As the U.K. Inches Towards Reopening, Will the Creatives Who Fled London During Lockdown Return to the Capital?

Some artists have found a more comfortable life and community outside of the crush of the Big Smoke.

A sculpture by British artist Antony Gormley stands under the harbor wall on January 13, 2021 in Folkestone, United Kingdom. Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.

How many times have you heard the words, “We just decided to move,” over the last year? Isolation requirements, lockdowns, and shut down city centers have transformed major cities like New York and London into temporary ghost towns, and many artists and art world professionals have joined the flight.

Artist Idris Khan created an exhibition about witnessing the change of the seasons in the countryside during the first lockdown in the U.K., and Olivia Laing has documented her move to rural Suffolk extensively on Instagram. As creatives have scattered from London to around the U.K. and Europe by individual circumstance, it begs the question: Has the pandemic finally shattered the illusion that London is the center of the U.K.’s art world?

In recent decades, London has persistently dominated in conversations about making it in the arts, despite the many other U.K. cities that have historically produced world-leading creatives, from the Liverpool scene that produced the Beatles and the explosion of art, culture, music, and fashion that came out of Manchester in the 1980s.

But the city shutdown in March 2020 prompted an exodus of artists no longer willing to pay the expensive premium of living in the capital city. A year on, they have settled elsewhere. Many are unsure whether they will be tempted to return should the capital not take steps to become a more artist-friendly city.

The V&A Museum in Dundee. Photo by Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images.

The V&A Museum in Dundee. Photo by Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images.

Building an Artist Community

Some leaders in the arts see the creative brain drain from London as accelerating a metamorphosis of the U.K.’s creative map that was already underway. Artists have been drawn to places like Dundee, a small city in Scotland that has no commercial galleries, but which does have a prestigious university, a branch of the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the small yet mighty institution Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA). Arts professionals in the city say the different make up of the creative community means that it is less tainted by commercial competition than market strongholds like London.

“DCA really does operate as a really civic space,” the institution’s head of exhibitions Eoin Dara, told Artnet News. “It’s incredibly well-used by the citizens of Dundee, and there’s a real sense of public ownership felt over it that really informs what we do. Most of the time it’s a really good reminder of why we’re doing the work we are because we’re always kept on our toes by audiences in the city.”

Dara said that although Dundee still loses some of its graduates to bigger cities such as Edinburgh and London, there has been a noticeable shift away from the trend of moving in order to succeed. He added that the same is true of his hometown of Belfast in Northern Ireland, which has a similar infrastructure of support for artists.

DCA is one of a selection of stellar, smaller institutions located outside London—others include Baltic Gateshead, Nottingham Contemporary, Whitworth Manchester, and Liverpool’s Bluecoat—that mount solo exhibitions of emerging and mid-career artists, and really get behind them. These cities offer real opportunities for artists such as Alberta Whittle, who had a solo show in Dundee in 2019, and who will represent Scotland at the Venice Biennale in 2022.

Turner Contemporary art gallery, Margate. Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

Turner Contemporary art gallery, Margate. Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

Elsewhere, the southern coastal towns of Margate, Hastings, Southend, and Bexhill, which are joining forces as England’s Creative Coast, have been a magnet attracting people of all professions away from London. There is an economic draw, as well as a real sense of community which is increasingly difficult to maintain in London as escalating rents make it difficult to maintain a permanent base of any kind. For many, the pandemic has forced a reassessment of value systems, with more people putting community and family over the bottom line.

“Large parts of the southeast coast have long been seen as the end of the line, in decline—places full of retirees and those facing challenges such as poverty, social exclusion, unemployment, and substance abuse,” Ashley McCormick, the head of learning and participation at Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion and a Hastings resident, said. “Creatives, risk takers, and change makers, with a shared desire to re-imagine the world, rub together here—just as they would have in neglected neighborhoods in London.”

There are more opportunities for experimenting with new models to support artists outside of the massive metropolis of London. Bristol, a city of around 500,000 residents that has produced creative stars including Banksy, Tricky, Massive Attack, and Portishead, has become a hub for emerging creatives and an important center for current debates within the arts. In the last year the city has been a center for protests in support of Black Lives Matter, was at the heart of the debate over toppling statues to problematic historical figures, and is currently an assembly point for demonstrations against what is seen as an anti-protest bill currently on its way through parliament. 

Meanwhile, forces have been at work to try and shield the city’s emerging arts community from the economic fallout of the pandemic in ways that would be near-impossible in a city the size of London. A new organization called Bristol Union Guild (BUG) is in the process of applying for status as a Business Improvement District (BID) for the entire city. If successful, this would mean that local businesses that have done well during the pandemic, such as the e-commerce giant Amazon, which has a massive distribution center in the city, would pay a small levy on their business rates to support the rest of the community. The long-term aim of this would be to create a bridge of support for the creatives and artists of Bristol as the economy recovers.

An empty Trafalgar Square. Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images.

An empty Trafalgar Square in London. Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images.

The Brexit Effect

As remote work has become more common and both Covid and Brexit have posed bureaucratic obstacles to easy international travel, a proportion of the creatives fleeing London have left the U.K. entirely.

Artists Rebecca Ackroyd and Sebastian Jefford moved to Berlin when Ackroyd opened a show at Peres Projects in January 2021. Ackroyd wanted to be in the city for her exhibition, and with another show for Jefford at Liebaert Projects in Kortrigk, Belgium, the couple took the opportunity to make the move ahead of what were still unknown border and trade changes wrought by Brexit.

“It’s hard to say how it’s going because we’ve just got here, but it was important to just see what happened here and to be here for now,” Ackroyd said over video chat. “Both of our galleries are in Europe and I get all my framing done in Berlin, so logistically, there are a lot of reasons to be here.”

Although they are not seeing the move as permanent, Ackroyd describes the city as artist friendly, a safe place to see through what may be turbulent times ahead, and one place to evade the bureaucratic obstacles that now exist in international trade and shipping between the U.K. and the European Union.

London has kept its identity since the Roman invasion in 43 A.D. and it’s hard to see its importance changing drastically. Still, the visibility, community, and support available in locations and from institutions outside London offers artists something the capital cannot. Those who have left the capital over the last year have seen this first hand.  

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