Emptying council estates being reclaimed as short-term rented properties for professional artists? Poplar HARCA and the Bow Arts Trust seem to think so. Passing on derelict flats to artists has not only kept these estates populated (and out of the hands of squatters) but also injected new life into their communities whom await redevelopment news of their homes. We caught up with Marcel Baettig, CEO of Bow Arts Trust, and John Walter, graduate of Slade and a resident at Balfron Tower in Poplar for the last six months, for the heads up.
What’s the project about?
Marcel: Bow Arts Trust has been working with Poplar HARCA, the social landlord in the area, with the problem of decanted flats, which is the process of emptying housing estates to be rebuilt. Balfron Tower in this case is different, in that it will be restored not demolished. Our work allows artists to take on these emptying flats, to do them up themselves and use them as livable studio spaces.
We are also measuring the future value of this, that this could form a future community that will bring a cultural economy into the area. There has never been a social enterprise model for a short life scheme before like this.
John, how does Balfron Tower work for you as an artist?
I knew Balfron Tower as a kid. You come through the Blackwall tunnel and it's hideous, but it's also brilliant! I’m really happy here. There are 12 of us in this building and we have gotten to know each other as well as the residents association. I couldn't have dreamt of having a space like this to work in and it does mean I can get a lot more work done. It’s not for everyone, though, and it can be difficult to live and work in the same space for some people. Once you get used to it, it's fine.
What are the practicalities for artists living here?
Marcel: As London has progressed, it has squeezed young artists. Our professional studios, for example, have doubled in price in the last five years. For most people running a career as an artist, they also have to get part time work as well as pay for their studio. So this is a solution for artists.
John: This is quite unusual in London, whereas in New York there is disused factory space where you can live and work, especially Brooklyn. Just to have the low rent affords you the time to do your main job, which is your work and that's all you need. You do need to be a pragmatic though and understand the set-up.
What was the condition of the flat when you arrived?
John: It was filthy when I arrived. I had to install everything; it didn't even have a front door and it had also been squatted. The kitchen was soot damaged from a fire somewhere else in the building and there was mould all over it, which had to be sugar soaked. That was a month of work before I moved in. It has been great since.
What plans do the artists have for Balfron Tower?
John: There are these spaces in the lift building that were drying rooms that we're hoping we can run as galleries. There is also no crèche, no youth centre in the building. If those can be run as grassroots projects, then Poplar HARCA might realise good things are going on and are worth investing in.
Marcel: At the same time, we also want to show Poplar HARCA that although the artists are contributing to the community, that they are not social workers or volunteers, that they are professional people who work in a particular way. The artists who live here are residents in the same way as existing residents.
What is the heritage flat all about?
Marcel: We have a flat downstairs that is exactly the same as John's but we're keeping it empty. We’re calling it the heritage flat and it's going to have residencies across the next 4-5 years. At the moment, we have an exhibition in there called She's My Beard.
How can artists sign up? Can anyone apply?
John: We are all professional artists here; we do have to have jobs. We also have shows to do and are involved with institutes. We are not students. We are people who have been out of school for a while, have a proven track record of exhibiting and are in it for the long haul. We have shows but don't necessarily make enough money from selling our work to live fulltime as artists, as is the case for most artists.
Marcel: The project is for professional, formally trained artists, rather than people who do art as a hobby. We are not a housing agency! Any artistic discipline is invited, as we are conscious of not creating a fine arts ghetto. Candidates don’t have to be community focused, but they do need to get involved, showing how artists are broad and significant assets within a community.
How have the residents responded to the artists?
Marcel: They absolutely love it. Some of the residents I’ve spoken to have said, why haven't we got any art around here, why haven't we got any public art round here, it is our right and we're missing it. People really are engaged with the arts and culture and realising it will improve their environments.
When do you expect restoration of Balfron Tower to begin?Marcel: 3-4 years. It will take some time for the planning process to decide what this building will become, meanwhile we can do this and also show Poplar HARCA the value of artists to the economy rather than it be an intellectual exercise.
Interview by Tommy Wong. Photographs courtesy of Bow Arts Trust.
Professional artists can find out about applying now. She's My Beard, an exhibition on collaborative painting by John Walter and Elke Zauner is on at 123 Balfron Tower, St Leonards Road, London E14.