A whole new neighbourhood of art: Tate Modern invigorates the South Bank

Giles Waterfield, former director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, looks at this witty and non-judgemental enterprise, one of many visual art developments already around the future Tate Gallery of Modern Art


Large artistic institutions have a way of attracting a shoal of smaller enterprises to their orbit. In London, the Royal Academy’s move from Trafalgar Square to Piccadilly in the 1860s stimulated a reorganisation of the art world with many commercial galleries relocating from the Strand to Bond Street.

It looks as though the forthcoming opening of the Tate Gallery of Modern Art will have a similar effect on the South Bank where until recently the rugged Hayward Gallery (not welcoming to its neighbours) has been the visual arts’ principal representative.

The situation is changing with the emergence of a range of new galleries on the Thames, from Vauxhall to Bermondsey. Several galleries—including the Jerwood Gallery and the Zandra Rhodes Foundation’s forthcoming Fashion Museum—are located in this part of London. Idealistically motivated spaces for displaying contemporary art include Milch and Gasworks in Vauxhall, which aim to provide studios and show the work of younger artists, while Camberwell’s South London Gallery has been vigorously revived as a south London counterpart to the Whitechapel.

One of the most important contributors to the revival of the South Bank is Coin Street Community Builders, established in the 1980s from several community groups opposed to the wholly commercial development of the district between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge. Now the owner of eight separate sites, Coin Street aims to create a mixture of low-cost housing, public spaces (particularly gardens) and commercial use in this relatively unformed area of central London. Working with the local council and local businesses in a remarkable union of public and private funding, the group has recently redeveloped Oxo Tower Wharf and is currently working on the carpark site behind London Weekend Television.

In recent months Coin Street has embarked on a new enterprise, the “Museum Of...”. Coin Street had intended to create a museum devoted to the River Thames in a former Victorian warehouse called the Bargehouse, seriously derelict for some years.

Clare Patey, an artist whose portfolio includes a period as artist in residence for Friends of the Earth, was then invited to propose an event which would suggest how a local museum could be created.

Boldly, in January 1998, she recommended a programme of five related exhibitions within the Bargehouse, exploring the nature of museums and collections and considering how such a museum could be related to Coin Street’s aims to create a humane, balanced district, functioning both as a community and as a centre for London arts and entertainments. Never short of enterprise, the board of Coin Street approved her proposals a week later and work on the derelict building, begun almost immediately, was completed three days before the first exhibition opened in November. It was a remarkable demonstration of how rapidly results can be achieved outside bureaucratic public structures.

This event, the “Museum of collectors”, aimed to investigate collecting as a personal enthusiasm and indeed obsession. Forty-two collections were put on display, mostly belonging to local people, including such enthusiasms as plastic monsters, Dolly Parton, and buttons. Clare Patey worked with a team which included Cathy Wren, a designer with a theatre background. Each collection was given a discrete area, wittily installed, so that, for example, the plastic monsters were shown in traditional South Kensington cases, approached through a thick curtain and lit by unearthly waxing and waning light, while the collection of hundreds of buttons was arranged on long coral-like strings in decorative patterns.

The effect of the exhibition in the undecorated warehouse was certainly unexpected. The installation celebrated the individual collections and their owners (whose photographs and credos featured), while the design created a subtly distancing and visually elegant effect. Here and there on the walls, in allusion to the slogans of a Victorian institution, texts from Baudrillard or Benjamin questioned human motives for collecting.

The “Museum of me”, the second exhibition (until 3 October), explores the nature of personality through dreams, secrets, appearances, gender, using personal possessions such as diaries and clothes, commissioned works of art and the visitors’ own contributions which will be canned and exhibited to create an individual time capsule. Since the Museum Of... believes in expanding into other media, the exhibition is accompanied by theatrical events, particularly dance, performed on the building’s empty fourth floor.

This is not an expensive enterprise. The artistic budget for each exhibition is around £15,000, raised from the Arts Council and from sponsors captivated by the freshness of the Museum Of...’s approach: for this exhibition, Heinz have provided generous sponsorship in kind (tins).

At a time when museums are under frequent aggressive scrutiny, the Museum Of... is remarkable for its humorous and non-judgmental questioning of preconceptions of the nature of museums and the authority they encapsulate, as well as the changed status of an object when it enters the museum context. This is “accessibility” at its best, not rejecting older or more difficult cultures, as the cruder exponents of accessibility tend to do, but imaginatively creating an original experience which can appeal to many audiences in many ways and crossing boundaries into other disciplines.

In its aim to create new audiences and commission new work, as well as to bring life to an abandoned building, the Museum Of... has already succeeded and deserves to succeed further. In its own way and for the time being at least, it is one of the most remarkable things the South Bank has to offer.

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Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A whole new neighbourhood of art'