26 Sep, 2009

Deptford, home of London’s newest art scene

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Twenty years after the YBAs launched their careers there, a new generation of artists is putting Deptford on the cultural map once again

Ever since an ambitious group of students from Goldsmiths School of Art in New Cross Gate staged a makeshift show called Freeze in 1988, Deptford has been a landmark on the London art map. That exhibition featured, of course, many of the people who went on to become part of the Young British Artists movement – including Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Abigail Lane and the late Angus Fairhurst. Thanks to their extraordinary zeal, and the radical way in which their tutors, most notably Michael Craig-Martin, ran the fine art department, Deptford became a kind of mecca.

Granted, most of the YBAs hopped on the overland to Shoreditch as soon as the ink on their degree certificates had dried, but, two decades on, Deptford seems to be cool once more – at least according to the New York Times, who published an article earlier this year praising the area’s “boisterous concoction of blue-collar aesthetics and intermittent hipsterism”, and championing it as London’s next tourist hotspot.

It didn’t take long for some to ridicule the idea. Yet, for all the scorn, one thing is undeniable – the last six months have seen galleries springing up across and around Deptford, ranging from small husband-and-wife teams creating ad-hoc spaces above pubs to large collectives commissioning group shows from a variety of artists. In true Goldsmith’s style, many are punching well above their weight, promoting themselves with the same kind of savvy that saw Hirst and his ilk dragging collectors and dealers to the Surrey Docks some 20 years ago.

The heart of London’s contemporary art scene remains in the East End: between them Hoxton, Dalston and Bethnal Green contain some 50 galleries. Yet the credit crunch has taken its toll. Landlords who were once happy for artists and galleries to inhabit their empty buildings for nominal rents cannot afford to make such concessions these days. Studios in Hackney have been demolished to make way for the Olympic Park, and there has also been an exodus of established galleries moving to the West End, lured by the international buyers who haunt the Frieze Art fair in Regents Park. Publicly funded spaces like The Showroom have also left in search of new parts of London.

Julia Alvarez of Bearspace Gallery, situated on Deptford High Street, suggests that an area like Deptford, with its abundance of warehouses hugging the Thames along Creekside, is a tempting alternative to more established artistic centres in the East End. Property prices are still relatively affordable, for one thing, and nearly all the galleries in the area own their own buildings. “Many of us are ex-Goldsmiths graduates who know the area well, and few of us could have afforded the rental prices in Hackney,” Alvarez says. “There’s a huge advantage to buying your own gallery space.”

A few doors down the road at Gallop Space, the young owner Harry Richardson – who is covered in dust from installing the space when I speak to him – agrees. “There is a real community spirit,” he says. “There is also the added luxury that you can call the shots. You’re not at the whim of a landlord.”

There’s something else that sets the area’s galleries apart, too: their open-mindedness about what an art space should do. Gallop, who promote young up-and-coming designers, are installing a cafe in their tiny shop-cum-gallery. Another group, Bearspace, who largely exhibit works on paper, run a bookshop; SE8, who have a rolling platform of commissioned artworks inspired by the German expressionist cabinet of curiosities, stage screening nights; while Arch Gallery, which is situated inside a cavernous railway arch on Resolution Way, has a sideline in selling art materials. The Old Police Station, based – as its name suggests – in an abandoned cop shop opposite Deptford Green School, has retained many of the building’s original features: the cells have been turned into meeting rooms, and the interrogation unit is currently serving as the building’s technology centre. It funds itself by running a restaurant and letting out studios. It’s this kind of canniness that has allowed many galleries to stay afloat during a recession.

The not-for-profit studio collective APT Gallery has been renting out cheap spaces to artists for more than 20 years, and runs an open submissions gallery programme in which artists such as Mark Wallinger are invited to select the exhibitions programme. APT’s director, Liz May, suggests that another reason galleries in Deptford are prospering is because they don’t compete, but collaborate. “We’re out on a limb here, so we can’t expect people to walk in off the street,” she says. “We have to work together. There’s very little rivalry.”

She might just be right. One of the Deptford galleries’ success stories is the series of Last Fridays, in which all the art spaces stay open late for screenings and talks (not to mention an afterparty at the Old Police Station, which invariably descends into a raucous affair of performances and impromptu happenings). Another is the Deptford Art Map online, which was initiated by Alvarez but became a joint effort involving – and funded by – the area’s artistic community as a way of encouraging visitors to explore.

Following the launch, organisations including the Contemporary Art Society, who run walks for art lovers across the city, have been in touch, wanting to add the area to their itineraries. “It’s exciting,” says Alvarez. “It really does feel like the art radar is turning this way, and with the East London line extension opening, many more people will hopefully be encouraged down here. Our plan is to be ready for them when that happens.”

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