The South London Gallery, now 125 years old, has shown established international figures such as Anselm Kiefer, Chris Burden, Tracey Emin, Thomas Hirschhorn and Steve McQueen, alongside younger and mid-career artists such as Thea Djordjadze, Ryan Gander, Kipwani Kiwanga and Oscar Murillo.
The unique place it holds in the hearts of its local population, London artists and the international art community has been evidenced by some extraordinary recent gifts which look set to herald an exciting new era for one of London’s best-loved community galleries.
In September 2015, an anonymous benefactor donated the old Peckham Road Fire Station (above, right) to the art centre, a four-storey Grade II listed building and the country’s earliest surviving example of a purpose-built fire station.
The gallery now needs to raise £4m to renovate the Fire Station and establish a fund to support the building’s future running costs. The immediate success of the SLG’s application to the UK’s Heritage Lottery Fund is indicative of the importance and credibility of the project, with £1.5million pledged towards the overall target if match funds are secured by June 2016.
As part of the drive to reach that target, two artists with a close association with the gallery have been exceptionally generous in donating major works to be auctioned in aid of the SLG’s expansion into the former Fire Station: Tracey Emin, who had her first solo show in a London public institution at the SLG, and Sir Antony Gormley, whose studio was in the area for many years and has been a long-time supporter of the SLG. All proceeds from the sales will go directly to the project, which Christie’s is proud to be supporting.
Antony Gormley, Reserve II, 2015. Cast iron. 84 5/8 x 18 7/8 x 14 5/8 in. (214 x 48 x 37 cm.). Estimate: £250,000-350,000. This work is offered in the Post-war and Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 11 February at Christie’s in London
Here, Margot Heller, SLG’s director for the past 15 years, tells Florence Waters about the gallery’s ambitious plans.
Tell us about the new space. What might appeal to artists?
Margot Heller: There isn’t another gallery building in London quite like it. What’s interesting about it is that the firemen used to live on the premises with their families so lots of the spaces are quite domestic in scale, and on the ground floor there’s a large room where the horse-drawn fire engines were kept.
Rivane Neuenschwander, Suspension Point, 2008. Installation view at the South London Gallery, 2008. Photo: Andy Keate
Artists’ responses to the space are important to you, aren’t they?
When I first started at the South London Gallery in 2001 there were four people working here and we had less than no money, but artists still said yes when I asked them to do a show. They’d see the space and context and be inspired by it.
All sorts of artists have shown here, ranging from emerging artists through to big names like Anselm Kiefer, Steve McQueen and Chris Burden. I think that’s got a lot to do with the space and location. The fire station is really going to build on that as it has the very strong character of its history.
Thomas Hirschhorn, In-Between, 2015. Installation view at the South London Gallery. Photo: Mark Blower
The SLG’s main space has been transformed many times over: Thomas Hirschorn’s apocalyptic world in ruins, Pae White’s walk-through weave, Rivane Neuenschwander’s beautiful divided space, to name but a few…
I don’t think we’ve ever not manage to realise what an artist wanted to achieve. In 2009 the Danish installation art collective Superflex told me they wanted to make a full scale replica of McDonalds and flood it. At that point, I paused... But in the end we collaborated with other institutions and managed to raise the funds to produce the film Flooded McDonalds, which was a fantastic success.
Which show has been the biggest hit?
[Laughs] I can’t come up with a blockbuster moment because it hasn’t worked like that here. There have been many great shows, but our approach has always been to combine international credibility with a commitment to working with local residents. We’re currently working across five housing estates, for example, as well as with numerous schools, social services, parents with mental health issues, and on many other community initiatives.
You’re being modest, because audience figures have risen hugely in recent years
After our small expansion in 2010 into a neighbouring house and new studio space our figures jumped from 25,000 to 140,000 annual visitors. The architects 6a won a New London Architecture Award for the job as well as being nominated for major national architecture awards. [6a have been re-employed to manage the fire station conversion.] So I’m confident this next expansion phase will have a very significant impact, at least doubling our figures within the first three years of opening.
Do you think the community work you do is part of the appeal for some artists?
I do, especially when it comes to attracting the most established artists. We’re excited to be working with Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco on a new permanent garden linking the gallery with the housing estate behind it: it feels like quite a coup that he’s so committed to the project. I hope it will encapsulate our ongoing drive to work with world-renowned artists on projects which also have great resonance locally.
Installation view of Tracey Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, 1963–1995 (detail) created for the exhibition, Minky Manky, 1995 at the South London Gallery. © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2016.
How do you explain the loyalty of someone like Tracey Emin?
Tracey has been very important in the history of the gallery. The SLG first showed her work in 1990 [when she was just 27]. Her famous tent, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-95 was commissioned for the group exhibition Minky Manky in 1995, following which she had her first ever show at a London institution here. I remember it well as I had to queue up to get in to the opening night — and I’m glad I did because it was an unforgettable experience.
Tracey Emin, Always More, 2015. Red and pink neon. 59 3/4 x 22 3/8 in. (152 x 56.8 cm.). Estimate: £40,000-60,000. This work is offered in the Post-war and Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 11 February at Christie’s in London
Ever since she’s been fantastically supportive, most recently donating her work Always More (2015), which is beautifully poignant given the cause of the auction.
SLG is still a great champion of emerging artists. Bonnie Camplin was shortlisted for the most recent Turner Prize for the work she did at the SLG. Oscar Murillo, who only graduated from the RCA in 2012, had a show at the SLG in 2013 and within just two years achieved global recognition. How do you do this?
I have to say it was exceptional to invite someone like Oscar Murillo so early in a career to have a solo show in our main space, but I found the studio visit with him so inspiring that I felt he could rise to the challenge, and he really did.
Superflex, Flooded McDonalds, 2009. Video, 15 minutes. First exhibited at South London Gallery. Photo: Mark Blower
Overall, it’s the mix between artists at different stages of their career which characterises the programme. The various elements (shows, film screenings, performance, talks, off-site projects and education programmes) nourish the whole, and have made the SLG grow in the way that it has. It’s grown incrementally — and in response to need and demand, but not without ambition and very much inspired by artists’ ideas. I think artists hold the gallery in great affection. They seem to really believe in it – in its importance.
Antony Gormley describes the SLG as the ‘catalyst for Peckham and Camberwell becoming the artistic hotspot that it now is’...
He should know as he used to have a studio up the road and he’s been a regular visitor over the years. We’re extremely lucky that he’s donated such an important work, one of his architectonic figures, Reserve II (2015).
Main image at top, left: South London Gallery. Photo: Andy Stagg. Right: Peckham Road Fire Station, 1905. Photo: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London
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