No Breathing Space – V&A, Artwashing and the Theft of Robin Hood Gardens

Stephen Pritchard unpicks the poverty porn and artwashing of the V&A’s theft of Robin Hood Gardens. 

The V&A claims to be ‘the world’s leading museum of art and design’. Its mission is ‘to enrich people’s lives’. As a ‘non-departmental public body of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’, it is part of the UK state. V&A’s Board of Trustees are appointed by the Prime Minister as is their director. The ‘arms-length’ institution is a government quango funded directly by UK taxpayers following priorities set by the DCMS. The government awarded the V&A over £40m in grant-in-aid in 2016/17. This figure does not include funding for large capital projects like V&A Dundee (funded using more than £25m of Scottish government resources as well as several other key funders) and V&A East – a new museum in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, East London. So why would an arm of the British state want to painstakingly remove a piece of ex-council housing to put in its new museum in East London – once its finished floating a section to Italy and back for the Venice Architecture Biennale where the architectural, design and art world glitterati are (for the most part) fawning a façade from the under-demolition Robin Hood Gardens propped up on an expensive piece of specially commissioned scaffold? The answer is both complex and simple.

The ‘acquisition’ of a piece of Robin Hood Gardens caused outrage when it was first announced in November 2017. I accused V&A of artwashing the social cleansing and gentrification of Robin Hood Gardens then and I repeated this accusation again when the ‘artefact’ was exhibited in Venice last week. It was little surprise that activists in London and Venice coordinated protests against the exhibition of a chunk of the council estate at a prestigious international event during the opening event. V&A tried to claim the exhibition in Venice was about opening debate but then its director, ex-Labour MP Tristram Hunt, took to the press and social media to deny any role in artwashing and to call activist, protestors and researchers critiquing the institution’s actions as ‘keyboard warriors’ and ‘art-wash agitators’, effectively attempting to discredit any opposition to his grand plan.

The V&A has a history of colonialism and theft that stretches right back to its inception in 1852. Its name, of course, reflects those of its founders, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Earlier this year, the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, became its first royal patron. Its vast collection represents Britain’s colonial past and its recent and current post-colonial endeavours. With the acquisition of a chunk of Robin Hood Gardens, the V&A – as part of the UK state – has began to perform the role of artwashing the internal colonialism of working-class communities. Internal colonialism happens when those in power exploit minority and marginalised people for economic gain. State institutions (like the V&A in this case) are used as a tool to suppress and manipulate the perceptions of both those facing oppression and the general public.

This is where artwashing comes in. Artwashing creates a veneer of social responsibility which disguises the oppression of marginal community members. There were numerous campaigns attempting to save Robin Hood Gardens but they were ultimately rejected when English Heritage (another state quango) refused to grant the ex-council estate listed status in 2009. The seeds of gentrification were sewn much earlier though. The estate was, like many others, subjected to years of under-investment and a lack of maintenance – commonly known as managed decline. It was ran down and decried by state and local government alike. As soon as English Heritage made their decision, Robin Hood Gardens was earmarked for demolition, becoming part of the Blackwall Reach luxury development project. The residents were decanted, dispossessed and displaced from their homes. This is accumulation by dispossession – effectively theft. The state and its agents (here the English Heritage and the V&A) create the conditions, the permissions for twenty-first century transnational robber barons (property developers, financiers, investors, banks, etc.) to steal once public land from those most in need.

The acquisition and exhibition of fragments of ‘architectural salvage’ from Robin Hood Gardens is clearly artwashing. It ‘museumifies’ and objectifies the lives, the stories, the memories, the spirits of working-class people and working-class communities as nothing more than an important ‘design object’. The message here is that it is ‘good’ to use taxpayers’ money to purchase, restore, store and exhibit a piece of ex-council housing but it is ‘bad’ to spend money on maintaining, rebuilding and building new council housing – even though it is desperately needed to help restore dignity to struggling working-class communities. To claim, as the V&A do, that the exhibitions will enable debate about the future of social housing, is misleading – part of its artwashing of social cleansing and gentrification. The V&A are part of the government and, like the government, they not only do not care about working-class people and communities, but they actively seek to use every possible means to mislead, suppress and oppress them. If they had their way, they would happily eradicate working-class suffering – not by providing a fair and equitable society that takes care of everyone and provides proper, long-term housing for those in need of it, but by systematically destroying it. Putting bits of someone’s home in a museum and in an international biennale is intentionally exploitative and degrading. Of course – and this is the sad reality of our disintegrating neoliberal culture – the wealthy will pay good money to gawp in awe at ‘poor people’s housing’; happily tramping on false reconstructions of council housing whilst quaffing champagne and checking their property portfolio investments. The V&A and their masters, the UK state, see no irony, feel no sense of loss; no grief. They have only Dollar signs in their eyes.

