Occupation Studios is a case study in cooperative survival in the urban regeneration landscape.
What do you do when you are a small, unfunded group of artists and your landlord decides to sell your studio space? This was the dilemma facing Occupation Studios in South East London. With a great deal of effort, enterprise and sheer determination, Occupation’s artists each managed to raise individual loans which, when pooled together, provided sufficient funds to meet the landlord’s asking price. More than that, they have worked out a legal formula to protect the long term future of the studios; an agreement which ensures that the artists will neither unduly profit, nor lose out, if they decide to move on.
This profile forms part of a portfolio of material around studios including the studios toolkit - designed especially for artists thinking of setting up some kind of workspace facility - case studies of studio organisations at different stages of development and more.
Occupation Studios is a case study in cooperative survival. It began in 1992 when, after graduating from the Royal College of Art, a group of artists took on a semi-derelict building in Fulham, where we ran a dozen studios for three years before, in 1996, the owners reclaimed the site. We were moved on to make way for the commercial redevelopment of what is now Chelsea Harbour.
We searched for another building for nearly a year before eventually finding something we could gain access to. Along the way, we talked to various local authorities about their many empty buildings. At that time granting licences to artists groups, even for the short term, was seen as too high risk, so we ultimately had to rely on the goodwill of private landlords.
We eventually negotiated a six-month licence on a privately-owned 7,000-square-foot industrial property in Southwark, South-East London. It had been empty for some time, and was in a very sorry state of repair; without electricity, windows, mains water or weather-proofing. After making the building useable, we managed to provide studios for a changing group of fourteen artists at an all-inclusive cost of less than £2 per square foot per annum.
By 1999, three years later, the London property market was rising fast in response to economic upsurge and the relaxation of the planning restrictions which determine what buildings can be used for. Other artists groups and organisations were starting to disappear following the loss of their buildings to the market place. It was becoming clear that our insecurity of tenure, low organisational status and poor resources made us vulnerable to the same fate.
We eventually received notification of the owners intention to sell our building and, despite extensive searches, we were unable to find an affordable alternative. Other, better resourced organisations were always able to outbid our offers. We discovered that if we were to survive in the long term, securing the freehold of a building was the only option.
Although we could have serviced a communal loan at a sensible rate of interest, loan providers were unwilling to offer us an affordable rate. As an organisation with low financial status, and no guarantor, we were not considered a bankable proposition, especially as our building had a low valuation for its current use.
One thing in our favour was that, in spite of the lucrative potential that both the owners and developers saw in the building for residential conversion, Southwark Council insisted that the future use of the building, and the surrounding area, should be employment generating. This helped to dampen speculation a little.
In the end, after exhausting all other possibilities, it fell to the artists to raise the money themselves by a variety of means, including individual loans. We eventually managed to pool an average of £12,000 each towards the purchase cost. The remainder of the £205,000 selling price was raised through fundraising events and philanthropic loans and donations, including the pro-bono services of many professionals.
The escalation of the buildings value during the period when we were raising funds and negotiating the sale, left us without resources to repair what we recognised were potentially dangerous structural faults. These have now been addressed, although much more slowly than we would have wished, through a combination of fundraising, sponsorship and in-kind support.
We also had to rely on generous help in-kind, given by many professionals, to develop the complex legal agreement necessary to allow a large number of artists to hold the freehold in common, and to protect the principles of the group against both external and internal pressures. We later learned that our efforts had unknowingly replicated, to a large extent, an already existing structure known as a Community Land Trust, which has a long and successful history as a mechanism for common ownership without profit.
The key things our agreement needs to guarantee are:
Although we eventually succeeded in getting the help we needed to secure our building and protect our organisations future, access from the outset to experienced and sympathetic professionals, or a coordinated body of knowledge and support, would have speeded our progress, and saved valuable resources. We hope that support of this kind will be more readily available for other groups in the future.
We currently provide studios for seventeen artists not all of whom contributed capital to secure the building and actively encourage all members to sub-licence or share their studios when not using them to the full. We have long waiting lists, both for prospective new members who would be able to relieve existing ones of their loan responsibilities, and artists who simply want to sub-licence or share studios in the shorter term, without capital commitment.
Over the four years since setting up this new structure we have had several successful transfers of loan capital between artists, and have been able to expand our provision from fourteen to seventeen members. Our constitution helps to keep the studios affordable into the future for those who really need them, by limiting the costs of loan transfers and sub-licensing, and only allowing non-commercial fine artists to become members. By non-commercial we mean artists who make work for its cultural, rather than commodity value. None of our artists expect, or aspire to make a liveable income purely from the sale of their work, and use their skills and knowledge in a variety of creative, cultural, social and educational projects in many different contexts.
