London—one of the priciest cities in the world—is not an easy place to live as an artist. But a semi-nomadic organization in the UK capital wants to make it just a little bit easier. The nonprofit V.O. Curators is taking advantage of an increasing number of vacant spaces to make studios more affordable for emerging and underrepresented talent.
Since 2018, V.O. Curators has spruced up and rented out formerly unoccupied properties around the UK capital. Now, they’re taking over a commercial building in the blue-chip art center of Mayfair with an expanded mandate, launching additional studios, a project space, and a selling gallery.
Founders Nnamdi Obiekwe and Zina Vieille, both in their late 20s, have been partnering with real estate developers to temporarily take over unused buildings. Obiekwe, who is from London, and Vieille, originally from Paris, manage these temporary leases from between one and five years, transforming them into as many studios as they can. The Mayfair space will be their second space that is currently operating—another studio building is in Aldgate.
“In London, it is tricky to find studio space and a lot of people are traveling quite far,” says Kate Wong, V.O.’s new program curator. (Plus, she adds, the studios that are available often lack heat and running water.)
While there are reports that demand has slowed for real estate in London, V.O.’s presence in Mayfair—around the corner from such outfits as Sotheby’s and Pace—is quite a coup. The commercial building at 56 Conduit Street will launch in February with 50 studio spaces available for below-market rents of between £100 to £500 a month.
Crucially, the project aims to platform underrepresented voices. The new gallery space will launch with a solo exhibition of work by Lagos-born, London-based Richard Ayodeji Ikhide, whose illustrative practice blends references from his ancestral Yoruba heritage and English drawing traditions. Two other young artists, Motoko Ishibashi and Rhea Dillon, will inaugurate the new space as residents while they plan for shows later in the year.
Wong points out while many London residency programs prize out-of-towners over locals and aren’t particularly concerned with commercial realities, V.O. aims to address artists’ creative and professional needs while making an added effort of encompassing artists from diverse backgrounds. Like a standard commercial outfit, it takes a 50 percent commission on sales out of the gallery, but as a nonprofit, it says, the money is invested back into V.O.
“I came out of working in galleries in central London, and I have personally become quite tired of seeing the same patterns of what happens in Mayfair specifically,” says Wong, who was a director at Sadie Coles HQ and Timothy Taylor. “Galleries are very much designed for a transient class of people. V.O.’s Mayfair project is really about the people that are here more permanently, who perhaps do not have any access or visibility to this pocket of London.”
The studios, which will be open for applications soon, aren’t limited to visual artists. Publishers, fashion designers, and podcasters are also welcome. Curator Reem Shadid will inaugurate V.O.’s curatorial residency with a film project informed by research done with the Sharjah Art Foundation.
Most critically, the aim of V.O. is to provide space, networks, and professional support to artists at the early stages of their careers—without the pressure that may come from gallery representation. “We see the issues with the commercial model and the art-fair cycle and how they impact artistic practice and the pressure that it puts on young artists,” Wong says. “We want to think about how we may interact with the global art world by focusing on who’s here in London.”