Artwashing is not only deceitful, it is also the precursor to dispossession – to the theft of our homes and lives. That is why we must bite the grabbing hands of state institutions like the V&A. By fetishising and commodifying part of Robin Hood Gardens, V&A are promoting ruin-porn and poverty tourism. The idea that everyone should have a home, regardless of their economic status, has been scraped away by capitalist greed. In its place is the art object, devoid of any context or meaning.

As they tighten their aesthetic grip, they strangle us, draining the very life from our communities in the name of economic gain. Hunt’s argument that it is better to save a piece of a doomed council estate than to see it ‘lost forever’ is a false one. It did nothing to support the campaign to save Robin Hood Gardens and decided to acquire a fragment of the building in May 2017 when it took on Liza Fior’s proposal, on behalf of muf art/architecture, which came at the end of a year-long residency exploring the museum’s relationship with East London.

But then why would it? V&A is an arm of the state – of the Tory government. The complicity of V&A (and therefore the state) in the social cleansing (and indeed ethnic cleansing) of East London is nothing short of a national disgrace.


Comments (15)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Elaine Fraser says:

    I had no idea. Although a truly depressing read my thanks to the writer and Bella for providing this information. Where else would this side of the debate be published?

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      I agree. Reading this was a ‘lightbulb moment’ for me. This is a concept I had not encountered before. Thanks for the publication.

    2. Virtually nowhere. We are delighted to be working with Stephen and hope to bring him to Scotland very soon to work with other people fighting art wash and gentrification here.

  2. Alf Baird says:

    I always thought there was something very fishy about Downing Street’s V&A’s bringing its nonsense to Dundee, nae doot pushing the colonial pro-British agenda. Spending millions on an obvious British colonial propaganda exercise in Dundee also seemed especially bizarre given the city’s large housing waiting list. The SNP Scottish Government’s politicians should have twigged to this Whitehall strategy long ago, however Whitehall still sends us ‘our’ senior civil servants to keep the natives under control and drive a pro-British policy here irrespective of who sits in Holyrood. Dundee being an independence hotbed it should be no surprise that Downing Street’s V&A and other ‘cultural interventions’ are being imposed locally by the British state and its ‘obedient retainers’ here. The Yes/No binary choice on independence is after all a cultural decision. Wonder what Ms Hyslop’s view is, or if all this just simply passed her by……..

    1. Jo says:

      Re the V&A project in Dundee, I have tried and failed to get it or get the excitement about it. It is the ugliest monstrosity ever to my eye and when I think of the cost I cannot believe so much money was thrown at it. Clearly I’m no’ very cultured!

      1. Alf Baird says:

        You are not wrong Jo. The derelict obsolete dockland waterfronts in all of Scotland’s major cities should have been developed sensibly by each of the city authorities, as is the case in most other port cities globally, and with a focus on the local people reclaiming and rediscovering their unique waterfront for housing, working, living, socialising etc. Since the privatisation of Scotland’s major city ports under the Tories in the early 90’s all we have seen there is ad hoc development of things like shopping centres, and expensive apartment type property, while the offshore owners of ports have sat on much of the derelict land waiting on the ‘right’ kind of opportunity (i.e. developments which the majority of ordinary folk do not need or want), of which V&A is an example, and the latter can hardly be described as a Scottish initiative given its driving force is actually 10 Downing St. Scotland is still bought and sold, now mostly for offshore ‘private equity’ gold, and of which our former public utilities (ports, airports, energy etc) are prime examples. Water and a few other ‘leftovers’ would be next if the Colonel and Tomkins Tories ever get a sniff of power.

        1. Wul says:

          You see this in Glasgow too.

          A visitor could be excused for not realising that Glasgow even has a river running through it. The banks of the river are cut off from the places where most people congregate. This lovely area, where people could be living, working, playing and socialising seems to be divided into either hang outs for substance abusers or vast, shiny, souls monuments to money and anomie.

          Could we perhaps plan our cities as if people matter?

