Gilbert Prousch and George Passmore, better known as Gilbert & George, moved into their home, just off Brick Lane in the east of London, in 1968.
“It was a shithole, full of damaged people,” George says of the area. “We came here because it was cheap and we couldn’t afford anywhere better. But we stayed because it was romantic.”
Now, 55 years after they moved in, they have opened a permanent exhibition centre that will be dedicated to their art. The Gilbert & George Centre, on Heneage Street, just off Brick Lane and directly adjacent to the Prince of Spitalfields public house, will open on 1 April. It has been converted from a brewery that dates back to around 1820, and sits next to the artists’ home and studio of many years, a restored Georgian house, on neighbouring Fournier Street.
“It came very slowly, but also straight out of the blue,” Gilbert says of the building's formation. The centre has been almost ten years in the making. In 2015, the trustees of the museum, which include the artists, acquired the building for approximately £5m. The centre is a registered charity, established by the artists in 2017, and is jointly managed by the trustees. Construction work started in June 2020.
The centre has been designed by SIRS Architects to mimic the exterior designs of Gilbert and George’s restored Georgian home. It comprises three exhibition spaces over three levels, spanning a total of 280 sq. m, which will host a revolving programme of new and historical work by the artists. There will be no admission charge for the majority of the programme.
“It’s a place for us to show our living journey as artists,” Gilbert says. That journey continues. Gilbert tells The Art Newspaper that the pair will be holding a major show at the Hayward Gallery, on London’s Southbank, likely in 2025.
“We will just show 21st Century Pictures series. One very specific group of images that’s never been shown here in the UK,” George says of the show.
“Just images made over the last 23 years,” Gilbert adds. “Just from this century, and only this century.”
The Hayward show will surely attract the crowds. Gilbert & George, gay men born during the Second World War and raised in households of humble means, have grown to become two of the most distinctive and recognisable cultural figures in the UK. They have also become synonymous with an area now closely associated with the UK’s most progressive contemporary art.
“When art dealers came to our studio to look at our work, in 1975, we would take them out for a curry,” Gilbert says. The Clifton curry house on Brick Lane was their chosen venue—they would visit each evening. “We would be the only white people in there,” Gilbert says. “It was an amazing atmosphere.”
At the start of their careers, Gilbert & George adopted the slogan "Art for All". They were early performance art pioneers, sometimes performing continuously for a day at a time. They also gained a reputation for being willing to exhibit in spaces far beyond London’s established commercial gallery world. But has the art world become less elitist, and more inclusive, in their life time?
“More people know more about art than ever before, in the history of mankind,” George says. “The artist has never been more privileged.”
“Now, there are more artists, more collectors, more galleries,” Gilbert says. “We used to talk about ‘art for all’. It was an innocent statement at the time. We felt commercial galleries are limited, because they are for selling. We tried to reach beyond that.”
The centre will only show work by Gilbert & George. Asked if they might branch out to curate the works of other artists, Gilbert says: “We don’t want to compete with the Hayward or the Whitechapel. It would be too difficult.”
Gilbert will celebrate his 80th birthday in September, while George has just turned 81. The centre, then, has been created as a place to commemorate the artists’ contributions to contemporary British art. It will endure as a tribute to them, even after their deaths.
Until then, Gilbert & George can be spotted, still, on their nightly walk through the streets of Spitalfieds before they eat dinner together at Mangal 1, the Turkish restaurant on Arcola Street, just off Kingsland Road, where they have a permanently reserved table.
“We’ve been going to Mangal for 20 years,” George says. "We used to go to Mangal 2 but they installed a music system, so now we go to Mangal 1. Maybe one day, we will go to Mangal Zero.”
What’s the best thing to order?
“The Ezme Salata then the Patrician Salata and then the Pirzola lamb chops, they’re very good,” Gilbert says. “Trust us, you can’t go wrong.”
- The Gilbert & George Centre, opening 1 April, Spitalfields, London