To mark Camden Arts Centre’s 50th anniversary, leading international artists have donated pieces to help fund its important work. Here, its director Jenni Lomax talks to Meredith Etherington-Smith about how the centre inspires art, and the artists involved in the auctions
Two past winners of the Turner Prize, alongside Britain’s representative at the 2017 Venice Biennale, are among the international artists who have donated works that will be auctioned to help secure the Camden Arts Centre’s vital role as a resource for the making of art. Founded by artists in 1965, the centre has become internationally renowned for placing the artist at the heart of everything it does. Since 1990, it has been under the celebrated leadership of Director Jenni Lomax OBE.
Lomax graduated from the Maidstone School of Art before moving to London, where she began teaching in art schools and working on art projects with young people. Rather than becoming an artist herself, she became interested in education, and spent a period at the Whitechapel Gallery setting up and running its pioneering community education programme.
‘Nurturing the artists of the future is central to Camden Arts Centre’s vision for the next 50 years,’ Lomax explains. ‘Proceeds from this auction will establish an Artists for Artists fund to support our future artist-led projects and residency programmes, ensuring that the Centre’s unique and independent voice continues to be heard, and that artists have time and space to take risks and pursue their ideas and dreams.’
Here, Jenni Lomax looks back over her quarter of a century at the Camden Arts Centre, recalling some of the artists she has worked with and discussing her highlights from the sales.
Why do you think it is so important that the public should experience artists at work, rather than art simply hanging on the wall of a gallery or museum?
Jenni Lomax: ‘I think it is vital to understand how artists think about the world they live in. If you just see art on the wall there’s pleasure, but if you have an understanding of the way they are thinking, or the forces that they are drawing on, it gives you a richer understanding of their actual work processes. I think this is more enriching than when you see writing around the work. I am very interested in the physicality of the artwork rather than experiencing it through the filter of an art historical perspective. Being familiar with how the artist has gone about his or her work means you can relate to it more personally.’
What do you think artists get from their practices being so exposed?
JL: ‘Our artists in residence are not on call all the time — the artists have a say in when and how they want to interact with visitors. On the whole, I think most artists enjoy that broader conversation about the way they think and where ideas are coming from.’
How many of the artists in the live auction (7 October) and online sale (4-13 October) did you nurture? Let’s start with the artists featured in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Auction on 7 October.
JL: ‘Glenn Ligon had his first public exhibition in London at the Camden Arts Centre. He was already an important international artist, so I can hardly claim to have nurtured him. However, showing at Camden gave him an opportunity to present three new works, and it allowed him to think differently from if he had been showing in a gallery or museum. He had just had a huge retrospective at the Whitney, and to have your life there in front of you had taken a lot out of him, I think. The opportunity to experiment a bit with where his work was going next was really nice for us — it meant we got something very new and straight from the studio.’
What about Wolfgang Tillmans?
JL: ‘Wolfgang Tillmans has always been very supportive of what we do. He is going to curate an exhibition for us next year. His will be the next in our longstanding series of artist-curated shows which look inside the artist’s head and offer insights into the way they think.’
Toby Ziegler ‘has been in a group show at Camden Arts Centre and is somebody who is on our list for the future. He is yet to show with us but is part of the family — his studio is local to us.
‘Phyllida Barlow [Britain’s representative artist at the 2017 Venice Biennale] was an exhibitor at Camden before my time — quite early on in her career, in fact. She has been involved in our programmes and has given wonderful talks. She is an amazing person and an inspirational artist — her work just gets better and better. The work she has contributed to the day sale is really beautiful.’
Donations towards the online auction (27 October to 3 November) include works by Hurvin Anderson, Karin Mamma Anderson, Martin Creed, Thomas Hirschhorn, Kerry James Marshall, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Wilhem Sasnal and David Shrigley. What can you tell us about your relationships with these artists?
JL: ‘Hurvin Anderson was in the same group show as Toby Ziegler in 2006 and is a regular visitor to Camden through his friendships with Glenn Ligon and Kerry James Marshall. He is another artist who would be on our wish list for the future, and who I feel is part of the Camden Arts Centre family.’
‘Martin Creed was artist-in-residence very early on and spent his whole time in the studio making music and screwing up bits of paper and scattering them around the building. He had a show with us in 1999, and that was the first time he did his light-going-on-and-off piece throughout the whole building — before he put it on at the Tate. We had neighbours ringing in to tell us that something was wrong with our electrics!’
‘Michelangelo Pistoletto, a part of of the Arte Povera movement in Italy, is a very important artist to me and to Camden. In 1991 he presented his Minus Objects. We were only just beginning to show more international work at the time. And this was the first time that this seminal group of works had been shown all together in this country.
‘Christopher Wool showed here in 2004 at a point when he was shifting his approach to surface and paint. He had been known for his big text paintings and was experimenting with much more pared-back abstract work. He filled the whole of Gallery One with these new paintings hanging side by side along the walls. It was incredible — and the first time many people had seen this new body of work. I think Camden is a place where artists feel at home enough to introduce new phases and thoughts.’
What are the most satisfying things about your artist-in-residence programme, the shows you put on and the education programmes you run?
JL: ‘It is a real privilege to be able to have the most wonderful artists exhibiting and working in the building, and to be able to go up every day and look at their work in the galleries or in the studio. One idea leads to another and informs the future shape of the programme. To have the artists in residence here means there is even more of a sense of engagement — with all the team and our visitors. I loved the atmosphere of art school so it is satisfying to bring that creativity — both thinking and making — into the building. It seeps into the walls; people recognise it when they come into the building. There is something that goes on here that goes beyond just showcasing artists’ work — there is a kind of raw energy that you can feel.’