South London Gallery

The South London Gallery may have an international reputation, but it draws much of its strength from local sources, says Nicky Ryan
Nicky Ryan

“Cool roof terrace – could we get a glass balustrade like that?” “Love the stripped brickwork in the bathroom and the exposed wooden joists in the bedroom.” “I wonder if you can buy those metal pendant lights anywhere?”

The comments made by visitors to the recently refurbished South London Gallery would initially seem to be more appropriate for a domestic property renovation than an art gallery. However, the permeable boundaries between interior architecture and art are particularly apposite here.

As part of a brief to develop a neighbouring Victorian house that the gallery had inherited from Southwark Council, the architect 6a was asked to create a flat for a programme of artist residencies.

So wall paintings and cut-outs by Henna Nadeem, Sam Dargan and Brian Chalkley are juxtaposed with bed, kitchen and bathroom fittings. Art is literally embedded within the fabric of the building, and highlights the close relationship between the artists’ output and the spaces for living, working and display.

Founded in 1891, the creation of 65 Peckham Road was an act of Victorian philanthropy that aimed to bring art to the working classes. In the same way as the Whitechapel Gallery, which reopened in April 2009 following a £10.6m refurbishment and expansion, the South London Gallery has been reborn as a larger, multi-functional arts venue.

Both galleries are located in the midst of thriving artistic communities, the former in the East End of London and the latter next to Camberwell College of Arts.

Local focus

The celebration and dissemination of the work of living artists has been central to the South London Gallery’s mission from the outset. It began by showing a changing programme of fine and applied art, and also started collecting works, many of which were related to the local area.

The gallery built a reputation for hosting nationally and internationally significant contemporary-art exhibitions, live art events and off-site projects. These were supported by workshops, events, artist talks and outreach activities.

The gallery uses artists for a variety of reasons: for publicity; to animate its spaces and enliven the visitor experience; to bring in new audiences; and to involve community groups in improving the local area.

The South London Gallery was set up as “a gallery for the people of south London, open to the public free and on Sundays”. It continues as a community centre, with artists operating as facilitators of public exchange.

Recent projects have included six artists taking up residency in a former shop unit on the neighbouring 1950s Sceaux Gardens housing estate, where they ran weekly workshops and held a participatory event at the end of each residency.

Building a strong sense of place that responds to its physical environment and offers the neighbourhood a vibrant cultural resource underpins 6a’s refurbishment. Before 6a was commissioned, there was a plan to demolish the adjacent terraced house and construct an iconic entrance designed by architect Will Alsop.

This scheme was ended by a lack of funding and it was replaced by a more modest renovation and expansion project costing £2m. The result is that the main space, including the stunning original exhibition hall, has been left untouched. Instead, three architectural interventions are located around the site.

New wing

The Victorian house has been restored and extended to form the Matsudaira Wing, which incorporates a street-facing cafe on the ground floor, three small project rooms on the first floor and an artists’ flat on the top floor.

The new buildings include a double-height room linking the house to the main space, and the Clore Studio, an education centre that has extended the capacity for teaching and outreach activities.

As in the Whitechapel Gallery revamp, the trend towards flashy architecture has been rejected in favour of reusing existing buildings and by maintaining a dialogue between the old and new.

In Nothing is Forever (25 June-19 September), an exhibition that celebrated the completion of the building project and drew attention to the gallery’s new and existing spaces, art was created directly on the walls by 20 British and international artists.

As the title suggests, the art on display was transitory and did not survive beyond the lifespan of the show. Instead, it has been hidden by a covering of paint and exists only in photographs and in memory, a historical marker of the artists’ creative response to the gallery’s refurbishment.

The artists’ flat was open to the public during Nothing is Forever, but is a private space during periods of residency. I was struck by the lack of any trace of the artist Sam Porritt, other than his work – a conceptual landscape including stones, peanuts and snippets of hair he cut while staying there for three nights.

The flat is more like the space of a stylish boutique or art hotel than the locus and emblematic site of “creativity”. If this is the contemporary equivalent of the artist’s garret, then it is a four-star version, with cutting-edge design and terrific views across the city.

In his essay The Function of the Studio (1970-71), conceptual artist Daniel Buren announced the demise of the studio, arguing that art produced in this context failed to engage with the site – the museum or gallery – where it would eventually be shown.

Today, a vast range of studios exist – whether isolated sanctuary, shop, office, social space or home – but artists’ dependence on galleries to provide a means of reaching new audiences remains as acute as ever. The good news for artists offered a residency at the South London Gallery is that they have not only got their foot in the door, but they’ve actually moved in.

Nicky Ryan is the principal lecturer in cultural and critical studies at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts, London

Project data

Cost £2m
Main funders Helen Thorpe, Arts Council England, Southwark Council, Garfield Weston Foundation, Clore Duffield Foundation, Outset Contemporary Art Fund, John Armleder, Nigel Cooke, Foundation for Sport and the Arts, City Bridge Trust, Foyle Foundation, Edwin Fox Foundation, Christie’s, Trusthouse Charitable Foundation, Reed Foundation, Ironmongers’ Foundation, Heritage of London Trust, Idlewild Trust, H and G de Freitas Charitable Trust, Girdlers’ Company, unnamed gallery benefactors
Architect 6a
Main contractor John Perkins Projects

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