Keeping London a creative leader – the role of London’s art and design institutions in the city’s creative and cultural ecosystem

What is it that brings art and design students from across the UK and around the world to study in London? I’d like to think that it being home to the world’s two leading art and design universities – the Royal College of Art and University of the Arts London – plays a significant role in this. But it’s also important to understand how arts education and research, early stage artists and designers, the creative industries and cultural institutions are part of a mutually beneficial ecosystem, all parts of which need careful attention to work.

This is particularly apparent in London as we emerge from Covid into a cost of living crisis. Freelance creatives of all types and cultural institutions struggled greatly as traditional sources of work and audiences dried up during Covid, and are now battling rising costs, from electricity to studio rent. A new survey released last week from Acme Studios suggested that a third of visual artist tenants in London said lack of funds might force them out of their chosen career within five years; Arts Council England (ACE) reduced its funding allocations in the capital by around £50 million in November last year.

This risks unbalancing the ecosystem. The high standards of teaching in London art and design institutions comes in part from the access to the incredible wealth of creative talent in the city, many of whom teach, lecture, form part of the assessment system or support research. Students coming to London know they can access everything from world-famous galleries to creative pop-ups, all of which infuse and develop their practice.

Those students then become one of the strongest assets for London’s creative economy – one of its fastest growing sectors, estimated to provide one in six jobs and generate around £47 billion for the London economy. Not only do universities such as the RCA work closely with employers to make sure that our students have the right skills for fast evolving industries, our spin-out hubs create the businesses that will power the sector tomorrow – InnovationRCA, our start up hub, has so far launched over 80 new businesses and created over 800 jobs in the UK.

So, what can we do to keep this incredible successful machine that is creative and cultural London working? We all have our part to play. At the RCA, we’ve hugely expanded our range of scholarships, bursaries and hardship support in recent years, recognising the pressures on living costs in particular, and working to remove financial barriers for talented students. We now disburse 7% of our £100m turnover to student financial aid and bursaries.

During their time with us, we work hard to ensure our students can thrive in their careers – from training on how to fill out grant forms, to experience on business-led projects, and we’re grateful for the support of London’s creative sector to help us do this. The importance of maintaining the post-study work visa for international students to remain in the UK and contribute to our creative economy is essential.

But the importance of artists to the ecosystem needs further recognition, and that is why I was also pleased to see City Hall’s announcement last week of extensions to the Creative Enterprise Zones, extending the number of artists in London who can benefit from affordable work-space and live-work space, as well as benefit from continued skills and business support. Initiatives such as the Creative Clusters, which includes the StoryFutures cluster based in London, also have an important role to play in developing talent and supporting start-ups.

The Government’s new Creative Industries Sector Vision – although national – contains much that is positive for London, with funding for Creative Clusters, support for London Fashion Week and the London Film Festival; and the national Convergent Screen Technologies and Performance in Realtime (CoSTAR) lab being led by Royal Holloway University of London and based at Pinewood Studios. More broadly, it reinforces the role that the creative industries have to play in the UK economy and the many elements – including education and skills, and the needs of a freelance workforce – that have to be supported to ensure this is a continued success. Labour too has set out its stall on the creative curriculum in recent weeks, pledging that all students will study a creative discipline or sport up to age 16, which can only be of benefit to the sector as a whole.

As the RCA reaches the end of its season of graduate shows, exhibitions and events, and our students move on to the next phase of their careers, I very much hope that many of them will stay part of the London creative ecosystem, and support future generations of students. Although times remain challenging across the city, it is to be hoped that these positive discussions and initiatives are a start in ensuring that will be possible.

This blog has been contributed by Dr Paul Thompson, Vice-Chancellor at the Royal College of Art.