Contemporary art Fairs Analysis United Kingdom

Unpolished Peckham has the X factor

Cheap rents and community spirit attract artists and galleries to this vibrant area of south London

Frank’s Cafe, part of the “Bold Tendencies” exhibition in a multi-storey car park in Peckham

Last month, a group of around 70 enthusiastic, well-heeled and predominantly foreign young patrons from various London institutions—the Whitechapel Gallery, Tate Modern, Parasol Unit, the Royal Academy of Arts and the Serpentine Gallery—were taken on a tour of Peckham’s art spaces. Just three years ago, only the Parasol Unit’s young patrons visited south London, but Peckham’s quirky charm and its “collective, community-minded and entrepreneurial” arts scene, as the artist Antony Gormley, who lived in Peckham for 20 years, describes it, have triggered a surge in interest from outside.

Peckham’s strength—its youthful exuberance—is a result of its location, nestled between Camberwell College of Art and Goldsmiths (two of London’s most prominent art schools). “Peckham has a vibrancy that is hard to describe; it just draws people in,” says Alia Al-Senussi, who chairs the Tate’s young patrons group. The Royal Academy’s group, founded in November 2012, was the last to join the “Peckham pilgrimage”, as they call it. “It’s exciting for young collectors to see a group of their contemporaries helping to shape and drive the artistic scene in London,” says the group’s chairwoman, May Calil.

Peckham’s best-known artists, who include Jimmy Merris, Nathan Cash Davidson, Samara Scott, James Balmforth, Rob Chavasse and Aaron Angell, are not yet household names and are not sold at auction (most works are priced under £10,000), but could increasing attention from young collectors soon change this?

Authentic experience

Senior figures in the art world have been increasingly drawn to the area in search of the holy grail of a more authentic and less polished art experience. “Bold Tendencies”, an annual summer sculpture exhibition held at the top of a ten-storey car park in Peckham Rye, is the star attraction. The exhibition was set up in 2007 by the gallerists Hannah Barry and Sven Mündner, who also founded the Hannah Barry Gallery in 2006. Barry, who is closing her Bond Street showroom after two-and-a-half years and is due to open a new space in Peckham by the end of the year, is one of the driving forces behind the development of the area’s art scene, and she is capable of bringing some of the art world’s biggest names to the local shows.

Chris Dercon, the director of Tate Modern, has visited Peckham many times and believes that it is a crucial component of London’s art ecosystem, which, due to the “exaggerated concentration of wealth and power”, is feeling the effects of what he calls “the big divide”—the ever-increasing gap between those who make art and those who buy it. “We, the big institutions, are beginning to feel the impact and therefore need to establish a dialogue with places such as Peckham,” Dercon says.

The Los Angeles-based collector Stefan Simchowitz says his visit to Peckham was eye-opening, while central London’s art world, by comparison, feels “more and more removed from reality”. He does not think that the distance between central London and Peckham will put off “clued-in collectors”. One of his early discoveries, the hotly tipped Colombian artist Oscar Murillo, is currently showing at the South London Gallery, which sits between Peckham and nearby Camberwell and is the most long-standing arts institution in the area. Margot Heller, the gallery’s director, says: “When Frieze first started, around 20 VIPs would come to our events. Now we can count on around 300 turning up for breakfast.”

Growing pains

Despite Peckham’s edgy status, Norman Rosenthal, formerly director of exhibitions at the Royal Academy, warns of an age-old cycle. “Where artists go, gentrification happens—it’s a normal pattern in big cities,” he says. Although dealers and artists welcome the attention and the potential for growth, others warn against the kind of rampant gentrification that stunted the art world’s development in east London’s hotspots—Hackney, Dalston and Shoreditch. Anna Harding, the chief executive of Space, an organisation that provides affordable artists’ studios in east London and Peckham, believes that the fashion and technology industries, the development of the Olympic park, and the nearby City of London, the country’s financial centre, are the reasons why east London has become too expensive for artists. “The issue is that there are no buildings left to move into,” she says.

Meanwhile, in Peckham, Rózsa Farkas, the co-director of Arcadia Missa gallery, says that rents have doubled since 2007, but that it is still cheaper than east London. Despite a number of new cafes, galleries and shops, Peckham is not experiencing the same kind of boom because, for the moment, other industries seem to have ignored the area.

Will Peckham survive the coming tide? “The work of organisations that provide affordable workspace is absolutely crucial to ensure that artists aren’t squeezed out,” Margot Heller says. Richard Armstrong, the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and an admirer of the area, looks to the art world’s survival instinct with hope. “The will of a few people—artists foremost, but also writers, dealers, curators and even collectors—can remake reality,” he says.

Peckham’s hotspots

Exhibition spaces are popping up all the time in Peckham. Visitors’ favourites include:

South London Gallery, 65-67 Peckham Road, London SE5 8UH

This is the area’s most established non-commercial space. On show: Oscar Murillo’s “If I Was to Draw a Line, This Journey Started Approximately 400km North of the Equator” (until 1 December).

Sunday Painter>, 12-16 Blenheim Grove, London, SE15 4QL
A project space for two-and-a-half years, it is now developing a more commercial approach, with an increased presence at art fairs. On show: “Sunset”, Jan Kiefer, Max Ruf and Yves Scherer (until 17 November).

Arcadia Missa, Bellenden Road Business Centre (Lyndhurst Way entrance), SE15 4RF

After two-and-a-half years, the gallery is starting to represent its own artists, including Amalia Ulman, who is designing the stage for the Serpentine Gallery’s 89plus Marathon (18–19 October), and Harry Sanderson, whose show “Unified Fabric” (until 2 November) features various other artists.

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