Given today's London property-market-as-pressure-cooker of spiralling prices and dearth of basic new housing – sandwiched between a profusion of super-luxury developments and illegal migrant ‘beds in sheds’, an exhibition charting the start of artists’ housing association Acme during an earlier period of housing shortages – caused then by dereliction and demolition – throws a valuable perspective on the power of self-help. Ellie Duffy visits the exhibition and is inspired.
Housing – or its shortage – is a big issue in London at the moment. With property in the city currently a ‘global commodity’, it is estimated that 75 percent of new-build housing in the city is being sold off-plan to overseas investors from cities such as Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong, with many new housing developments not marketed in the UK at all. With a shortage of affordable housing for sale, a ‘buy-to-let’ industry thrives – much of it based on rentals of ex-social housing sold off to private individuals in the late 1980s. Meanwhile government-imposed caps on housing benefit are exaggerating the sense of financial apartheid in the city, with social tenants increasingly excluded from London’s more expensive central boroughs.
In this context a visit to this small but engrossing exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery seems particularly worthwhile. The exhibition, Supporting Artists: Acmes First Decade 1972 -1982, charts the first ten years of Acme Studios, a housing association established in London in 1972 by a group of seven artists. The association was initially set up to address the group’s need for cheap studio space and living accommodation and desire for a supportive community network. “It was totally self-help”, co-founder Jonathan Harvey stated in an interview in 1979. “We did not begin by setting up an association to help artists. That came later.”
It’s difficult to imagine now, but significant tracts of inner London were derelict in the early 1970s. The East End in particular had suffered from a combination of wartime bomb damage, zealous post-war slum clearances and the recent closure of the dockyards. The result was that large amounts of building stock – both domestic and industrial – lay empty, in an increasingly poor state of repair while councils and planning authorities focused on grand plans for the future.
Acme’s first project was to transform two derelict shops in Bow, East London. While awaiting demolition these were transferred to the housing association for a period of 21 months by the now-defunct Greater London Council. The idea was that the tenants, enabled by low rents, could practise there as artists. In addition, through repairing the properties, they’d learn basic building skills to supplement their future incomes (this was long before Brit Art’s commodification of conceptual art). Equally as important, the model proved a way of establishing and integrating groups of artists into existing communities.
The success of this first small project led to a more extensive arrangement with the GLC so that by 1975 Acme had become the largest manager of short-life housing in London. The buildings transferred now had minimum lives of five years and grants towards their repair were made available. Properties tended to be clumped together as, for example, the terraced housing of Beck Road, E8, which meant that groups of artists became rooted in localities such as Brixton, Hackney, Bow and Walthamstow – places where no doubt their influence can still be traced today.
In 1976 a hub for the group was established in the form of the Acme Gallery, a non-commercial art space located in an ex-banana warehouse in Covent Garden. The important thing about the gallery in terms of art practice was that it focused on showcasing difficult-to-accommodate installation and performance art. Unlike a conventional gallery environment it allowed artists total freedom to determine the form of their work. Emerging artists at the time who showed in the gallery included Stephen Cripps, Kerry Trengove, Jock McFadyen, Stuart Brisley and Helen Chadwick.
Not to be missed at the exhibition is the bound selection of pages from Acme’s monthly newsletter for tenants, The Acme Echo. These provide insight into the association’s self-governance as well as the day-to-day lives and preoccupations of the pioneering artist-tenants, with regular features such as ‘Getting on with the Neighbours’ and ‘Gardeners’ Corner’. At times, the collective-mindedness of the group uncannily reflects aspects of urban culture today: initiatives such as Acme Cheap Food Inc. offered bulk-bought grocery staples at wholesale prices (“brown rice: 23p per 2lbs; wholewheat flour: 19½p per 3lbs”) while Cheap Meals Inc. was a form of supper club, offering a two-course meal plus fruit for 50p.
It is interesting to contrast the Acme story with what’s happening in the UK today, where, not only is there a shortage of housing generally, but the quality and fitness of much of what is being built by volume-house builders is increasingly being called into question. With no clear policy direction from central government on how to address this growing housing crisis, it’s no coincidence that in architecture, social policy and research communities there’s a surge of interest in investigating alternative routes for the procurement and financing of new housing. What is clear is that there’s growing popular interest in the idea of community-based self build projects and customer-focused ‘custom build’ models of development.
For a long time property developers have known to ‘follow the art’, perhaps without quite knowing why. In its small way this exhibition somehow illustrates exactly what it is that needs to be done to generate a sense of home and community. Funnily enough, expectation of financial profit does not appear to be a factor.
– Ellie Duffy is a director of Duffy, London.
Supporting Artists: Acmes’ First Decade 1972 -1982
7 September, 2013 - 24 February, 2014
77-82 Whitechapel High Street