When we hear about the incredible prices flashed at art auction houses like Sotheby’s in London, it’s easy to see how Modern art has become a luxury commodity, an investment, and a status symbol. And the wealth amassed by the gatekeepers of high art rarely trickles down to emerging artists. With rising tuition fees, escalating rents and rapid redevelopment it’s becoming a tough climate for those who find themselves excluded from London’s mainstream gallery spaces. However Art Licks, founded by Holly Willats, run art tours around Hackney and Peckham which explore a relatively unknown but thriving independent scene of galleries and artist-led project spaces.
The success of Alternative London Street Art tours around East London have put art tours firmly in vogue, not only as a medium for exposing London’s grassroots art scene but also providing an opportunity for the public to chat to local artists about their work. But before my Art Licks tour I wondered whether in trying to support London’s artistic scene art tours could be in danger of diminishing art’s political potential by further commercialising the artistic process.
Tours can quickly become landing pads for what artist and curator Rebecca Feiner calls, (in an interview on Resonance FM) “cultural parachuters” who profit from Hackney’s “associated brand of cool” without contributing to the area or the community. During the weekend of my tour, Hackney Wick had opened its studios to the public for free, some for what could be the last time as profit-driven developers drive the artistic community out. In protest Rebecca Feiner curated DEN-City1, a utopian, multi-artist urban art installation where money is abolished.
Yet DEN-City1 was just that – a utopia, and in reality artists need to pay rent and earn a living. When I joined Eva Rowson for an Art Licks tour around Hackney I discovered an eclectic bunch of self-starters who are finding innovative ways to support their practice and continue sharing their work. For example, our first stop ANDOR Gallery at 237 Hackney Road (based in a stunning former timber merchants situated within a Grade II listed Victorian terraced house) supports itself through running the Hackney Bureau, a café come gallery and by renting out its office space.
The tour was a great way to discover the increasingly endangered spaces that artists inhabit, all of which you would be hard-pressed to stumble upon without Eva’s guidance. Across all four spaces we visited there was clearly a dialogue between artist, curator and building, predicated not on profit but respect, productivity, generosity and enjoyment. Artist-led collective Five Years host exhibitions on the sixth floor of Regent Studios where, after a rickety lift ride we were treated to the kind of views over London you might expect to come included under the price tag of a luxury penthouse suite.
The art and installations varied in style, genre and quality yet the intimacy of the tour and the enthusiasm of the individuals we met was something which can never be created walking around the cavernous space of the Tate Modern. Without studios to work in and galleries to exhibit that work, a whole generation’s artistic potential has no space to develop. If London’s art scene is to continue to thrive, an Art Lick’s tour is one way of making this scene more accessible, so that those who might not move in artistic circles can see what is being lost as the developers move in.
Art Licks run tours to a selection of the best artist-led and independent initiatives in London and meet the artists and curators behind them.