a Tudor Dockyard, used to build ships for Henry VIII. The site and the studios are now owned by Emafyl plastics who, since 1983, operated a highly successful business producing picture-frame and architectural caravan mouldings. Emafyl still have production facilities on site, but following a decline in the manufacturing sector the company looked to develop other opportunities here, and that’s how these studios came about. There are over 500 artists, designers and creative businesses on site.

NK
When was the site established for artist studios?

TA
The studios themselves started here in 2010 from an idea by Howard Simons, the owner of Emafyl, and Rob Detenon, the General Manager. Initially they worked with an external company until 2016, after which the owners decided to take on the running of the studios themselves.

NK
So the site owners own the studios directly, you’re not a separate company leasing the site?

TA
Thames-Side Studios was set up as a limited company by Howard who owns Emafyl plastics and the studios. The Thames-Side Studios team that I’m part of are employed to manage the studios and site.

NK
How does the relationship work between Emafyl, the parent company, and the studios?

TA
We have a very good relationship. We’re not micromanaged and we’re given space to get on with things. Each week we review site operations and develop new ideas to progress the studios, which they’re very open to. As long as the studio site is working and developing, they’re happy. It’s a business, but it’s not about maximising profit from every square inch of the site. There are many facilities and non-studio spaces on site, like a beautiful gallery and a photography studio that could be more profitably rented out as studios. It’s more about investing to create a centre of excellence for artists & makers and I think that’s an achievable ambition.

NK
You mention the gallery and the photography studio. Could you say a bit more about these and any other facilities onsite that invest in the artists here?

TA
There are a combination of things run by Thames-Side Studios and other facilities provided by organisations that rent studios here, so for example there is Thames-Side Print Studio, one of London’s largest open access print studios; and London Sculpture Workshop, the first open access sculpture workshop in London, which has fabrication facilities for artists. There’s a new photography studio that the team at Thames-Side look after, and both artists with studios here and elsewhere can hire it to document work. There are three exhibition spaces, with the main gallery space prioritising Thames-Side Studio artists. There’s exhibition space in the communal lounge and a spacious corridor gallery. These two are for Thames-Side Studio artists only and give an important opportunity to make creativity visible on site, so artists see each other’s work.

There’s an education space which can be hired by studio holders and external artists to run workshops or give talks to the artists on site: we’ve had fascinating talks from conservation specialists, artists, curators, designers. Even Rob, the Emafyl General Manager recently gave a great talk about the history of the site.

There are other little things the studio provides that make a big difference, like a ‘freecycle’ area [for artists to leave or collect unwanted materials and equipment for free], a spray area, kiln facilities, a yard space, 24hr secure access, and free parking.

NK
Do you have communal storage on site as well?

TA
It’s not specifically storage as such, but we have smaller studios without windows. For some artists this is perfect, as they need controlled lighting, but if we have them free, other artists on site can and do use them as overspill storage, and we don’t charge a service charge on this second studio. Of course I’d rather have every space occupied here by someone creating, but that’s not always going to be the case. We’ve got a healthy waiting list, but these smaller studios are not suitable for everyone.

NK
What are the main challenges facing Thames-Side Studios, or other studio providers you speak with?

TA
For us, really the only feedback I’ve had from artists who have decided not to take on a studio here is the location, as we’re fairly far out in south-east London. We don’t charge as much as more central studio providers, and with the additional benefits we offer I think we are one of the most affordable in London. The trade-off is that we’re just a little bit further out from the centre.

For many studio providers I know, long term security is real issue. I know when something’s about to close because I see a spike in my applications and they always cite the same reasons: studio rents being doubled or tripled. We’re in a good position here as the studio organisation is the owner. Obviously, as development ripples out to reach us here, I’m asked “won’t the owner sell and develop this?” but no, he has no plans to, for two reasons: one, we’re in a conservation area, which limits development; and two, for the last eight to nine years he’s invested heavily in this site, and it wouldn’t make sense to throw it away and turn it into luxury flats.

NK
Do you think that a diverse property portfolio allows him to be more supportive of the site and the artists here?

TA
The studios are one part of a wider portfolio, but the fact is that it is in itself a very healthy business. We don’t have to charge ridiculous prices per square foot to offer these facilities and I don’t think a huge income is key for him. Since the goal is to develop a centre of excellence, that’s going to come at a bit of cost, but as long as it’s a reasonable cost and the business is growing its ok.

NK
How did you decide what facilities for artists you were going to provide on-site?

TA
I think in terms of the facilities that the studio provides they have developed in response to day to conversations between the owners, us, as site operators, and the artists and makers on the site.

