Art and Suburbia

photo by Gemma Thorpe

American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe said of his childhood spent growing up in a quiet suburb of Queens that, ‘Suburbia is a good place to come from and a good place to leave’. Suburbia — those outlying areas of the world’s metropolises — still isn’t a place associated with art or cultural productivity, despite many of our creative icons growing up on the outskirts of our cities. The stories for British luminaries such as David Bowie (Bromley), Kate Bush (Bexleyheath) or John Galliano (Streatham and Brockley) are often ones of escaping nullifying boredom, finding a bedsit or warehouse in the city and pursuing a career among the more inspiring grit and noise of the big city.

As London becomes an impossibly expensive place to live for the majority of young creative people, this cultural narrative is changing fast and perhaps heading for some kind of full reverse. The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan tells us that 30 per cent of artist studios will be lost to development in the next few years. More anecdotally, growing numbers of artists are moving from London to Margate, Berlin and Glasgow. But what if the London suburbs, where rents and land values in places like Dagenham, Hayes or Edmonton are still just about manageable, became some kind of productive cultural equivalent of another well-known suburb in California, Silicon Valley? Most outer-London councils and town planners have read their Richard Florida books (Florida’s contention is that the movement of the ‘Creative Class’ into poorer neighbourhoods is generally a ‘good’ thing, though it can of course bring some subsequent complications) and want artists to move in and help chivvy along urban renewal. Is there a new opportunity for artists in suburbia?

Cities continue to grow at an unprecedented pace, with 64 percent of all humans predicted to live in them by 2050. Now is a time to look ahead and consider a new role for suburbia; not as as dormitories for workers, but as productive, fully-functioning parts of a city. Of course in London, or any metropolis characterised and defined by its culture, there must be space in this new suburbia for artists. Governments across the world are planning for urban growth, with new infrastructure and housing being built and conceived on a grand scale. What’s important now is to incorporate into these master-plans the things which will make the outer reaches of cities more interesting, vibrant and productive. Suburbia needs to start existing confidently in its own right and not just in relation to the centre of the city; spaces for culture and for artists are fundamental to suburbia’s potential for success. Reflecting on the effect artists have had in many major cities over the course of the 20th century, we can clearly see they have been catalysts for identity, hope and social discourse. Within the context of an unrelenting expansion of the urban landscape, artists must now play a central role in realising the potential for the growing edges of our cities.

The architect Renzo Piano, designer of the Shard in London, recently expressed a desire for urban planning in the British capital to intensify beyond its centre. ’We need to transform the peripheries and fertilise them with great public buildings such as universities, concert halls and libraries… We live 24 hours a day but in the suburbs that is not possible. The edge of the city is actually where most people live’.

Photo: Gemma Thorpe

Artists moving on to more affordable places isn’t, of course, necessarily a bad thing for British culture. A couple of years ago, the cultural black-hole effect of London was reflected in concern expressed by MPs on the realisation that Arts Council spending from money it received from the National Lottery was around €77.44 per head in London and €5.14 in the rest of England. Artists being priced out of London is an opportunity for towns and cities in the UK — if they are smart enough — to seize. And Britain could certainly look to Europe where arts, culture and economies are broadly speaking less dominated by the metropolis; Germany for example has far more towns than the UK with significant arts centres, whilst the arts exhibition Documenta takes place in Kassel, a town with a population of 197,000.

However, it’s worth considering why it might be important for London-based artists to have the option to stay. London is where the UK art market is and where the collectors are based. It has world-class art schools and institutions and retains a culture that cultivates new ideas, talent and energy; something the city continues to value even if it can’t quite work out how to keep it there.But in the face of an unprecedented crisis in housing and workspace, new civic approaches are needed if artists are to remain in London.

The outer London borough of Barking and Dagenham has expressed perhaps the clearest and most direct municipal cultural ambition in recent years. Aside from recently proposing, with Sadiq Khan, a new major film studio be built on a former industrial site, the borough is exploring ambitious options for cultural infrastructure including affordable housing for artists along with new studio spaces in vacant and new buildings. The borough is also supporting a small but ambitious project taking place on the Becontree Estate, a remarkable suburban social housing estate that was once the largest in the world, with over 20,000 new homes built in the 1920s. The White House is a former farmhouse in the middle of the estate, dating further back to the rural Dagenham of the 1800s. Today, the house is situated on a suburban street surrounded by 20th century social housing. Create has restored the house as an artist residency building and an art space for local people, quietly opening its doors this summer. Over the next 25 years, international and UK-based artists will stay in the house and, as part of each residency, artists will encourage dialogue with, and the participation of, neighbours. The principle area of research here is to look seriously at what it means to have artists living and working in a regular suburban street and what the opportunities might be for both artists and communities. In other words, what does suburbia mean to art and what does art mean to suburbia?

Photo: Gemma Thorpe

Of course, other cities have explored the cultural potential of suburbia. Theaster Gates’ Dorchester Projects in the South Side of Chicago is a well-known example of artist-led urban renewal in a place of serious deprivation. In a more institutional context, Konsthall C in the Stockholm suburb of Hökarängen is making positive and ambitious relationships with communities alongside acting as a serious centre for art production and research.

One only has to look to Paris to see how neglecting the outskirts of a city leads to social unrest, inequality and cultural stagnation. Paris is still dining out on its cultural significance which peaked almost a hundred years ago. But the city is hollowed out, representing a Disneyland version of itself in the centre, inaccessible and unwelcoming to its poorer suburban residents. Compared to London, the city remains remarkably culturally unproductive.

London’s suburbs have characteristics, histories and potential which go beyond the Reginald Perring commuter-belt narratives of the 1970s. Artists are the ideal workforce to uncover and develop these identities and, in doing so, make suburbia — or as Piano would put it ’peripheries’ — more productive and distinct. If our suburbs are to be more than just dormitories, we need to look to the 13,000 artists in the British capital. We must find new ways in which they can set themselves up on the edges of London for the long term and support them to feed into the cultural life of the suburbs and the city as a whole. It’s time to think about how we make the whole of our cities function and, as they continue to grow, we need to consider the place of art and artists in this expansion. Establishing new cultural infrastructure and affordable housing where land is cheap has never been more vital. Suburbia can position itself as an alternative to shipping out altogether, keeping the city an interesting, productive and complex place.

Hadrian Garrard is the founding director of Create London, a charity that works with artists in community and social contexts. Founded in 2012 and based in east London, Create London has worked with artists including Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Jeremy Deller and last year’s Turner Prize winners Assemble to deliver ambitious projects outside of traditional cultural spaces in London, Glasgow and Lagos.