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Second Floor Studios: A Vision Reimagined

Lucy McGuire uncovers a conglomerate of artists gathered in north Greenwich and the result is nothing less than inspiring

Published on August 30th 2011.


Second Floor Studios: A Vision Reimagined

ASK a Londoner to find you the art scenes of their city and they may well direct you to the likes of Shoreditch in Hackney, or famous neighbourhoods like Brick Lane. But put this question to Matthew Wood, director of art initiative Second Floor Studios & Arts (SFSA) and he will most likely tell you the future is in north Greenwich.

In an attempt to rescue low-earning artists from the rising living costs and lack of affordable workspace, the arts enthusiast has pioneered a project in Greenwich called the Second Floor Studios.

For Wood, London hotspots like these have stemmed from hardworking artists who have sculpted them into cultural hotspots over the years. But while investment has flooded into these areas from developers and business owners, it’s this gentrification, which he says has driven the hardworking artists out.

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In an attempt to rescue low-earning artists from the rising living costs and lack of affordable workspace, the arts enthusiast has pioneered a project in Greenwich called the Second Floor Studios & Arts.

With years of hard work, Wood has reached the second year of a five year project. The end result will be a 200,000 sq ft area of converted warehouses and newly built affordable arts space across the former derelict site.  Thanks to Wood, it is already becoming a talked-about creative hub south of the river. And it firmly prides itself on supporting the under-threat arts scene.

“The average artist can’t afford national rent, so SFSA champions the needs of those artists,” Wood says.

“The other challenge is losing their studios due to short term leases – they need people to advocate on their behalf.

“It’s challenging because you live in a commercially driven society and a lot of our members are non-commercial fine artists.

“The majority of artists are earning between £8,000 – £12,000 a year, and they can’t compete with that.”

The scheme so far has 160 members, but enquiries come in every day and this could rise to more than 300 by 2014.

At the moment, workshops at SFSA, are being rented by cabinetmakers, sculptors, stained glass window experts, soap makers, canoe designers, photographers, and even a latex fetish wear designer.

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Katy Janneh, who has sold her work at prestigious department store Selfridges, designs vintage Hollywood-inspired headwear. She will showcase her work at the Contemporary Craft Fair, Origin, in Old Spitalfields Market this September, and lauds the SFSA scheme for helping her career.

“What I’m paying to rent space here is £60 difference for half the space I used to get,” she says.

“Trying to find a place where designers and crafts were welcome was hard.  But SFS is great, it brings all kinds of people together.”

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Janneh is right about the community aspect of the site. Drop into the SFSA riverside café at peak hours of the day, and it’s likely you could bump into a retired 78-year-old painter, 32-year-old bespoke cabinet maker, or an 18-year-old arts graduate. While artists sip coffee and admire a panoramic view over the Thames Barrage, the café brings the community feel Matthew aimed for.

Another aspect, which Wood prides himself on, is supporting newly-graduated artists. Wood moved to the current site after his former ’60s office building – where he set up with then business partner Kelvin O’Mard – was acquired by Greenwich University. As it continues to grow, SFSA will honour a talented graduate from the University of East London each year with a one-year scholarship and free workspace.

Img_0233 MrAnd while some resident artists continue their work for less commercial reasons, others can also aspire to become established artists like award-winning mosaic designer, Gary Drostle, who has a reputation for being the best in his field.

Drostle, who picked up a prestigious award in Iowa, USA, is a champion in his field. And although he has received many high-profile commissions, including a community memorial mosaic in a knife-crime stricken London borough, even he says, the stability of SFSA is a godsend.

Img_0261 MrWhile the number of artists and craftspeople at SFSA rises each month, it is now moving from a not-for-profit initiative to a project that has become a worthwhile investment that is generating funds for a number of internships and community programmes. By November this year, Wood hopes to have completed a 3,500 sq ft gallery space called No Format. It will become the one of the largest open access space for art in the country.

Having worked with the likes of Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth curator Sally Shaw – he seems more than qualified to drive forward this vision. And while a bright, orange sunset spreads across the Barrage, he spells out his goal.

“Events like the Olympics will wipe out hundreds of art spaces which creates an anxiety for these people who are trying to make a living.

 “Our country’s leaders talk about how important art is but don’t support it properly.

“I simply want to do what they’re not, and provide a place which is vibrant, safe and stable.

“And hopefully members of the public will start to be drawn to the area for the great work they are producing.”

For more information on the Second Floor Studios & Arts (SFSA) log onto www.secondfloor.co.uk

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