The future of Cork Street as a mecca for art galleries in London is in jeopardy tonight (6/8/2013) as Westminster council approves plans by Native Land to redevelop the area for high end boutiques and luxury flats. Chairman of the committee Alastair Moss led the planning meeting and, in the opinion of the ‘Save Cork Street’ group, made several factual errors in his representations. The final result was the loss of 7 galleries, that are currently housed on Cork Street, with a large section of buildings to be demolished in January 2014. These galleries, some of the most important in the area, include the long established Mayor Gallery (1903). Many artists exhibited for the first time in England at the Mayor Gallery including, Bacon, Calder, Ernst, Klee, Masson, Miro and Paolozzi. The Mayor Gallery was also the centre of UNIT ONE, a group that included Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth, Edward Burra. Several of the smaller galleries have expressed that they will permanently close because the costs of relocating in Mayfair would be prohibitive.
The Westminster committee have approved the replacement space for 3 proposed galleries, fronting Cork Street, a net loss of 4 galleries. The new development is to be made up of units much larger and predominantly glass walled, not lending itself to a gallery format – an opinion expressed by many galleries to Westminster Planning. Chairman Moss did not listen to the galleries’ comments that the proposed spaces were not suitable for galleries, as the design meant the loss of hanging space and the increase of ceiling heights, the size and layout that were not appropriate for the type of Cork Street galleries but rather a luxury brand shop. In addition, the developers have expressed that the rent will significantly increase (commensurate to Bond Street rates) which will impede the return of the small independent galleries.
Obviously, the committee did not understand what Cork Street galleries are all about. For nearly 100 years Cork Street has been recognized as one of the most important, if not the most important street in the world for art. It has launched more careers in the art world than any other street – names such as Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Sir Peter Blake, Lynn Chadwick, David Hockney, and the list goes on and on. The small independent dealers meant diversity and are able to take risk, presenting emerging artists. Larger galleries, with the costs of Mayfair, mean that they will be dealing with only the branded names in the art world and not championing the emerging artists. This was pointed out by the Dean of the Chelsea College of Art and Design, among others, on our comment page. Art work that can be seen in the museums is not what Cork Street is about. This is a sad and scandalous legacy that is left by Chairman Alastair Moss and his panel made up of Christabel Flight, Louise Hyams, Robert Rigby, Susie Burbridge and David Boothroyd.
Even worse is the fact that the tenants of the street believe that the developer Native Land is not sincere in their stating that they wish to keep the street focused on art. They resisted the use of spaces as galleries until it was evident that their development approval would depend upon it. They have already replaced one gallery with a clothing shop selling franchises for their clothing brand (27 Cork Street). The former gallery (which over the years had hosted numerous emerging artists) was forced to close as a result of the cost of litigation forced upon them by the developer, when they were trying to protect their rights under the Tenant Act of 1954. The fact that the new spaces will be under a 106 planning obligation allows that if the developer does not find a gallery to take these larger spaces then they can apply for a variation to put in something different , which will mean the extension of Bond Street shops – which is what the developer wanted from the beginning. An SPA (special protected area) will soon be coming into effect, however, it will not be in time to be able to save the existing galleries. One of the committee members at the planning hearing remarked that it is regrettable that the SPA was not now in effect. It would seem if Westminster were desirous of an SPA then they should have helped push it forward long ago.
The net effect of this decision, combined with Chairman Moss’s committee’s previous approval earlier this year, of the Pollen Estates development, in our view will be the demise of Cork Street as a beacon and capital of the world of art. The mere fact of the disruption for 2-3 years with the new construction of more than a third of the street, combined with the Pollen Estate’s project, will cause the demise of many of the remaining galleries. This could have been prevented by a reconstruction of the existing building keeping the galleries in place. The fact that the developer will potentially be able to get a variation to put in other than art galleries (as evidenced from the design) will mean that galleries in Mayfair will be a thing of the past. The fact that the development is also being allowed to replace all of the office space lost with expensive apartments will mean that this once charming haven for culture will be less vibrant. It will be sold to uber rich foreign investors who will perhaps visit their apartments once or twice a year but culturally will be a far cry from the former glory of this charming enclave that attracted people for all corners of the world.
It seems that Westminster council has not learned from the mistakes of Paris and other cities. Westminster’s press office has stated that they are pleased they have saved Cork Street by agreement with the developer. This assumes of course, that the developer will actually replace the galleries. Unfortunately they have not understood the true nature of what a Cork Street gallery is all about. The already agreed loss of 4 gallery spaces fronting Cork Street with the possibility of making the future spaces something other than art galleries is scandalous and disgraceful. Not since the lady Shirley Porter scandal in Westminster has there been such disgraceful behaviour.
While it may be too late to save the heritage and nature of Cork Street we would encourage people to write to Westminster Council with their thoughts. Councillor Alastair Moss can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*This article has been based on material from the latest ‘Save Cork Street’ newsletter.