Against All Odds, Brent Council Is Investing in Its Artists

Stranger than fiction.

by Juliet Jacques

22 May 2024

A group of artists sit around a table
A group of Metroland Cultures artists convene at the Delfina Foundation in Westminster, February 2024. Photo: Metroland Cultures

In cities famous for their cultural scenes, across the United Kingdom but especially in London, artists are being pushed out by rising home and studio rents. This often happens all while their presence and work is used by property developers and estate agents to sell the same areas they’re being pushed out of.

During his tenure as mayor of London, Sadiq Khan has announced several plans to protect artists from such inhospitable economic forces: launched in 2019, the Creative Land Trust has done good work to ensure artists have affordable studio space, from Somerset House Studios (of which I was once resident), which offers some free residencies as well as a rates-based system from the beginning of an artist’s term, to Studio Voltaire’s artistic community, who prioritise applications from marginal and minority practitioners. Yet in a country where the majority of artists earn £2.60 per hour, the odds remain stacked against young and emerging artists from less privileged backgrounds.

In 2013, Newcastle city council proposed to reduce its funding for the arts by 100%; 10 years later, Birmingham council announced it too would stop funding the arts entirely after effectively declaring itself bankrupt (it has since halved its arts funding, with the aim of getting down to zero by 2025). In this context, what one London council is doing is genuinely innovative, and offers some ideas as to how artists and organisations might deal with such cultural vandalism.

Brent – one of London’s youngest and most diverse boroughs, and one of its most deprived – is currently offering free studio space to emerging artists with a local connection – not just cheaply, but entirely for free. Metroland Cultures opened in 2019 in a disused NHS clinic off Kilburn High Road after Brent was chosen as London’s 2020 borough of culture (which operates similarly to the national city of culture scheme) in February 2018. At present the building hosts a cinema, publishing house and radio station, alongside a space to exhibit the work of resident artists and others. The building held a borough-wide biennial in 2020 and 2022, with the third scheduled for next year.

The building is the brainchild of Lois Stonock, director of Metroland Cultures. Stonock became involved in Brent’s culture team in 2017 when the council asked her to write its bid to become London borough of culture. “At that point,” Stonock told Novara Media, “Brent had been no exception to systematic art and culture cuts.” In 2011, the council announced plans to shut six of its 12 local libraries; author Zadie Smith, born and raised in Brent, was active in the campaign against the closures, which was later defeated in court. “The borough of culture scheme has its problems, being closely related to politics and the things politicians can do, but it was good for Brent as it brought £4.5m of arts funding that hadn’t been here before,” Stonock added.

Metroland Cultures came about after Stonock received a tip-off from her boss, Phil Porter, who “had this wild portfolio that included adult social care, health and wellbeing, culture and housing”. Porter told Stonock that there was an old health centre in Kilburn that had been empty for years and that he’d recently procured security for it. “He was giving £12,000 a month to a company to put a man and a dog in it – I asked if we could occupy it for £10,000 to run the building and provide the security service, using the money to refurbish it,” Stonock said. Porter agreed.

The main innovation in Metroland Cultures was its funding model: rather than seek out cheaper space for which they charge below-market rents, Metroland Cultures operates akin to a property guardianship scheme: Brent council pays the organisation to occupy the building out of its security budget. “We do the health and safety, and we have a building manager – this means we can offer studios to the artists for free and give the rest of the building to different organisations,” said Stonock.

Forming part of the council’s security rather than an arts budget makes Metroland Cultures less vulnerable to further local government cuts – especially as Stonock can argue that the project has made savings for the council. Importantly, it also enables it to sidestep arguments about why the arts should be publicly funded – essential at a time when the idea that art is valuable for its own sake, rather than a money-making enterprise, has been severely undermined by years of Thatcherism.

The downside of this model is that their space is constantly under threat. “We go through phases where councillors are saying, ‘We need you to move out’,” says Stonock. “We usually leave it a few weeks and they change their minds. We’re doing our best to stay, but we’re also getting comfortable with the risk. We align ourselves with local institutions in similar circumstances – like Salusbury World [which supports refugee and migrant children to build lives in London] who recently lost their space at a local primary school – and build solidarities.”

Nor does Brent’s security funding entirely release Metroland Cultures from the need to secure grants from Arts Council England (ACE) and the National Lottery Community Fund: the organisation must regularly reapply for project grants from ACE; it is also currently preparing to launch a donor scheme (crucially, not a patron scheme) after its three-year parachute payments from Brent council ended. Having a relatively reliable and substantive funding stream does, however, allow Stonock to refuse developer money that may compromise the public programmes, and to form a tight-knit community that could survive plans to build a tower block over the site (initial designs were approved in November).

