Gavin Barlow discusses cultural regeneration, the social divide and how the Albany is helping Deptford to avoid becoming ‘so-hip-it-hurts’
When I first came to Deptford in South East London, nine years ago, I was told it was going to be the “new Hoxton”. Deptford may now have more artists per square metre than any other part of the Capital, but thankfully it hasn’t succumbed to that so-hip-it-hurts quality that affects parts of East London. The area is changing fast, but we are working to avoid some of the pitfalls seen elsewhere with culturally-led regeneration.
The Albany has been a creative hub in Deptford for more than 30 years, but its focus on being a part of the local community has always come first and foremost. The area is still amongst the most deprived in the UK, and artists and students rub along with generations of locals at the sharp end of the current recession. The Albany is a driver for change in the area, an attraction for visitors and new arrivals, but aims to keep close to its roots and original values.
The Albany adopts something of a ‘stakeholder model’ to developing its programmes. It is home to 21 resident organisations, with interests ranging from the very local to the national and international, including Heart n Soul, who work with learning disabled artists, spoken word specialists Apples & Snakes, and most recently the Independent Theatre Council. The organisations work alongside our associate artists, groups of young artists and producers, and more than 200 local community-based groups who regularly use the building. It is these networks that enable us to create a programme that is much more diverse, surprising and ambitious than any Artistic Director could devise alone. It also means that the work engages the kind of people who would never normally set foot in an arts venue.
The Albany acts as a relationship broker, as well as an active partner helping to bring people and ideas together in creating a shared vision. We don’t so much curate a programme as provide challenges and connections to its evolution. An important element of this is to support creative enterprise as well as artistic and community development. This includes mentoring artists and community groups to develop their business skills and putting entrepreneurialism at the centre of our young people’s programmes, so they not only take responsibility for creating their own events, but for generating the income and funding support as well.
This is a model the Albany is now extending to new ventures, in particular our sister venue just across the road, the Deptford Lounge. Aiming to be just that – a living room in the city – the Lounge is a partnership with Lewisham Council which includes a library alongside a range of creative and community spaces, including music suites, a gallery, artist studios and a rooftop basketball court. It is a sustainable model; not only does it have the ability to produce its own income, but its impact is far reaching because it is properly embedded within its local communities.
Hoxton’s success has made it too expensive for artists to live or work there. Perhaps Deptford can move forward and sidestep that particular fate. It’s a trap which the planners and politicians must aim to avoid and it is important that the unique character and diversity of the place is enhanced rather than diluted in the process. The Albany can support positive change by harnessing creativity and encouraging the potential that already exists around us in abundance, as well as attracting new visitors and artists from across the city and beyond.
If there’s anything we can learn it’s that one size does not fit all. Any process of regeneration and change must take account of the distinctive identity of an area and use a multi-faceted, socially inclusive approach to really succeed. That’s why arts organisations like the Albany are an essential part of the process.