          1. Alf Baird says:

            Yes things could and should have been so much better Wul. Many port/river cities have extensive river transport systems nowadays based mostly on fast passenger catamarans, however not Scotland? In cities like Brisbane, Sydney, Lisbon etc any riverside developments usually need to include a new river berth/pier facility so that the development and increased travel demand fits into the urban river public transit system. As it happens I worked on several research studies to look into the feasibility of introducing urban river transit services on Forth and Clyde. The public bodies were not remotely interested, refusing to even tender the river ferry opportunities, and neither were the offshore fund owners/regulators of the rivers who just wanted to tax every passenger and boat. In Glasgow the council ‘vision’ extends no further than building low bridges upriver which actually hinders river transport. We may conclude from this that the Scottish public sector is comparatively hopeless and incompetent, or at least the mostly unionist elites running it are, and this becomes rather obvious when contrasting what most major cityports have done with their now vibrant waterfronts.

          2. Jo says:

            Interesting comments from both yourself and Alf concerning city waterfronts. It is true that the city of Glasgow and the Clyde were literally sold down the river!

            As a “working” river the Clyde deserves better as do the people of Glasgow. Instead it got fancy hooses, many vastly over-priced, which were snapped up, a significant number by those launching what was to become the obscene Buy To Let market.

            That the potential of the River Clyde was so appallingly ignored by the decision makers is indeed tragic and sad. Like Alf I always wondered why the river wasn’t seen as a viable new public transport corridor. The idea was absolutely workable and exciting too. There was scope for other things too. I could visualise ships docking further down in deeper water and passengers transferring to smaller vessels to take them shopping in Glasgow or to other places on the firth. I saw routes from the city taking city folk to those places too and to work.

            Alas, we just got the fancy hooses!

            Worryingly those buildings and their surroundings, most significantly the river, have seen consequences. In the past five years quayside walls on both the north and south banks have collapsed leading to the closure of paths above them and urgent repairs, plus warnings that long-term permanent repairs will be required…costing millions….to keep the fancy hooses from falling into the river. Whose purse will be dipped for that I wonder? And in these times of austerity, is there anyone who will even open their purse?

            Och well, mibby they’ll bring back Taggart and the Clyde can be the star again as the dumping place for a’ they deid boadies. At least they’ll be comfy if so many fancy hooses are already doon there on the river bed. So much for progress!

        2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

          Alf Baird, you are right to point up the ownership of river front land along the Clyde. Much of it is in private ownership – Peel Ports – being one such. While we can identify Peel Ports, the problem is that most of the rest of the ownership is hidden amongst a web of various shell companies, often ‘off-shored’. They are hoarding the land to cause an artificial shortage and force up land and property prices. This in turn forces more people into renting.
          Immediately to the west of the Kingston Bridge on the north bank there is a large patch parallel to Piccadilly St which has been undeveloped for decades, – if memory serves, since the bridge was completed around 1970. It has been used for some time as a parking lot. I do not know the tax status of this operation. I understand that unused land is exempt from any local taxation. So there is no pressure on the owner to develop the site or to sell it to someone who would. This is a reason why there should be a pretty high level of taxation on unused land and that this tax should rise the longer the land is undeveloped.
          At present, the current city administration is trying to bring the land ownership register up to date so that, at the very least, they can serve the owners with orders to fulfil their rights to maintain the river bank, particularly in relation to climate change and the increasing dangers of flooding.
          There is also the scandal of Mavisbank Quay and part of the old Prince’s Dock, where access along the riverbank for the general public has been unilaterally blocked by the property owners. The riverside path is a core path, but the Council has refused to assert the public’s right of access. The owners of the flats understand that after the Glasgow Garden festival, this section of land was sold to a developer who was informed that there was exclusive access to the riverfront. On several occasions I have intentionally gone on to this path on several occasions and, within minutes I have been approached by ‘security’ staff who have told me that I am ‘trespassing’ and have escorted me off the campus.

