One July afternoon in 1993, the 23-year-old founder of London gallery Factual Nonsense, Joshua Compston, staged an eccentric street fair called A Fête Worse than Death in the heart of Shoreditch. It comprised artists, not galleries. Last week, some of the participants gathered at Whitechapel Gallery to talk “Art and London’s East End,” and to discuss whether the scrappy ole’ days might return to the very professional and serious neighborhoods.
Amidst all the nostalgia, it was hard not to discuss how far they’d come! Maureen Paley (now of Maureen Paley Gallery), Greg Muir (a director of Hauser and Wirth), Kate MacGarry (Kate MacGarry Gallery), and Iwona Blazwick (Director of Whitechapel Gallery) all have moved up the ranks with their neighborhood. Blazwick set the stage with an abridged history of Twentieth Century East London, which began as a cargo yard. The onset of the plastic container made it “a ghost town, a vast track of uninhabited land.” Plastic, it seems, made the art boom possible.
The original “fete” was rife with well-known YBA, with whom Compston was subsequently inextricably linked. Damien Hirst rented out his spin-painting equipment for £1 and signed the resultant artworks; Tracy Emin read palms; and Gary Hume dresses up as a Mexican bandit and selling tequila slammers. These were the glory days of the art scene of East London’s Shoreditch and Hoxton neighborhoods, with their cheap rents and huge, derelict Victorian warehouses up for grabs.
Paley came onto the scene in the late 70s, a New Yorker fresh from the Royal College for the Arts, and in 1984 opened the project space Interim Art. “One of the things that was most astounding and interesting were the developments in the Lower East Side, which was in many ways parallel to the East End here,” she said, sporting her trademark beehive hairstyle and dressed in black. She got her start in an abandoned house assigned by a London-based charity (“a derelict space filled with gloom,” with no plumbing or electricity) and drew inspiration from artist-run galleries in New York like Nature Morte. Blazwick fondly recalled “Window wall ceiling floorshow,” a 1985 group show organized by Paley: “a definitive show that just spilled out of the house and under the bridge and around the street.”
For his part, Muir lived a “sub-Acme” existence, meaning he couldn’t afford even the subsidized rents. He eventually founded Lux Gallery in 1997 to promote emerging video artists, among them KutluÄ? Ataman. Muir praised the recession of the era,and the Hackney Council-in whose borough both Hoxton and Shoreditch are located: “a phenomenally strange, radical and experimental council that was hosting a massive weekend rave party for under-16s.” It included a “lady who was very good at getting cash to artists and getting little projects going.”
West Londoners slowly but surely trickled in via limos for private views, culminating with Jay Jopling’s White Cube 2 opening in Hoxton Square in 2002. At this point, Lux Gallery couldn’t make the rent and shut down.
Kate MacGarry opened her gallery in 2002 when “the scene was already set.” Still she laments that while “the East End has managed to hold out to the High Street, a lot of designer stores have popped up,” notable on Vyner Street, where she’s set up shop. “Squatting has always been the bottom line,” she said.
The Olympics loom. For MacGarry it was “all about sustainability,” while confessing confusion about “how to marry art and sport.” Muir shot back, “I can’t bear sports! That’s why I’m in the art world.” He added, more helpfully, “The interesting side of the East End is it has been such a micro level development, albeit on the remains of former state projects, on the remains of an empire.” Paley broached the public money spent on huge projects like the failed Millennium Dome, which, “would have been better spent on Tate Modern.”
The Q&A session proved interesting and disconcerting. All four speakers passionately rebuked the ideas of Paley offered that “It’s interesting this has come up, because I know that [Frieze founder]Matthew Slotover [is] talking to the mayor’s office and a number of different bodies now… We need to make it clear now that the level of tourism, the level of revenue it’s bringing in, the fact that these communities are often self-sufficient, and that they are allowing other areas to develop.” Blazwick spoke out against “a monoculture, where giant multinationals just roll out across the city and it just becomes a bland multinational offer and all the individuality an area has and what artists bring are lost.”
One man asked early on, “What do artists who are living in a city they can no longer afford to do? …Young artists… don’t have time to make art anymore, in a city where it’s very difficult to get working space and living space.” After some mumbling, Muir bashfully that “it’s a very good point that you’ve made.” Blazwick offered the anecdote of a group of recently graduated Goldsmiths students, “who persuaded Southwark Council to give them this enormous building, the Wind Mill, with very reasonable rent. They’re running it as a cooperative. I think these things are still possible, particularly now.”