NK
In the context of rising studio prices within London, which it sounds like Thames-Side is somewhat protected from, have you found there is an increase in sharing studios here?

TA
No, but I think that might be a different story elsewhere. Due to the affordability of our studios so there hasn’t been pressure to mitigate that cost through increased sharing.

NK
How do you grow community at Thames-Side Studios?

TA
Communities create themselves. With such a large variety of artists and makers, people naturally gravitate towards each other for advice and help. We encourage it, we support it in different ways. The first Friday of every month we offer studio holders a coffee morning in the café, and Emafyl pays for the refreshments. That’s a good opportunity for us to meet our artists properly and for them to meet one another. We have a Christmas party – again, put on by Emafyl. There’s a closed studio Facebook group – people use it to ask each other questions, exchange ideas, offer help on moving or advice on particular techniques and practices. The exhibition spaces and the talks programme and open studios contribute to this as well, and of course the communal lounge.

NK
What are the future plans for growth for the studios?

TA
Currently we have a huge variety of around 500 spaces, from 88 ft2 windowless units to spaces like the 1800 ft2 gallery itself. We’ve recently opened two new floors of studios, and we have a new block opening early next year which will include 700 – 800 ft2 units with underfloor heating and views of the river. Once the next phase of development is done, we’ll have around 550 studios.


Interview with Adelaide Damoah, artist studio holder at Thames-Side Studios. Adelaide is a British artist of Ghanaian descent who uses her body as a tool to print or paint onto surfaces. Her earlier work combined African and Western influences and now highlights social issues and ideas around the body, belonging and colonialism. She is a founding member of the BBF (Black British Female) artists collective and has exhibited nationally and internationally including in Budapest, Venice and Morocco.

This is Me: The Inconsistency of the Self, performance at UNFOLD Festival 3 October 2017, image courtesy of Jennifer Moyes
This is Me: The Inconsistency of the Self, performance at UNFOLD Festival 3 October 2017, image courtesy of Jennifer Moyes

NK
Could you give us a quick introduction to your practice and the processes that you use?

AD
I use my body as a tool in performance to create paintings. I’m interested in themes of female empowerment, history, colonialism, culture, belonging and memory. Using my body in performance is usually the starting point of what I do in the studio, sometimes using writing to explore these ideas further.

NK
Can you talk a little bit about where your practice has taken you? Have you always been based in London?

AD
I moved into my studio at Thames-Side Studios in 2014. I used to live in Grays in Essex and initially, for the first nine or ten years of working as an artist, I was working at home. I converted my living room into my studio and lived in my bedroom. For a short time I didn’t have a studio to work from so I was just working with what I had just using paper and pencil and doing drawings and sketches and really focusing on my interviews.

NK
Interviews? Can you say a little bit more about this?

AD
In 2011, I started a series of interviews called Art Success, (now Art Discussion) where I interviewed artists about their careers, the challenges they faced, and what steps they took to get them where they are. I talked to a range of artists, from those who were just graduating to people who are in their 70s and 80s who have had really established careers.

To start I was motivated a bit by self-interest. I’m self-taught, and I wanted to learn for myself what I needed to do in order to get where I wanted. I thought the best way to do that was to find out from other artists themselves. Then it became more about sharing the information and insight with others, initially on a blog and then on video.

I feel with the relationships that I developed as a consequence of those interviews helped me to develop as an artist in ways that I could never have imagined. I’ve developed relationships both here at Thames-Side Studios and outside that have been instrumental in my development as an artist. These relationships have enabled critiques that I would never have had, one in particular from an artist here, Rachel Ara, completely changed the direction of my career.

NK
When did you decide it was the right time to get a studio?

AD
In 2013 I felt at a crossroads. I was working independently, curating my own exhibitions, but I didn’t really know what I was doing career-wise. I won a bursary to go on the Curating Conversations course at the Royal College of Art where I met Karen Alexander who was running the course – she understood where I’d come from in terms of working mostly by myself. She told me that in order to really push things further, I needed to be in an artists’ community and in a studio, that working from home there’s only so far that I could go. So, I took her advice, and I was very lucky to find somewhere so local, 15-20 minutes’ drive.

NK
Location and convenience were an obviously big draw, and community too. Were there any other factors?

AD
The community aspect here is really important. There’s a kind of university campus buzz about it. You’ve got to work for it though; when I first moved here I didn’t know anyone, but the opportunity to meet people through the interviews really helped with that.

And then there are also so many facilities on site; there’s a framer, the print studio which is amazing – I’ve done a printing course there which has kind of informed my work. There’s a sculpture workshop, there’s the gallery, then there are a couple of cafés, so everything is here, I don’t need to go anywhere. It’s also 24-hour access. I work in quite an intense way so I need somewhere that I can access anytime. It’s also really safe in that there’s security here and I can work late without having to worry.

