Martin Clark. Photograph by Phil Sayer

Centre of excellence

Eleanor Mills, Issue 118/09, p32-35, 01.09.2018
Eleanor Mills talks to Martin Clark, the director of Camden Arts Centre in London, about supporting artists
Martin Clark has been the director of Cam- den Arts Centre in London for a year now, having succeeded the 27-year-long tenure of Jenni Lomax. It must be tough to replace someone who has been there so long. “It can’t be anything but daunting,” says Clark, “but it’s also a huge privilege.”

Lomax headed up the organisation from 1990 to 2017, developing its ambitious pro- gramme of exhibitions, residencies, artists’ projects and public events. Clark says that she left the centre in a wonderful state.

“Whether it’s funders, audiences, artists or peers, it takes a long time to build up that kind of respect and investment in an organ- isation,” he says. “It’s fundamental – it’s what underpins everything else we do. That goodwill, you can’t value that enough. I’ve come into an institution where I’ve got a head start. I just have to make sure I am able to protect that, to deepen and build on it.”

Clark has the experience to make a success of it. He was the director of Bergen Kunsthall in Norway for four years and before that spent six years at Tate St Ives as the artistic director.

“Bergen is a very similar institution to Camden, in terms of the size and scale of the galleries, and it’s also a very artist-driven independent space,” says Clark. “The kun- sthall has actually collaborated with Cam- den a couple of times, most recently on one of the last shows I curated there, so there was already a connection between the two places, and of course I have been visiting the centre for nearly 20 years.”

Camden Arts Centre was founded in 1965 under the guise of Hampstead Arts Centre. Renamed in 1967, the centre was created to provide the local community with classes in painting, life drawing, pottery, printing and basic design.

Since then, the centre’s remit has grown far wider, and it now runs a renowned exhibitions and events pro- gramme. But one of its main aims is to help young and emerging artists make a mark on the contemporary art scene. Its established residency programme is part of this.

“We’ve been consistently working with resident artists for many years, and we have a strong history of working with ceramic artists and programmes ever since the centre was created over 50 years ago,” he says.

“These strands have come together in the new Freelands Lomax Ceramics Fellow- ship, established last year and with a further two years of funding.” Clark sees Cam- den as a place to nurture artistic talent at every level and age, and provide a platform for emerging artists to show their work in. He says it’s about creating a self-driving ecosystem for art and artists.

Challenging environment

“Opportunities for younger artists are get- ting fewer and fewer,” says Clark. “There are already significantly fewer chances to exhibit, particularly in London. Camden now programmes four exhibition seasons a year, but we used to have five. I would love to go back to five, but I don’t know how we could fund five slots a year at the moment.”

He says that other independent galleries have been forced to cut back their exhibition programmes too, which he sees as problematic, along with the other challenges faced by UK museums and galleries.

“It’s not just difficult to be an artist in London if you don’t have money, it’s difficult to work in the arts – to be a curator, for instance,” he says. “If you see the salaries those jobs are advertised for, even at big institutions, you wonder how somebody can afford to live in London, working at a national museum or gallery, unless they have another source of income or some other money behind them? It’s not a good situation and doesn’t encourage talent or diversity.”

Clark is in a good position to comment on the current state of the UK museum sec- tor, having worked in many regional galleries and for a similar organisation in a differ- ent country. Indeed, more than 60% of Bergen Kunsthall’s funding comes from the state or municipality.

“The funding structure is very different in Norway,” says Clark. “The kunsthall’s operating budget is almost identical to Camden Arts Centre, but the difference is that we didn’t have to fundraise more than 60% of our income as we do at Camden. It was more like 30%. That means you can spend more of your time, energy and resources on the art and artists you are working with.”

That pressure to fundraise appears to have affected UK-wide exhibition programming. “Over the last few years I think programming in the UK has felt a bit at,” says Clark. “Especially when you see a particular artist showing in five or six galleries across the UK within a period of six months.”

Camden Arts Centre receives about 95,000 visitors each year but as an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation has been given the target of reaching 100,000. It’s not a big leap, but Clark feels this consistent pressure to increase footfall has led to uninspired exhibition programmes across the UK. “It’s become very safe and conservative, I think as a direct result of the increasing pressure to simply bring in audience numbers, at any cost.”

