The Hackney Art Scene is Still Thriving

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Here’s the full version of the article I wrote for the July edition of the Hackney Citizen:

As I write this, perfect summer’s evening that it is, the inaugural Fitrovia Lates and new Thursday night gallery hop is taking place in that other part of the city. Just as crafty TV programmers wouldn’t schedule the finals of Strictly Come Dancing and X Factor to clash, East London’s First Thursdays and Fizrovia’s Last Thursdays are not going head to head, but that isn’t to say they aren’t in competition.

Dazed & Confused began the scaremongering about our treasured local art scene with its provocative cover in May. ‘Is East London Dead?’ questioned a black figure dressed up like the Grim Reaper of the art world, a dodgy Damien Hirst rip-off. A few weeks ago The Guardian joined in and printed an article claiming that ‘East End galleries’ are being ‘forced to go West’ as the ‘local scene “dies”’.

The article suggested that as galleries like Nettie Horn and FRED Ltd continue to move away from Vyner Street and into Fitrovia, the hub of the London art scene is also shifting. This narrow piece of journalism mistakes Vyner Street for the breadth of the East London art scene and views sales as the life force behind all creativity.

Fitzrovia is the money maker, the new commercial and industrial hub of the art world. The idle art collector might favour the kind of constellatory art map that enables large sums of money to be spread over a small surface area at a time-saving pace, but what Hackney has to offer stretches beyond Vyner Street and justifies a little wandering.

The focus of many Hackney spaces such as [Space] on Mare Street, Cell on Cambridge Heath Road and Banner Repeater in Hackney Downs Station, is on exploration, education and experimentation. With talks and events, libraries and reading rooms, and warrens of artist studios hidden away behind the public walls of the gallery, these Hackney institutions aren’t just showrooms for established artists. They are driven by a desire to shape a continually developing critical dialogue. 

‘For us the “scene” is being in touch with the studio practice of our artists. This is still in East London,” writes Cell Project Space’s Director, Milika Muritu. While rents for galleries in Fitzrovia might be smaller than the inflated prices of Vyner Street, it’s unlikely that penniless artists will be renting studio space in the rich lands behind Oxford Street.

There is much more freedom to be experimental in East London with project spaces and artist led galleries supporting emerging practice and challenging ideas. While Muritu admits that income and sales are essential to the running of the gallery, she claims that Cell are making the shift to “assist artists’ projects in becoming a reality. Not always in creating a finite statement, but to establish the gallery as an exploratory space to develop knowledge that can be used in the future.” Not every gallery will take a risk on the infinite but this is often where the most exciting ideas emerge and is an investment in the future of contemporary practice.

The Transition Gallery on Andrews Road publishes its own zine, Arty, and magazine, Garageland, alternatives to the familiar glossies and inclusive of a lot of “irreverent” artist-led content. East London still has a powerful and alternative voice that runs against the current of the art world.  Director, Cathy Lomax, remembers publishing the first Arty: “It felt very empowering. It was the most basic folded photocopy format but this meant I had complete control over it which was very important.”

Unlike Hackney, Fitrovia has a name which already sounds like an exclusive destination. Its network of slick white spaces all conform to our conventional notion of an art gallery. Yet exclusivity is inevitably a way of alienating people.

Dalston Lane’s Fishbar Gallery deliberately avoided the white cube makeover, keeping the original wood cladding and shop front which recall the former life of the premises, when renovating their space. The Director, Olivia Arthur, says that they “were also drawn to the idea of having a shopfront. A lot of people have been using warehouse spaces and making galleries in them which can be great, but there is something special about having a shopfront, being in a little high street, it makes you more local, less exclusive.”

I always pop into the Banner Repeater on Platform 1 of the Hackney Downs Station when I am early or late for a train. The exhibitions attract all kinds of curious platform-dwellers and the reading room is a gentle invitation for anyone to drift in. The Banner Repeater is my local and I’m even currently sporting a ‘BR’ canvas bag to prove it.

The sense of locality is proof that these Hackney galleries are deeply engaged with the area, the people, and the artists and studios which surround them. If the alternative is the art tourists of Fitzrovia, then this “scene” still feels like a much more significant and exciting thing to be a part of. 

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1 comment
  1. I’m not surprised that infamous Guardian article has annoyed many in the East End. But it also annoyed many of us living in Fitzrovia, which still clings on as a place where many ordinary people still live. Something that is often forgotten is that our neighbourhood does have a large amount of social housing as well as a dwindling number of cheaper, privately-rented flats. Around 70 percent of people who live in Fitzrovia rent their homes, and the housing advice service run at the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association’s advice centre remains busy with enquiries and we do our best to support people against rising rents.

    But why does the author of The Pilgrimages point the finger at Fitzrovia and say its name “already sounds like an exclusive destination”? That’s not a Fitzrovia I recognise, nor what many people who have lived here most of their lives, nor the many people from all over the world who work here. The name Fitzrovia was taken up by a group of people in 1973 who were fighting against the commercialisation of the neighbourhood. The Fitzrovia Festival of that year was to remind the powers that be the “The people live here”. It was a call to halt the loss of housing.

    One of the questions many people living in Fitzrovia ask is: why are there so many galleries, yet so few artists? It is of course a rhetorical question because we know the answer.

    There was a time when many artists did live here, when the area was a great deal more affordable than what it is today. Even 20 years ago myself and others as students found a flat to share here that was surprisingly affordable. Shabby Fitzrovia meant it was cheap. And there was a great deal of squatting before that.

    But Fitzrovia is changing, and not for the better. Most people here don’t welcome the gentrification of the area any more than the ordinary people in the East End do. Who does welcome the increasing cost of renting? Those that buy-to-let and the existing landlords, for sure.

    People living all over inner London have a lot in common and most of us see beneath the hype portrayed by the media when describing passing phenomena. Fitzrovia has its share of misrepresentation by the mainstream media and it’s a shame to see the author of The Pilgrimages doing the same. You would do well to visit our Neighbourhood Centre which has been at Tottenham Street for nearly 40 years and providing housing, welfare advice and more. And you could wander the streets and see for yourself that mostly Fitzrovia is not what it is portrayed as. We are no different to people all over inner London who continue the fight for affordable housing and for neighbourhoods that are inclusive and welcoming to ordinary people.

    Linus Rees,
    assistant editor, Fitzrovia News

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