NK
What signs did you look for that there was an active community at the studio when you came to see it?

AD
To be honest, there wasn’t anything immediately obvious. The people that showed me round when I first came seemed lovely and there was just a good vibe about the place.

The community at the studio is something you can engage with as much or as little as you want. It’s there, but this place is so big – you could just as easily lock yourself in the studio and not talk to anyone. The studio organises coffee mornings to help and encourage people to meet, and the communal spaces and gallery help also.

NK
How has the studio space you had impacted on your practice?

AD
When I started here I was in a tiny space and I moved to this larger studio two years ago. Because I work with my body, privacy and having a secure space is really important. This studio has allowed me to do that, and work at larger scale. Now I feel I need more space again. But I do need to sort my storage out.

NK
Yes, that’s often the way isn’t it? Practice grows and eventually outgrows whatever physical space it occupies. Often big parts of an artist’s studio end up as storage.

AD
Yes. I haven’t got storage yet, that’s on my to-do list. After I’ve finished this work and haven’t sold everything I’m going to have to put some stuff into storage so I can move on to new work.

NK
Is there a particular routine that you have?

AD
Yes, in general I’m usually in between 10 or 11am and out by 11pm or midnight, every day Monday to Saturday. Sundays I’ll probably come in a bit later, probably sometime in the afternoon and leave a little bit earlier just to give myself a bit of a rest. Quite intense.

NK
Are there any other reasons why you think a studio in particular is important to an artist to practice?

AD
For me, I feel like having a studio professionalises what I’m doing because it means that when I leave my house in the morning to go to the studio, it’s like going to the office in the morning. On the one hand, there was something quite nice about getting out of bed and going to the next room and getting on with work, but at the same time I feel it’s helpful to have a separation between work and home to have a healthy relationship with the work.

NK
Have you participated in the open studios?

AD
I’ve taken part every year since I’ve joined, aside from this year when I was away. It’s always a really exciting opportunity to get feedback and response from the general public. It’s also an important opportunity to go around and see the work of other artists.

NK
I think it’s interesting to see how a studio community engages with a local one. Particularly as artists are often (unfairly) seen as the foreshadowers of rising rents shortly before they themselves are priced out. So often the presence of artist studios might be met with reservation from local communities.

AD
That conversation is an interesting one because I feel like that’s starting to happen, with the development of this area and it is a bit worrying – when I first moved here, you wouldn’t see the general public just walking in off the street. Now, Joe Bloggs does walks in to use the cafeteria and other facilities here, which is great for the businesses but, for us, we’re wondering how long before we get pushed out in favour of businesses that can pay more rent.

I don’t think we will, because the site is privately owned and the company who owns this place have invested so much in its development. They’re constantly making new studios and adding new facilities, so I can’t see anything happening in the next ten years or so.

NK
So this issues of site security is an important one for artists. What other pressures do you think we are working under currently and how do you think that this impacts on what we need from studio providers?

AD
The main and most obvious pressure is finance. Affordable space is paramount. If you don’t have affordable space, you can’t work. I’ve heard too many stories of artists being in spaces where the rents are constantly being pushed up and then they end up having to move out because they can’t afford the space. So many people have to give up their practice before they find affordable space.

Artists also need opportunity to show themselves until they get more formal representation. Here you’ve got an affordable space to work and you’ve got a gallery to show work affordably.

NK
So what else would the utopian studio provide?

AD
As well as all the facilities we have here? Affordable apartments that were close by. Relationships with major galleries and opportunities to connect with galleries, dealers, agents, so that they would see open studios as a destination. An art supply shop like Atlantis would be the icing on the cake, for when you need to get something on the spur of the moment.

NK
How do you feel the role of the artist’s studio has changed?

AD
Though I don’t think it’s necessarily the role of the studio provider, I think studios are providing more and new services to the artists on site. So it’s not just a space to make work but there’s also things that address other needs, like artistic community and visibility. Also people are starting to recognise the importance of artists in the context of wider communities and the value they bring. Developers aren’t going to be able to make massive amounts of money out of artists themselves, but the presence of other artists will play an important factor in bringing wealth into an area. There’s going to be more competition for studios to provide better services, but I hope that it remains affordable and that developers see the value of keeping artists in an area.

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About the author

Nick Kaplony

After graduating from Camberwell College of Art and having worked as assistant curator at the Arts Gallery London and Pump House Gallery, Nick joined the Artquest team in June 2007. Nick is a practicing artist and freelance curator.

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