Turning things around

Clark is very familiar with the challenges of programming in today’s environment, having led a career revolved around curating. He studied fine art at the University of Sheffield before doing an MA in curating at the Royal College of Arts in London, and was then appointed as the exhibitions tutor at Kent Institute of Art and Design (now University College of the Creative Arts) in 2002. Then, in 2005, Clark became the curator of exhibitions at Arnol ni in Bristol.

“Arnolfini was really important for me. It was the model for all of those new galleries that were opening through the mid-2000s – Hepworth Wakefield, Nottingham Contemporary, Turner Contemporary – all those important galleries outside of London that emerged within a few years of each other,” he says. “The Arnolfini was credited with regenerating Bristol dockside – it was one of the UK’s most important regional galleries.”

Sadly, the gallery is now struggling, he says, due to all sorts of reasons. Clark left the Arnolfini in 2007 to take up the role the artistic director of Tate St Ives.

“I was 30 years old when I was appointed artistic director at Tate St Ives. It was a big step up for me, going in as co-director,” he says of his time working with the executive director there, Mark Osterfield. “I felt that the reason they gave me that job was to really shift and reposition that gallery, to make it much more international and much more contemporary.”

At the time, Tate St Ives was going through the first stages of redevelopment (now completed to great acclaim as the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2018). “When I arrived in St Ives, there were posters in people’s windows saying ‘Stop The Tate!’ There was a lot of public hostility to it,” he recalls. “So, there was a job to do in terms of the programme, but also to rebuild relation- ships with the town.”

Clark says that he and Osterfield had to completely rescope the project, build up community relations, fundraise about £16m, secure planning permission, get Cornwall council back on board, attract the support of key stakeholders, and then re-pitch the design of the gallery. The architect Jamie Fobert – who had proposed the prior, locally-opposed design in 2007 – won the second design competition.

“I left Tate St Ives when it was in a great position – the project was fully funded, designed and ready to go, and I’d established a strong artistic vision for the programme there for my successor to build on and develop. They later found problems with the kind of rock they had to blast out, so it was delayed by two or three years.”

Support for artists

Unlike his start at Tate, Clark has taken on Camden Arts Centre in a golden age. “Inevitably, I’ll bring my own interests and sensibility to the programme, but the programme isn’t the bit that really needs repositioning or changing,” he says.

So what is Clark’s focus going to be? “I think that I have a responsibility to protect what makes Camden so special to so many people, in an ever more challenging funding climate. But at the same time, not be afraid to change and develop in order to keep our space open for risk and innovation, to do the shows that other institutions can’t or aren’t doing, and at the same time keep support- ing young and emerging artists.”

Clark is confident that he can build on the success of Jenni Lomax and further develop the institution that he now heads. He certainly seems attached to the gallery.

“There’s something about Camden Arts Centre – the building, the programme, and the way we work with artists and audiences here that has the feel of a local gallery for the whole of London.”

Martin Clark at a glance

Martin Clark studied fine art at the University of Sheffield, and then
 an MA in curating at
the Royal College of Arts in London. He was appointed exhibitions tutor at Kent Institute
of Art and Design (now University College of the Creative Arts) in 2002.

In 2005, Clark became the curator of exhibitions at Arnolfini, Bristol, then in 2007 moved to be the artistic director of Tate St Ives. He was the director
of Bergen Kunsthall, Norway from 2013, and took up the role 
of director of Camden Arts Centre in 2017.

Camden Arts Centre at a glance
Hampstead Arts Centre (renamed Camden Arts Centre in 1967) in London was created in 1965 to provide classes in painting, life drawing, pottery, printing and basic design.

The gallery went through a refurbishment completed in early 2004 by Tony Fretton Architects, and celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015.

Camden Arts Centre is a National Portfolio Organisation, funded by the Arts Council, which provides about 40% of its budget.

The gallery currently receives around 95,000 visitors a year.

Camden Arts Centre won the category for Best Museum and Gallery at the Creative Green Awards 2017, run by the charity Julie’s Bicycle, making it one of the most sustainable galleries in London.