South London Art Party

On Wednesday 17 July, we hosted our South London Art Party at the newly-relocated Sid Motion Gallery in South Bermondsey! Pizza, Jude’s ice cream, Cobra beer and Nice wine were served, followed by a conversation about the evolution of the local art scene with: Chief Executive of Bold Tendencies, Hannah Barry; Director of South London Gallery, Margot Heller; and Founder & Director of Sid Motion Gallery, Sid Motion. We loved hearing their different perspectives on how the art scene has developed - from Margot who has been at the helm of South London Gallery since 2001, to Hannah who launched Bold Tendencies in 2008 to Sid who relocated her gallery to South Bermondsey just a few months’ ago! Read on for the highlights of the conversation…

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Margot on how South London has been a centre for art & artists for a long time… 

“There has always been a presence of artists in South London and I think art schools are a really key part of that - there is a long history of art schools being in the area. Also artists’ [such as] Tom Phillips, Antony Gormley, and Anish Kapoor had their studios in the area, because in those days it was possible to get studios at a much lower rate than in other parts of London. … I think the concept of the South of the river being really quite hardcore was really present in a way that it isn’t now.”

Hannah on moving to London, squatting and finding her community… 

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“There were a group of artists that I met in Chelsea Space, which was the kind of fairly independent Chelsea art school. … Through going to Chelsea Space, which for me provided a kind of escape from all sorts of different things, I met an artist called Shaun McDowell. He said he was organising an exhibition in Bar Story, which had a gallery under the arches and he asked if I wanted to come down. I followed him down there and after that I never stopped visiting.

Around the corner, there was a house [Lyndhurst Way] where a lot of these artists who Shaun knew were living and working. It was a house, that was a very large grade two listed building, that was in the middle of waiting for planning permission for it to be developed into whatever the owner wanted it to become! One of the artists had a care-taking agreement [with the owner] so, strictly speaking it wasn’t squatting! … I had never been part of something with artists of my own generation and it provided a real welcome. I suddenly felt at home in the city in a way that I hadn’t for the two years that I had been in London after university.”

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Sid on moving her gallery to South London…

“I ran the gallery for two and a half years on York Way in King’s Cross so I was across the road from Central Saint Martins, which was an interesting connection for me and a lot did, and still does, come from that. But … I was rather isolated.”

“To tell you the truth, this [Sid Motion Gallery] is a studio … The Penarth Centre, which is what we are sitting in, has 14 artists. The Penarth Centre is one of three studio blocks on this road! Footfall hasn’t changed but what happens now is I’m around artists who want to be involved. … That’s a really lovely thing.”

“The move for a gallery like mine to South London, where the overheads are different and yes, the everyday footfall is more artists and less potential clients, … but for a gallery like mine to make a decision like that [to move to South London] allows me to consider art fairs, I just couldn’t have done that before.”

Hannah on setting up her commercial gallery…

“To cut a very long story short, I started helping those artists organise exhibitions in their house in Lyndhurst Way. I was the only person who liked to do administrative things – so I was sort of writing the list of works, printing it out, organising the drinks at the opening and so on. Eventually, the house came forward for planning permission and the landlord said “Hey, had a great time, thanks for looking after it but it’s over.” At that point, there seemed to be an amazing momentum and I had no idea about what it meant to run a gallery. I had no intention to run a gallery at all, but I felt a sense of responsibly to the momentum of the artists and the work that they were making. So I opened a gallery not really knowing what I was letting myself in for. And at the same time, the last show of Lyndhurst Way was actually the first ‘Bold Tendencies’ exhibition.”

Margot on South London Gallery’s location and role in the community…

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“When I started in the gallery, it had this magnificent main space and my predecessor, David Thorpe, did a really amazing job at putting it on the map. I had been to most shows there although I’d never lived in the area, it was somewhere I felt was worth making the trip for. ... I had a real love for it and I thought it had huge potential because artists love that space, it’s something about the quality of light in the space, the history and the proportions.

I thought the location being next to Camberwell, backing onto a housing estate and in a really residential area with lots of schools within walking distance, presented an opportunity to prove that you could have an internationally acclaimed contemporary art programme that was quite uncompromising and be a completely valued resource by all sorts of people on your doorstep. This includes people who at the outset think they have no interest whatsoever in contemporary art, or would even feel quite alienated by the idea of going into a gallery. It was quite an idealistic vision, but I think if you chip away at things for long enough then change does happen. So far it’s been 18 years, which isn’t that fast, but it really shows in terms of the audience and the degree of integration.”

Hannah on how she got access to the multi-storey car park that is now home to Bold Tendencies… 

“I became interested in looking at buildings that were closed … I just got to know the man who ran the buildings office at the then Peckham Town Centre … From time to time we would go and see all sorts of interesting, funny places - most of them were really great to be inside but totally unusable.

Then one day, I had never realised that behind the cinema was this really long, tall and wide space that was the car park. We went up through the top gates, which had been closed since the 90s when the supermarket had moved out. I was immediately struck, not by the top level with its spectacular view but by these long spaces underneath that were covered. … Then I brought a number of artists who I knew to come and see it and it was them who convinced me to start the sculpture project that we aimed to do.”

Margot on the new expansion of South London Gallery…

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“I wasn’t looking to expand South London Gallery but at the same time, the impact of the 2010 expansion was such that we were finding it difficult to cope with the demand on that event space. When I got the phone call and the “I’d like to give you this fire station and bring it into use for the gallery,” there was this coincidence of need and an amazing opportunity which now we have, five years later, been able to open to the public. The thinking behind the approach to that space really was born out of everything that came before and this integration of the international and the local. We had to think about how to extend all of that into a second building without killing off what we’d done in the main space. … It was about maintaining the main space we had, and thinking of the fire station as an annex. We also included a kitchen, dining space and a flexible space that we can work with different people and groups in different ways, and be a bit more open and receptive to people’s suggestions curatorially.”

Hannah on why she built Frank’s… 

“It was actually born out of an infrastructure challenge. The reason we decided to get involved and build Frank’s in 2009 was simply because we had been doing the project for a couple of years, and as spectacular and wonderful as that site is, it is also at times extremely hostile, even in the sun! My idea was that perhaps we needed to make a way that people can sit down and have a drink. Then they can stay longer and can meet people here, and they won’t just come and go. … Certainly with Frank’s we’ve gone through a lot of ups and downs and come out the other side in a really interesting position, because of course Frank’s Café provides us with the revenue stream that liberates us.”

Sid on how she opens up her gallery to the wider community…

“The gallery needs to be an active part of the community. We host dinners and talks here, and we want to be able to make the gallery a hub. This means that it can spread its tentacles wider than just putting on a curated show and having one opening and letting the rest do the talking.”

Hannah on the future of Bold Tendencies…

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“I always thought Bold Tendencies would have a very limited life and I had come to terms with it being an impermanent project. We had made a plan that it was going to end in 2021. Then there was a U-turn in the council … Bold Tendencies was offered the opportunity to have a much longer term lease on the building, which would turn our temporary life into a pretty permanent life. … Of course this brought us to face lots of interesting challenges as an organisation in terms of planning for the future. Most importantly, I had a conflicting view on whether we should complete the project and say it is done or move forward. The decision that drove the acceptance of a long-term extension was the opportunity to protect a space that had become a civic space in a city where public civic space is increasingly endangered. … I love this idea that the civic world is going to become ever more important - places for people to gather together in a straightforward way.”

Photos by Luke Fullalove.