RA Magazine Spring 2013
Issue Number: 118
Opinion: An art oasis in Mayfair?
As Cork Street comes under threat from developers, Charles Landry argues that the RA is well placed to become a creative hub and protect its more vulnerable neighbours.
Mayfair is in transformation. Much of it is positive, but threats loom on the horizon. The area’s reputation was built on a subtle, creative ecology based around residential diversity, its independent shops and art galleries and traditional crafts. And Cork Street is the creative hub with its cluster of independent galleries. But it is now in danger of being supplanted by high-end apartments and a predominance of luxury fashion brands, threatening the area’s sense of place and civic fabric. The last thing Mayfair needs is to become like an airport terminal with its streets paved entirely with famous brands that would rob it of any distinctive personality.
© Quinton Winter. The current debate on the future of Cork Street was triggered by two redevelopment proposals which could affect some art dealers, although the developers say they intend to guarantee that galleries remain the major tenants rather than fashion stores. The discussion mirrors the issues that globalization raises for such desirable urban quarters the world over and what happens to them when big money moves in.
However, the Cork Street crisis may be an opportunity in disguise. This is a chance for Westminster Council to help protect art galleries and their related clusters of high-level expertise. The council is exploring whether to designate this part of Mayfair an arts district through Special Policy Area (SPA) status, much as tailors are protected in Savile Row or doctors in Harley Street. Everything does not have to be left to market forces.
Moreover, Cork Street is a hop and a skip away from the Royal Academy, an institution that is uniquely able to act as a catalyst to rethink this part of Mayfair. What if Burlington Gardens were to become semipedestrianised, together with Cork Street and Old Burlington Street, to reinforce the area’s character as an art district? There are ways too for the RA to reach out from Burlington Gardens, so helping to animate adjacent streets, say by creating open-air arts events along them.
Equally, the Academy’s ambitious plans for its Burlington Gardens site have led to fruitful internal discussions about how the Academy can become less insular and more attractive to young people, and at the same time involve itself with the new international neighbours on its doorstep.
Clearly the RA can and should play a significant role in how this neighbouring part of Mayfair develops. Artists have often been seen as the vanguard from which more commercial trends evolve, a nexus now reaching new heights. Yayoi Kusama, who helped create Louis Vuitton’s 2012 collection, is an example: her designs for the brand displayed in Bond Street, and shops worldwide, coincided with her show at Tate Modern.
The RA now has a rare opportunity to change the face – and ambience – of Mayfair, as its plans unfold to link its Burlington Gardens building to its Burlington House site in Piccadilly by 2018. The RA will have a multi-faceted cultural campus in the heart of Mayfair, providing a hub for varied artistic experiences. Its ethos can exert a cultural influence on Mayfair by showing how a focus on art and creativity can enrich and inspire us all.
The Academy understands that the values and attributes that dominate in corporate life are almost diametrically opposed to the values promoted by artistic creativity. The RA could bridge these two worlds. This bold claim however will only have credibility if the RA connects positively and critically not only to the arts, but also to the financial world, the global fashion brands, the property developers. The Academy can be the gathering place for discussions about the role of art and culture in society and so attract its diverse neighbours in Mayfair and influential groups from elsewhere. The RA is important for Mayfair’s cultural ecology, but it needs to maintain its artistic integrity and separateness while being open to partnership.
By leading the debate about the dilemmas relating to culture and commerce, the RA would reinforce its traditional role as a voice of art and artists. It should advocate the establishment of a designated arts district and propose how to animate the area in front of Burlington Gardens and its adjacent streets, creating an arts oasis that would be beneficial to Mayfair, London and even Britain.
- Save Cork Street
- Culture & Commerce: The Royal Academy & Mayfair by Charles Landry (£7.95, Comedia)
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