The spaces are arranged on several floors around a shared central courtyard, with an average size of 300 square feet. The studios are provided at-cost to artists, and the overall amount works out at £5.72 per square foot when all expenses, including loan finance and utilities, are factored in. This compares favourably with the rent paid for other charitable artists studios in London. The rate may rise or fall occasionally to reflect changes in actual or projected costs.
Our artists are a diverse lot, socially, culturally and artistically, and make work in performance, digital media, photography, video, painting, sculpture, installation and site-specific intervention. They exhibit and participate in curatorial projects nationally and internationally, and are engaged in disseminating and facilitating creativity in the public arena in many other ways.
After successfully implementing all of our remedial structural works, we aim to continue to improve the quality, suitability and accessibility of our spaces for all kinds of people and practices. Improvements which are planned to make the building safer and more accessible, will allow both the creative and wider communities to experience artistic practice at first hand within our building.
We are an independent group which operates without any core funding. We were established and run for years on a purely voluntary basis, but we are hoping to be able to reward such work properly in the future. We are currently working on our organisational structure, and on formalising our relationships with external partners, to help us to develop our provision and remit in the cultural and social arenas.
|1992||Set up first studio building: Mill House Studios, Fulham, SW6||Group of graduates from Royal College of Art, seeking studio space for Fine Art practice, set up space for 14 artists in semi-derelict empty utilities building|
|Situation||Core group of volunteers refurbish, convert and manage 10,000 sq ft second floor at-cost (below £1 per sq ft per annum all inclusive) on peppercorn licence from Head Tenant of entire site|
|1996||Termination||Head Lease terminated by owners to allow sale of site with vacant possession, for eventual redevelopment some years later|
|1997||Move to second building: Occupation Studios, Walworth, SE17||Core volunteers find space suitable for artists studios in semi-derelict empty industrial building. Total of 14 artists refurbish and convert 7,000 square foot of studio space and communal courtyard|
|Situation||Charity licences entire building from private Landlord and sub-licences studios to artists
Core volunteers on site maintain and manage entire building at-cost (below £2 per square foot per annum all inclusive)
|Termination||Notice of intention to sell entire building at auction forces action on the part of the organisation|
|Ongoing||Loss of London building-based artist-run studio organisations||Peer organisations lose their leasehold buildings to redevelopment initiatives|
|Early 2000||Search for new premises||Planning law changes and property market forces deplete all previously available affordable building stock, forcing the organisation to rely on an attempt to purchase freehold of current building|
|Research into feasibility and finance||Low organisational and financial status, coupled with high building redevelopment value, and poor industrial use valuation, make mortgage finance unrealisable for the organisation|
|Alternative strategy||Alternative fundraising measures require artists to find capital in proportion to their studio needs in order to secure the building communally|
|Planning and agreements||Common ownership agreement drafted, and finance raised through combination of personal bank loans, private donations and professional philanthropic support|
|March 2000||Building lost at auction||Freehold sold to higher bidder at auction, subsequent default of purchaser meant building came back on the market, scheduled for a later auction with a 50% higher reserve|
|May 2000||Shelf Company formed||Figureband Ltd. purchased off the shelf to legally hold property in common for 14 capital-contributing artists. These internal, and other external loans made to company to raise finance for freehold purchase|
|August 2000||Freehold secured at auction||Freehold eventually secured at second auction, for twice initial projected price, following loss at previous sale, and default of previous buyer|
|Studios continue as before||Charity continues to sub-licence studios to growing group of 17 artists, with and without capital contribution
Studio management undertaken by hourly paid charity and artist members. Studios continue to be provided to artists at-cost, with running costs of under £2 per sq ft
|2000-2003||Building works||Emergency remedial structural works implemented through combination of volunteer and pro-bono professional labour, fundraising and sponsorship|
|Winter 2002||Shares issued||Shares issued as a legal transfer mechanism for internal loan capital between incoming and outgoing artists, to allow flexible participation|
|January 2003||First transfer of contribution between artists||Shares successfully transferred according to a pre-fixed price indicator, index-linked to loan rates and charitable studio sector rental costs, to maintain affordability for artists|
|Spring 2003-ongoing||Organisational development||Research and feasibility into post-purchase structure to allow long-term security and development of organisational remit|
7-10 Occupation Road
London SE17 3BE
Naomi Dines, Studio Manager
T/F: 020 7639 8792
Naomi Dines, member and elected Studio Manager, Occupation Studios.
Naomi Dines, member and elected Studio Manager, Occupation Studios.
First published: a-n.co.uk March 2005
Post your comment
No one has commented on this article yet, why not be the first?
To post a comment you need to login
© the artist(s), writer(s), photographer(s) and a-n The Artists Information Company
All rights reserved.
Artists who are current subscribers to a-n may download or print this text for the limited purpose of use in their business or professional practice as artists.
Parts of this text may be reproduced either in accordance with the provisions of the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 (updated) or with written permission of the publishers.