On a recent afternoon, in a ground-floor retail unit in one of London’s many vacant office buildings, a pair of flame-red platform heel boots with what looked like tentacles growing out of them and a multimedia sculpture of a coffin-like object circled by plastic shark fins were on show.
“I’m against empty space,” said Camilla Cole, the founder of Hypha Studios, a London-based nonprofit that persuades commercial landlords to let artists work and exhibit for free in unoccupied stores and offices. Cole had organized MELT, a group exhibition showcasing works by 32 recognition-hungry artists who work with Hypha and a fellow studio provider, Creative Land Trust. The show opened in Euston Tower, an empty 1970s high-rise in the city center, on the same day as the V.I.P. preview of the nearby Frieze London fair.
Founded in 2021, Hypha Studios provides free working space for more than 300 artists at nine sites across Britain. “I’ve found a loophole,” said Cole, 38, a curator who dropped out of Goldsmiths College, in London, without completing her degree. She noted that British businesses can pay lower property taxes if they allow nonprofits to be tenants. “Landlords save money by me being in their space,” she said.
In the aftermath of the Covid-19 lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, online shopping and remote working have created a blight of shuttered storefronts and empty office buildings in towns and cities across the world. Allowing artists to infuse life into these vacant commercial spaces, even on a temporary basis, has become one way landlords can address the issue. (They can also burnish their corporate responsibility credentials.)
Cole said that about 100 artists usually applied for each free Hypha studio, and were chosen based on criteria including the quality of their work, locality, need and community engagement. Studios are given to an artist indefinitely, but are subject to reviews every three months, she added.
The long-established New York nonprofit ChaShaMa pioneered this model in the mid-1990s. A brainchild of the arts patron Anita Durst, the organization now runs a sprawling network of some 45 locations that extends into New York’s outer suburbs, making free spaces available for more than 1,000 artists and creative businesses, even as rents and other costs in the city rise.
“I like the artist to have the space for as long as possible. Many of our artists have been in the spaces from one year to 20 years,” said Durst, who mentioned that the painter and archivist Clay Hapaz has been working from a ChaShaMa studio in Brooklyn since the mid-1990s. When artists have long-term spaces, “they create a sense of community,” she added.
Studio providers who become their own landlords can stem the exodus. Back in London, Acme Studios owns 10 buildings containing permanent spaces that it acquired from 1996 to 2013, helped, initially, by funding from Britain’s National Lottery. These, together with a further five rented properties, provide long-term, affordable spaces for about 800 artists in the city.
“We want artists to stay within London’s central banding,” said David Panton, who co-founded Acme in 1972. “We decided that by providing permanency, the buck stops.”
Hypha and Acme, or similar organizations like the Bomb Factory Art Foundation, Gasworks and Studio Voltaire, give London artists space, but they don’t have the marketing resources of commercial galleries to help artists sell what they make. As a result, artists without gallery representation can struggle to land sales, particularly at a time when demand in the art market is cooling. And selling art is how artists get noticed.
Cole, the Hypha Studios founder, said that nearly 500 people came to the opening night at the Euston Tower show. There were inquiries from would-be buyers, she said, but no confirmed sales. Those flame-red boots, called an “Unidentified Performing Object” by Luca Bosani, priced at around $4,000, didn’t find a buyer; nor did “Ant Talkin,” that enigmatic shark-fin sculpture by Elliot Fox, at around $3,200. Neither artist has been signed by a gallery.
“Gallery representation doesn’t solve everything,” said Bosani, 33, in an interview at one of Hypha’s three spacious free studio units in the Battersea district of South London.
A postgraduate of the prestigious Royal College of Art, Bosani said he keeps his career on track with a mix of grants, performance commissions, teaching gigs and online and in-studio sales. Doing that in London was “not easy,” said Bosani. “But I’m not going to stop dreaming. I’m in love with the energy of this city.”
Subsidized studios provide artists with the much-prized freedom to experiment. Yet without the validation of a gallery and its sales, these artists can often find themselves working in purgatory, unnoticed by the mainstream art market and its media coverage.
“There’s a huge gap,” said Pallas Citroen, a London-based artist who in 2015 founded the Bomb Factory. “It’s difficult to get collectors to visit our events, and galleries aren’t picking up artists any more. We tell artists they should be on Instagram, but it doesn’t generate sales,” Citroen said.
Landlords can save and even make money out of artists working in empty stores and offices. The challenge for those artists is to make money out of their art.