London’s small arts and culture venues ‘struggling to survive’

New London Assembly report warns arts venues across capital face fight for survival amid a range of economic challenges, reports Noah Vickers, Local Democracy Reporter

Tarek Iskander, artistic director and CEO of Battersea Arts Centre. Credit: Noah Vickers/Local Democracy Reporting Service
Tarek Iskander, CEO of Battersea Arts Centre (credit Noah Vickers/LDRS)

London’s smaller arts and cultural venues are facing major challenges to their survival, a cross-party group of politicians has warned.

Mayor Sadiq Khan has been urged by the London Assembly’s economy committee to make more permanent, affordable premises available for grassroots cultural organisations – particularly those located outside the city centre.

They warned that small museums, galleries, theatres and music venues are struggling to access long-term or affordable leases in London, with some having to move between various locations – restricting their ability to plan for the long term.

Speaking at the launch of a new report on the topic, committee chair Hina Bokhari said: “Many of these places are neglected but are also incredibly important to London’s cultural scene.

“Grassroots culture is integral to the success of London, and the UK’s creative industries. It can be a place where a lot of emerging artists, lots of Hollywood stars, started.”

She said that one example of a small cultural organisation that has had to relocate is the Vagina Museum, a venue that gave evidence for the committee’s report. The museum has had to leave its premises in Bethnal Green and is now looking for a new home. It is the second time that the Vagina Museum has had to find a new building to operate from, having been evicted from its previous site in Camden in 2021.

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Tarek Iskander, artistic director and CEO of Battersea Arts Centre, said that the only reason his organisation exists is because it is only charged a peppercorn rent by Wandsworth Council. He added that venues like his had been “buffeted by a perfect storm of the global pandemic, cost of living crisis, rampant inflation, devastating energy bills, critical skills shortages”, along with reduced investment.

“If I compare it to four years ago, it’s indescribably more difficult,” he said.

“There was definitely an opportunity for recovery [after Covid], but with the extra things that have happened since, it’s been quite difficult to get back to where we were.”

The committee’s report says the mayor should use planning powers to support cultural organisations to access space in appropriate locations, not just on the high street, as well as providing advice and support to the organisations themselves.

It also calls on him to lobby the government to ensure that London’s grassroots cultural organisations do not lose out as part of the redistribution of Arts Council England funding away from London.

Justine Simons OBE, London’s deputy mayor for culture and the creative industries, said in response to the report: “The mayor’s culture and community spaces at risk programme has provided support and guidance to more than 1,350 venues since March 2020 and City Hall is providing support and training to around 1,600 night time businesses.

“Applications to be the fourth ‘London Borough of Culture’ will open in May, and Sadiq’s creative enterprise zone programme, launched in 2018, is on track to deliver 65,000sqm of long-term affordable space by 2025 for artists across London boroughs.

“The mayor and I will continue to work hard to support these vital organisations as we build a better and fairer London for everyone and will respond more fully to the assembly’s report in due course.”

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