the ondon art world is back from its winter break and it’s immediately in full swing. The spotlight will be on museum exhibitions – Francis Bacon at the Royal Academy, Louise Bourgeois at Hayward – and commercial mega-galleries (Gagosian, White Cube, Hauser & Wirth…) with their renowned international artists. But many of the most exciting and visionary shows, featuring the most recent emerging or overlooked talent, will take place in spaces where profit is the last thing on their minds.
Located across the city, from the Chisenhale Gallery and Auto Italia to the east, to Camden Art Center to the north, and Studio Voltaire, Goldsmiths CCA and Gasworks to the south of the river, among others, the non-profit institutions of London are the cornerstone of our contemporary art ecosystem.
They are the risk takers; precursors of what will happen in our museums in the years to come. “Small organizations like ours and others of a similar size train and grow artists who end up being in the bigger institutions,” says Seema Manchanda, Managing Director of The Showroom (St John’s Wood). And they’ve been doing it for decades: Rachel Whiteread’s landmark sculpture, Ghost, the plaster cast of an entire living room, was first shown at Chisenhale (Bethnal Green) in 1990 before it was bought by Charles Saatchi and featured in Sensation at the Royal Academy. ; it is now part of the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
Yinka Shonibare CBE (RA) had her first – unforgettable – exhibition at a British public institution at the Camden Art Center in 2000, long before the letters appeared after her name. Recently notorious American video artist Jordan Wolfson had a residency at Gasworks (Oval) in 2009. I could go on. If you want to know where the art is going, what the artists are thinking, the city’s associative spaces are the place to go. Best of all, they’re free.
Their New Year’s offerings are generally enticing, international and educational (without being dry): Camden Art Center has just opened an exhibition of works by Canadian painter Allison Katz and the latest exhibition at Auto Italia (also Bethnal Green) features the Dutch cult- American queer artist Sands Murray-Wassink. This week, Goldsmiths CCA in New Cross opens its anarchic exhibition of 50 Testament artists, reflecting on the hot topic of monuments and statues; next week The Showroom hosts works by Beirut-based artist Haig Aivazian and Studio Voltaire (Clapham) opens the first UK exhibition of Stockholm-based New Yorker Every Ocean Hughes.
But this dynamic and flourishing sector has always been fragile. And the pandemic has put him under tremendous pressure. Many organizations have benefited from emergency funding from the Arts Council’s Cultural Recovery Fund. “If we didn’t have that, most organizations would have found themselves in a very difficult position right now,” says Joe Scotland, Director of Studio Voltaire. “But the concern of the organizations is actually for the next two years. Much of the funding has basically ended, or is about to end now. [And] it’s not just COVID, it’s also Brexit, and how that affects revenue streams.
In addition to public money, they all benefit from private donations, whether from individual philanthropists, foundations or corporations, but in times of crisis the number of generous donors is inevitably limited. And nonprofits are entering a crucial funding moment: in April, applications are due for Arts Council England’s next funding round.
“It’s hard for all of us in London to know that there are fewer and fewer public resources,” says Zoe Whitley, director of the Chisenhale, which will soon host an exhibition by the exciting young painter Rachel Jones. “And the last thing you want to do, or I want to do, is compete with colleagues [at other non-profits] who I think also do an excellent job, but in another register. And I think we all often have to rely on the same pool of generous individuals.
“So it’s a challenge, but a lot of it is about clearly articulating what we’re doing.” She adds, “The big, big thing is going to be seeing where the government puts its priorities going forward, because we can’t keep doing more with less. Manchada reinforces the idea of nonprofit organizations as a mutually dependent ecosystem; there is no room for sharp elbows in the sector, she says.
“The organizations we need are really the ones that do what they do well, collaboratively, and understand this concept of an interdependent art world and artistic work,” Manchanda says. Sarah McCrory, Director of Goldsmiths CCA, adds: “We all have individual voices and ways of doing things, but there is a commonality in what we do, and so support and help around issues that arise come from other people. ”
Interdependence and community are the spirit that drives these organizations. The number one community is that of artists. Still precarious – only very few artists make a lot of money from their work alone – it has been hit hard by the pandemic. As Scotland puts it, the last two years have been “almost impossible” for some artists who have lost income beyond their artistic practice. “A lot of people work in bars or in bookstores – they lost that job. And then there’s just less technical work [in galleries] – those things surrounding the industry have been really affected.
Thus, he says, “institutions must play a role in supporting artists”. Studio Voltaire, which has artist studios as a crucial part of its building, has secured funding that has allowed it to expand its Desperate Living program “around LGBTQ+ healthcare and intersection with artists” , says Scotland, and “this meant directly commissioning eight artists and providing them with income over this period”. You can see the results online.
Camden Art Centre, meanwhile, quickly established three residences for young Londoners during the first lockdown. These artists, Phoebe Collings-James, Zeinab Saleh and Adam Farah, showed their work at the center last fall. “We have never shown three young artists based in London at the same time, all from residencies,” says Martin Clark, director of Camden. “What seemed a little risky turned into one of our busiest seasons, in part because these artists have these great communities around them, their peers and their networks. Suddenly a lot of people came to Camden who don’t normally come, just wanting to support these artists. And they are also extremely impressive sights.
These stories are typical of the vital support these spaces provide to artists. And that thrives in this changed world. In recent years, the focus has been on the duty of care of institutions and how artists are treated – they are often expected to do endless work for little reward. Whitley says the Chisenhale has changed its artist compensation model, for example, as part of a “transparent ethics policy.” For a new GLA-funded, artist-led project on youth mental health with the Bernie Grant Arts Foundation in Tottenham, says Whitley, the organizations have “spent so much time on this artist brief,” in that spirit. . “I know ‘care’ sounds like an artistic buzzword right now, but it’s about finding ways to put that into practice, and a lot of that comes from asking artists what they have. need.”
This mental health initiative is typical of the community approach of these establishments. The Showroom is in central London, next to its wealthiest boroughs, but in its Church Street area, 50% of children live below the poverty line. As Showroom curator Lily Hall says, in the rush to put programs online amid the pandemic, it became apparent that contributors within the local community weren’t having online access. “That this assumption that digital is universally accessible [is false] was quite obvious,” she says. “So that’s something we’ve tried to consider and respond to and assist with.”
It’s the balance between this ‘hyperlocal’ thinking and an international perspective – many nonprofit partners with international counterparts – that helps make London’s nonprofits vital to multiple communities and audiences. It also presents a curatorial challenge. At Goldsmiths CCA, the immediate audience is made up of students from Goldsmiths, but visitors come from much further afield. “I really love that our audience is from around the corner, but also from across town and from completely different parts of the world, as well as college students,” McCrory says.
The answer to this challenge is, more often than not: be bold. “You often invite artists to do an exhibition without any parameters,” says McCrory. “As long as it fits in the building, we can afford it and we don’t kill anyone, let’s go!”