          1. Alf Baird says:

            This is a tragic outcome Alasdair and I am reminded of papers from continental researchers at the time of UK port privatisation who were horrified that such strategic land as seaports/docks and their regulatory authority powers was being sold off on the cheap in the UK to whoever and with no conditions as to future investment or provision of modern seaports, or ‘revitalisation’ of derelict port land which has in turn led to the ongoing decline of Scotland’s central belt seaports and hence fall in trade and competitiveness. This was described by the global maritime research community as the ‘Anglo Saxon port model’ as distinct from the standard/latin continental and indeed global approach where waterfront and foreshore is deemed to be ‘dominium populi’, i.e. for all to have reasonable access to and always regulated by public authorities. As for dealing with vast obsolete urban dockland, in Scotland we had no effective Docklands Development Corps (as at London) which would have had powers and funding to do things with the land. Derelict dockland often comprises the largest single land bank in a city so to simply hand it over to speculative offshore funds like Peel and Arcus (Forth/Tay) is absolute folly. Instead of developing new towns in and along the waterfront at e.g. Leith, all the housing development is now happening on expensive greenfield sites well outside the city around Dalkeith, Musselburgh, Prestonpans etc, making various landowners rich in the process, yet like the Robin Hood example this is driving people out of the city and creating a lot of added transport demand. Much of this has been pointed out before to various SNP Ministers yet still no action (e.g.;, whilst certain very senior civil servants after retiring have actually ended up fronting and working for the offshore fund owners of former major public utilities, e.g. Elvidge at Edinburgh Airport. Of course the siting of the large ‘new’ Scottish Office at Victoria Dock also reflected a close connection between the port owners and senior civil servants. As often seems the case senior civil servants will tend to block Ministers doing anything deemed by them to be too ‘radical’. City of Edinburgh Council asked me a few years back for my opinion on what should happen with all the remaining derelict land along the Leith/Granton waterfront to which I uttered two words: compulsory purchase. But like all public officials the standard approach is for them to ‘work in partnership with key stakeholders’ (i.e. vested interests intercepting rents) which means nothing much will change.

          2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

            Alf, Thanks for adding a bit more meat and sinew to the issues which I expressed.

            There is a real concern about the relationship between some civil servants and private developers and the way in which many move from public service to private (with the increasing practice of private sector employees taking contracts within the civil service.) Of course many, probably most, civil servants have a sound and committed public sector ethos and do a competent job within increasingly difficult constraints.

            It would be interesting to know the background of senior and influential postings within the civil service and public bodies. I suspect that many are from the private school nexus and that a fair number of others, although educated within the public education system have educated their children in the private sector and have become active within it.

            You make the point about civil servants ‘blocking’ ministers, despite the fact that the ministers are their bosses and do, in fact, have the powers to cause things to happen. This is paralleled in the Council sector. Most councillors do not have the SpAds and central party support that MPs and MSPs have, and many are also working full-time, in addition to being councillors. Many councillors are well-motivated local people who have a sincere desire to improve things for their communities. (I must make clear at this point that I am NOT setting them up to be damned with faint praise.) They are lacking in time and in professional expert support and can often be bullied out of taking the decisions they intended to take by senior officers, implying, with the use of accompanying body language and cavilling, that if things go wrong then the councillor could be personally and LEGALLY responsible for the consequences.

            So with the ‘favourable’ senior officers, plus well-funded lobbying services and a narrowly-owned media, transfers of public assets to private takes place, and, of course, the councillors carry the can when the scandal emerges. They are excoriated by the very media who are owned by the kind of connections that acquired the public assets. And, so, we get the ‘loss of trust’ in politics, which, in turn produces LESS scrutiny of these proposed transfers of public assets.

          3. Alf Baird says:

            Alasdair, based in part on my own personal experiences I think one of the key leadership issues Scotland faces is that there may ostensibly be a ‘nationalist’ devolved government ‘in power’ at any given time however the senior meritocracy charged with spending the Holyrood budget across numerous state departments and also allocating public funds to several hundred quangos and implementing its policies and advising Ministers remains very much predominantly unionist and also perhaps culturally more British/English than Scottish and, as you note, they are mostly private school as the ‘Elite Scotland’ report also found. To a very large degree, therefore, devolved Scotland aye remains controlled by a Tory unionist meritocratic elite irrespective of who sits in Holyrood. One might have hoped that a nationalist government would have in part at least sought to alter the balance and composition of this ‘Establishment’ by now, but this has not been the case. That is a great pity because this largely Tory and unionist elite will aye hold Scotland back – perhaps that ultimately is their role? Nicola Sturgeon and her SNP ‘cabinet’ do not therefore run Scotland, Her Majesty’s Home Civil Service and its great many carefully selected appointees runs Scotland, as well reflected for instance in the make-up of the board of V&A Dundee – Not disconnected perhaps in relation to where power actually lies in ‘devolved’ Scotland is today’s news of Dennis Canavan’s suggestion that the Growth Commission report seems to have largely been written by Scotland’s Establishment.

  3. Wul says:

    …soulless monuments…

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.