The Beating Heart of London’s Most Dynamic Art Scene

In the art hub of Peckham, this bubble gum pink installation in an old car park was commissioned by the arts organization Bold Tendencies.

For Londoners in the know, the must-do culture activity last summer wasn’t a major exhibition or a West End show. No, it was an art installation commissioned by the arts organization Bold Tendencies — a stairwell of an old car park in Peckham, South East London, painted a bubble gum pink by the London artist Simon Whybray. The pink space was the cultural hit of the year and drew crowds from all over England.

“I had no idea it would be this popular,” said Hannah Barry, founder of Bold Tendencies and owner of the gallery, about the installation. The staircase leads to the top of Frank’s Campari bar, one of the city’s most fashionable drinking spots for London’s cool kids and bankers alike.

Among the Caribbean grocery stalls selling mango and plantain, pawnbroker shops and acrylic nail salons of Peckham, beats the heart of London’s most dynamic art scene. Far from fringe, the neighborhood is on the circuit of art world bigwigs such as the Tate Modern director Frances Morris, for its combination of art with $1-million price tags and a creative scene that includes craft makers, food and drink.

Peckham is now the place Britons go to for counterculture art, with artists, makers and galleries lured to the area by cheap rents and a recently established East London commuter train line connecting the neighborhood to the center of the city. With the recent arrival of the arts space Peckham Levels that puts a premium on creativity within the community by encouraging local artists who were born and raised in South East London to have their studios at this newly opened center, Peckham is set to boom.

“Peckham has always been an area where things happened — art schools, squats, parties,” said Rozsa Farkas, director of Arcadia Missa gallery, located under the railway arches in the center of the neighborhood, “but it’s only in recent years that it’s been known for this.”

Farkas’s gallery is typical of the area and of its commitment to exhibiting avant-garde art such as the current exhibition Mouth, a video installation that explores gender binaries by New York-based artist Maja Cule as well as exhibitions about marginalized communities, like last summer’s show We Lost Them at Midnight, about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender culture in London.

“There’s a spirit to Peckham that you won’t find anywhere else in London,” said Luds van de Belt, site director of the newly-launched Peckham Levels, a 10-story car park that’s been transformed into a studio block for artists. The enterprise, off the neighborhood’s main street, Rye Lane, offers some of the least expensive artists studio in the area — a 12 square feet studio space rents from £260 to £290 (about $340 to $380) per month. Yearly, 10 studios are offered for monthly rents of just £90 to artists with the lowest incomes.

The artist and craft maker Anastasya Martynova, who has a studio at Peckham Levels, sees the area as an integral part of her creative process. “I think art as a whole has a tremendous power to unite people and encourage positivity,” she said, “and Peckham is the creative center of South East London. There is a real feeling of optimism for the future, and lots of raw, creative talent.”

The requirements for Peckham Levels membership reflect the neighborhood’s deeply-rooted sense of community. You have to be local and 10 percent of membership fees will go back into neighborhood initiatives. Members also have to commit at least one hour a week to volunteering in local projects.

“Growing up in Peckham as a teenager around 2008 I remember it having such a bad reputation,” the painter Sani Sani said. “Friends that lived in other areas were genuinely scared to come around. There were art galleries like the South London Gallery then, but it seemed exclusive and nonaccessible to the locals. I think that the arts scene in Peckham has the power to completely change the perception and the narrative of what Peckham is.”

In an expensive city like London, it’s getting harder for creative types and artists to find the space and support they need. But arts spaces in Peckham have all managed to survive through an agreement with Southwark Council, the borough authority Peckham is in, that keeps their rents at about half the market rate.

For artists like Mr. Sani, who warily eyes the influx of bankers and high earners in the neighborhood, a cap on rents can only be a good thing.

“If we can make it so locals like me can create our art here and be able to afford it,” he said, “maybe Peckham does have a hopeful future ahead.”

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