Many will tell you that London is the centre of the art world. And if you had to choose a centre for art in that city, it would still have to be the East End.
“It really is London’s cultural engine,” says Rachel Mapplebeck of Whitechapel Gallery. “It’s also got the highest concentration of artists in Europe, apparently, so it’s a very thriving cultural quarter.”
Her gallery is certainly thriving. Thanks to a £13.5 million expansion programme, attendance is up by 130%. And more than 300,000 visitors came in the first six months since reopening in April.
Whitechapel has become a gateway to more than 180 galleries which are clustered around nearby Hoxton and Shoreditch. For several years there has been a critical mass of activity in the area, but the colonisation of East London began more than two decades ago with a simple fact of economics.
“Yeah, it is cheap,” laughs Mapplebeck. “There were a lot of amazing spaces in East London and I think as well there was that kind of moment kind of in the late 1980s, early 1990s, where there was this great sense of opportunity and there was this great entrepreneurialism in the visual arts.”
The pioneers of this part of town were artists like Gilbert and George and Michael Craig-Martin, who brought their studios here, and gallery owner Maureen Paley, who opened up shop in 1984.
So, for example, Vyner Street in Bethnal Green used to be a run down street full of old warehouses. Now it is a run down street full of old warehouses which contain white-walled galleries. Collectors can be spotted getting out of Jaguars and pressing buzzers next to discreet steel doors.
Regent Studios is a forbidding block of flats nearby and home to several artist run spaces. From an affordable HQ on the second floor, Cathy Lomax runs Transition Gallery and publishes magazines Garageland and Arty.
Her core audience of students, artists and collectors is undeterred by the graffiti-covered stairwells. “More established artists who are around here come by regularly,” says Lomax, pausing to observe an unexpected new phenomena.
“There seem to be more art tours as well going on,” she adds. “Now people want to go and see the art hovels of the East End, or something, and I think that when people do that art experience they quite like the fact that the galleries are hard to find and in a building like this. It kind of makes it all a little bit more exciting.”
The rich rewards of all this excitement are best seen at the other end of Hackney Road in Hoxton, where design houses do business above galleries and architects’ studios neighbour those of artists.
At the heart of the district is Rivington Place gallery, home to the Institute of International Visual Arts. Despite rising rents, Director Tessa Jackson thinks the creative vibe is here to stay.
“It’s a mixture between the economics of the area and the sort of urban forms that we get in this part of London,” she says. “I think the style of the buildings suits having the gallery on the ground floor. They’re not big corporate buildings.
“It’s also quite close to residential,” she explains, referring to nearby Hackney estates, “That suits artists and creative people - what they’re not going to be doing is commuting huge distances – they’re wanting to keep the outgoings to a realistic level.”
Sure enough, at The City Arts and Music Project, artist Wayne Chisnall turns up on his bike. At this bar-cum-gallery near Old Street station, the work now on show is inspired by the urban landscape.
Chisnall talks about his piece, a nightmarish tower made from wood, bone, nails and other found objects. “East London is a rich picking ground for debris,” he says. “I think the East End is one of the grubbiest, grimiest parts of London but that’s quite a positive thing for me.”
It is perhaps also, he agrees, the centre of the art world: “There’s so many artists here and everyone’s sort of eager to make it and there’s a really good energy.”
It is hard to disagree, looking around his exciting group show as night falls on City Road and the DJ starts warming up the room. But as the East End gears up for the 2012 Olympics, it is getting harder for artists to find live/work spaces in the area.
Chisnall will have to move studio in January owing to redevelopment, but he remains keen to stay in the East End. So it is good he is a philosophical sort. “I’ve always been quite fascinated by that sense that nothing is permanent,” he says. “It’s all in a state of flux.”
Written for Culture24