Lewisham Arthouse, a not-for-profit artist-led co-operative.

July 4, 2022

A unique space preserving both architecture, culture and community.

Despite being London’s 2022 Borough of Culture, in the last six months, Lewisham has seen three artist studios close. A rise in regeneration has both priced out and pushed out affordable workspace in the area.

Creative Land Trust understands it takes many elements to achieve and secure long-term affordability. For this reason, we are interested in the diverse ways and models that can be used to achieve it across the city.

Last week we visited Lewisham Arthouse, an artist cooperative founded in 1992, that’s providing affordable workspace to 40 artists and is working hard to keep its place on London’s Cultural Map.

Lewisham Arthouse is a Grade 2 listed building in Deptford, home to a unique set of studio providers. In 1991 the building left derelict and dilapidated, was put on the market for redevelopment by the council. However, in 1993 they agreed with the Friends of Deptford Library not to sell it, but to retain the building for community use with the support of an artist collective.

Thus Lewisham Arthouse was founded. A group of artists working creatively to solve the issue of ‘dead space’ and ‘affordable workspace’. Co-op members, with 2,000 community hours delivered through the Probation Service, provided £80,000 worth (£147,200 in today’s money) of renovation to the building in its first year alone.

They developed a scheme called ‘work hours’ to voluntarily maintain the building and have since attracted funds to renovate the glazed roof, improve external security, and waste removal and enable the construction of gallery and workshop spaces.

Top Floor Studios (Banner & Left Image), Lewisham Arthouse. 

The community continues to work to refurbish and sustain the building, now including an exhibition space, kiln, dark room and garden. Tenants are now offered affordable studio space under the condition they dedicate a minimum of five hours a month to restoring the building.

Co-op member Chris explained it is more than just cheap rent. As a cooperative they tend to attract artists looking for more than just space, keen to be part of a community, a grassroots organisation offering something rare and unique.

The need for community and collaboration in proving the artist cooperative model cannot be understated. In addition to labour, operations and management are also run on a volunteer basis. For example, now supported by a specifically formed charity, the cooperative needs to work to secure grants and other funding to invest in maintenance.

Keen not to let the atmosphere stagnate and to give equal opportunity to all, there is no waiting list for studios, anyone may apply when space becomes available. The deliberation process works to give opportunities to those most underrepresented or in need of affordable workspace.

In addition, each year a graduate is offered free space and an exhibition to encourage new people into the community.

Art is a life-long practice, over a quarter of the co-op artist members have been at the studios for 20 years or more. Despite this, establishing a sustainable creative practice in London is still increasingly difficult, and while many parts must align to create affordable studio space, artists also need to juggle studio and housing rent: many cannot afford both.

Chris and Reuben explain how they have seen many artist friends leave London for a more affordable lifestyle and practice, “London can’t be a creative capital if everyone has left, but most of my friends our now living across the Kent coast.” Reuben.

London cannot sustain itself a s a vibrant capital without artists and creative workspace which is why spaces such as the Arthouse and the mission of Creative Land Trust are essential to reverse the exodus of artists and other creatives from the city by giving them affordable, sustainable and inspiring locations to work and exhibit.