Another backstop against Metroland Culture selling out is its structure. “Brent is a place where people have long been marginalised, so they’ve had to self-organise,” says Stonock, citing the migrant workers who led the strikes at Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in Willesden in 1976-78 and the society founded in Brent in 1979 to improve understanding and treatment people with sickle cell disease (a condition that disproportionately affects people of African or Caribbean descent, who in 2008 made up 18.3% of the borough). “That was one reason why it was important to run Metroland Cultures as an independent charity, with a board of trustees made of local people … That keeps us more accountable – they get to see the finances of everything we do, as well as being part of all decision-making processes.”

Artist Adam Farah-Saad, born and raised in the borough, has been based at Metroland Cultures since January 2021, after featuring in the Brent Biennial in 2020; he was part of the curatorial committee for the next event in 2022, and his collaboration with Elvis Universe formed the space’s most recent exhibition. “This is the first time I’ve had a studio,” Farah-Saad told Novara Media, “as I didn’t have the resources after leaving art school [in 2014]. I moved back into my dad’s council flat and went on Jobseekers’ Allowance for years. I called it the Jobseekers’ Residency – it gave me time to think about my work – but this place influenced my practice, and me as a creative person.

“Some organisations put artists in predicaments where they might have to work with funding they consider unethical,” Farah-Saad continued. “There seems to be more transparency here, regarding funding and relationships with the council. It feels less hierarchical, and more like a community – that’s reflected in the space, and in the programming. It doesn’t technically work as a co-operative, but it has that kind of spirit – we have a say in the present and future of the building, and Lois asks artists to be part of the board of trustees.”

This community is especially important in Brent – Adam says there is plenty of creativity in the borough, but with exhibition spaces concentrated in central, east or southeast London, local artists have been neglected and isolated, and written off as hard to reach. “I think everyone is creative, whether they call themselves an artist or not,” said Farah-Saad, reminding me of Jeremy Corbyn’s insistence that every child could be a writer, artist or musician.

“The thought of having to pay £400 a month on a studio is daunting,” he added. “I might reach a point in my practice where that’s possible, but if I do, it will be because of places like this. There’s hardly any arts infrastructure in Brent, be it institutional or commercial, but we’ve been able to work with hundreds of artists. I just want Brent’s councillors to know how valuable this is.”

Another resident, Arwa Aburawa, is a filmmaker and one half of Other Cinemas, based in the building. Other Cinemas, run with Turab Shah, who grew up in Brent, shows works by Black and non-white filmmakers in a room with a screen. They also run a free year-long film school and make their own films – one of which, I Carry It With Me Everywhere, was commissioned for the Brent Biennial in 2022.

“There were a couple of commercial cinemas nearby, but nothing else,” Aburawa said, “so we decided to do it, as we were filmmakers. We had a little studio in Wembley and put on after-hours screenings in the local library. We’d invite friends to show their films and be in conversation with people. We got a great response. It was a real vindication that our communities aren’t hard to reach – rather that people just aren’t doing the work.

“We spoke about how to connect our films to the communities they’re made for – how our communities don’t always feel comfortable in institutional spaces, and inaccessible costs and travel. Lots of people think about how to make films, but not how to get it to their communities. People often make filmmaking seem more complicated than it is – we wanted to remove the mystique.”

Having a settled space is important, said Aburawa. “We have control over it – we can make it a safe space, invite different groups, we haven’t had to worry about rent or building relations with brands, we can think about other things. We can be more creative with our workshops and programming – we recently put on a solidarity screening for Sudan, for example. I don’t think we realised what we were missing [when we were constantly in different venues] and now you have a whole generation, after austerity, who don’t realise what they’re missing with youth clubs and arts venues closing down.

“Arguments about funding for these things need reframing – they’re often about keeping young people busy so they don’t go into crime. I think access to culture should be a basic right, as much as good food or healthcare.”

Aburawa is from Salford, Stonock from Sunderland. I ask Stonock if she thinks the Metroland Cultures model is replicable elsewhere, perhaps in a city like hers – a city that was largely neglected in favour of Newcastle during New Labour; ravaged by deindustrialisation and austerity; and is about to lose its main cultural centre.

“The council gave us this resource by saving on their security contract,” Stonock reiterates. “Arts and culture funding has been put into a silo – it’s a matter of thinking creatively about where money might be found.” They point out that there are plenty of empty spaces in provincial towns and cities, after 15 years of cuts and closures, so similar schemes might well work there.

“It’s not a corporate model, nor for something like the Greater London Authority,” Stonock concedes. “It’s a model for grassroots organisations in regional cities with beautiful municipal buildings. I’d love to see it recreated elsewhere.”

Juliet Jacques is a writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and academic.

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