What is it like to be an artist in London?


This week, Time Out London asks the question of whether being an artist in London “sucks”.  In some ways, it does!  As a professional artist myself and as a founder of a London artist organization with almost 120 members, I can attest to the many times that it does indeed feel that being an artist in London is an uphill battle against unsurmountable obstacles. 

Time Out London Arts - Vera Blagev London Abstract Mixed Media Artist Response - London Professional Artists Meetup Network

 

First and foremost is the cost of living.  It’s no secret that London has one of the highest costs of living and many Londoners feel this pain – artists, of course, are not exempt from these daily realities.  But the issue of space doesn’t stop there.  For many artists, the materials we use and the scale in which we work fundamentally means that we cannot simply work in a spare bedroom or a corner of the lounge.  Our art practice demands separate studio space that can handle potentially toxic materials, that is big enough to store large artworks, and that can get dirty if we splatter paint.  Of course, that working space comes at a price.  The expectation is that artists go to areas which are a bit rough around the edges to get affordable studio space.  And for many, that approach has and continues to work.  But as London’s population keeps growing, and the demand for nicer homes, luxury flats, boutique restaurants and cute coffee shops increases, many of these areas are being gentrified and becoming more expensive. 

 

Next is the competitive art landscape.  It might all sound a bit too much like a business plan, but the competitive landscape for artists in London is just that – competitive.  Super competitive, in fact.  There are simply lots and lots of artists in and around London.  Sometimes, it can feel that there are just too many of us competing for the same opportunities.  It can feel that with limited public attention, exhibition opportunities, and galleries, not every artist will have their chance.  Closer inspection of this point reveals that while many of us are in competition with each other, our art is vastly different.  Even in my own artist network, it constantly amazes me how many of us create such diverse artworks that would appeal to completely different audiences.  And if the recently Olympics can teach us anything, it’s that competition is not always a bad thing.  It can push us to improve our work.  Knowing that we have to fight for our spot in a gallery or we have to push ourselves to create our best work yet for that exhibition opportunity keeps us growing and moving forward.

 

And finally, as Time Out London points out, there is the very real fact that many artists across various stages in their career cannot simply live off their artwork alone.  Many artists, including me and most of the members of my artist network, have other jobs and side incomes to survive.  And many of us struggle with the idea that we may never be able to live off our work alone.  For some of us, that situation is a temporary issue as our career grows and we are able to transition into making a living fully from our art.  And for some of us, that is the way things simply are and it is a reality of being a professional artist who is not full-time.  And that's okay.  The important thing is to keep creating.  But while this reality can feel stressful and frustrating, it is not unique to artists in London.  It’s a reality for many artists in other areas of the UK and abroad. 

 

Despite all these challenges, many of us artists chose to live in London.  Why?  Well for one, artists need other artists – as much as we create art in our own little worlds and many of us need alone time to actually make our work, we thrive when we can share our work with others.  Not just our friends and families, or our collectors and those who love our work but other artists – they can help us grow.  They can cast a constructively critical and supportive eye on what we do.  Our community of artists helps move us forward, support and encourage each other and learn from each other.  And even though we do compete with each other, we also collaborate.  Together, we create group exhibitions and pop-up events that would be near impossible without the power of numbers.  If my time with my artist network has taught me anything is that artists together are much stronger than artists alone. 

 

The other reason of course why so many of us are drawn to London is the source of inspiration.  London is one of those cities where so many things seem possible.  London’s cultural institutions are some of the best in the world, and unlike some other cities, are mostly free.  The sheer amount of art and culture that is housed in London’s great institutions is mind boggling.  The collections of art contained in the National Gallery, the Tate Britain, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Whitechapel Gallery, the Camden Art Centre, the Tate Modern, the Sir John Soane’s Museum, the British Museum, and innumerable other venues are a consistent source of inspiration for so many artists. 

 

Of course the other reason why so many artists love London is its vibrancy.  Never constant, always changing, London is a city on the move.  Even a cursory glance at London’s ever changing skyline shows history and modernity not only meeting, but having an ongoing conversation – sometimes friendly, other times antagonistic, but always passionate.  Artists tend to be hyperaware of our surroundings noticing details that others might miss.  And in this cosmopolitan city, we artists are surrounded by stimuli to the senses.  Whether our artwork is inspired by nature and we love London’s green spaces and waters, or whether urban manmade structures intrigue us, London has it all.  And then there are the people.  It has become somewhat of a cliché to talk about London’s diversity of people and experiences but it is a fact – in London, there is a vast array of people from everywhere with different outlooks on life, beliefs, experiences, cultures, languages, musical traditions, literary and poetic history, and visual expression identities.  This constant mix of people – their dreams, their passions and their loves – inspires so many of us.  And we feed off each other’s creativity.  So many Londoners work in design, technology, exciting new ventures and start-ups that might just change the world.  London is well known as a centre for the performing arts, including dance, theatre, film, and music.  And in this context, we all cross pollinate with each other to create a culture of expression, innovation, and appreciation of the visual culture.  We literally feed off each other’s entrepreneurial spirit, love of all things visual, inspiring and meaningful to create a unique atmosphere that is difficult to replicate elsewhere.

 

It’s clear that we artists we need people.  Not only to inspire us but in a very real sense to appreciate our artwork and to buy it.  For many of us, we make a living by selling our actual artwork.  Yes, there are grants, council and non-profit funding, fellowships, residencies, and lots of other fantastic programs, but we need an audience who actively appreciates our artwork.  Who engages with it in a real way.  And who is ultimately willing to invest in it thereby supporting our life and our work.  In London, a large portion of the population appreciates art and is willing to spend on art.  While the usual conversations of what is and isn’t art are ongoing, the very fact that they are even active conversations in London means that Londoners care about art.  And by extension, they care about artists.  Artists do not exist in vacuums.  We rely on others to appreciate our work and invest in it in order for us to make a living. 

 

In London, we artists can carve out our own identity.  We are able to actively exhibit and promote our artwork through various art and craft markets, pop up events, art fairs, galleries, non-traditional venues, and so much more.  There are so many opportunities for artists to share our work with the public in London – yes, not all venues are created equal but the sheer amount of them is astounding – a weekly read of Time Out’s art listings is a testament to that reality.  And even studio space, although difficult to find, is there if we look hard enough.  While some art studios are at capacity and operate a one in one out policy, others are growing and expanding fast.  East London currently is seeing a boom in additional studio space, led in particular by Bow Arts. 

 

So where does this all leave us?  Does it indeed “suck” to be an artist in London?  Well, for some of us, the answer is an unequivocal yes!  And for others it’s a clear no!  But for most of us the answer is more nuanced – like anyone, we have good days and bad days.  And when those good says come, London feels like the best place in the world to share our inspiration and passion.  And when those bad days strike, at least we can console ourselves in the company of fellow artists who share our trials and tribulations. 

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