Southampton shouts out

The John Hansard contemporary art gallery has left its cloistered campus home after 30 years, and opens with Gerhard Richter on Saturday in a new building in Southampton’s city centre. Simon Tait reports

It opens a year late and has had to rejig its programme, so that the planned opener, six commissioned pieces based on the Hansard’s history, the last hurrah for founder director Stephen Foster, has been moved down the pecking order.

It’s what happens with new builds involving as many partners, as well as bureaucracies, as this one has done, but no-one is complaining. The collaboration that has resulted in this opening and the development of the city’s cultural quarter in Guildhall Square is a remarkable achievement that should be a model for city developments elsewhere, but a model that requires infinite patience.

For 30 years the John Hansard Gallery has offered contemporary art in a rudely converted building on Southampton University’s Highfield campus, a building Stephen Foster unlovingly calls The Shed. Its new home is part of a £26m city centre arts development called Studio 144 - No 144 Above Bar Street was the address of the much loved department store that stood at this spot, Tyrrell & Green, destroyed by enemy bombs in 1940, partially rebuilt and finally closed in 2000. It is actually two buildings, the other being the Nuffield Theatre presence in the city centre, that opened in February as NST City. The campus Nuffield built by the university in 1964 remains, bot now operating independently.

Since the idea was first mooted a decade ago Southampton has gone through no fewer than seven different administrations, all with different takes on the issues – one proposed selling art worth £5m from the city’s collection to help fund some of the city's cultural capital development, a proposition that stalled after a national outcry but still seems to hang over it like a pall. 

Studio 144 combines the will, inspiration and sometimes the money of Southampton City Council, University of Southampton, Arts Council England, a grant from the Treasury, the developer Grosvenor. It’s the first public presence of the university in the city for 100 years. The scheme leads the city's bid to be the UK City of Culture 2025 in succession to Coventry.

Had the new Hansard opened last May as it should have it would have been a great exit for Foster on his retirement, but instead he eased through the appointment of his successor, Woodrow Kernohan.“We were anxious that my successor would be someone who would ‘get it’ in terms of the Gallery’s unique offer and reputation and continue what the gallery has achieved to date, but also to build on it and take it to areas and in directions that we have so far merely imagined” Foster said. “Woodrow is that person.”


Portrait of Woodrow Kernohan by Deirdre Power

Get what? “Well, my relationship with the John Hansard Gallery in the past is very important” says Kernohan, Belfast-born but brought up in nearby Bournemouth, who discovered the Hansard in his teens and got it then, returning time and again. “I want to build a bridge with the historical programme, reflecting on British conceptual and performative practices, and working with the university faculties to use the research practices that are fundamental to the programme”.

The Foster farewell show, Time after Time, would have done that, returning to the work of six of the great artists that were commissioned from John Latham, Victor Burgin and Hamad Butt and others matched with some new commissioned work. But the Richter will do nicely to make Kernahan’s mark.

Appointed a year ago, he ran Limerick’s EVA biennial exhibition, an exercise in freewheeling collaboration that was the centrepiece of that city’s year as Ireland’s city of culture in 2014. Instead, he is now anchored to a building and a constant running exhibition programme.

Behind him there is to be a Strategic Board, not to oversee him but to be a sounding board, made up of curators, artists, academics and representatives of the community, because its thrust is to bring the community into not just the physical gallery but its exhibition and activity planning.

The Richter exhibition is based on the Artist Room holdings but added to from Tate’s Richter’s own studio collection, and is not so much a retrospective as a trot through Richter’s long career. The Hansard has four galleries which can be used for separate shows or combined for one big one, as with Richter. Each room here is quite different, but much of it is biased to the artist’s fascination with the uses of photography with art.

One startling room, though, is inspired by the stained glass of Cologne Cathedral. 4900 Colours of 2007 is 196 panels of 25 different coloured squares each representing the whole colour chart. It is one of the rooms in which the contemporary music ensemble Són will perform in July with music reflecting the art; another room they will take on is the one that will grasp even more attention, 48 Portraits 

For 20 years Richter sought out photographs of influential “godfather” figures of the 20thcentury from reference books -  Gustav Mahler, H G Wells, Franz Kafka – then painted portraits from the photographs, which he then photographed. Throughout the exhibition visitors will be asked to wear badges with the portraits of people they found influential, and gallery invigilators will do the same. “The idea is that they’ll swap badges and start dialogues, another way of finding out what people want and what they like” Kernahan says. City Eye, Southampton’s community screen media agency which works with 1,000 local individuals a year and will open in Studio 144 in the autumn, will ask children aged seven to 12 to make videos inspired by 48 Portraits, and 12 female academics from the university have been invited to name an influence missing from Richter’s choice – one is thought to be proposing Mahler’s brilliant by wayward wife Alma.


Kernohan will deploy the vast square in front of the building as well as the pretty park behind for the events and performances that contemporary art now expands to, and the flexibility of the galleries and other spaces inside will give him plenty of scope to express his curatorial eye. The photographer Sam Laughlin has been commissioned to create a documentary record of construction of Studio 144; the filmmaker Philip Hoare is to make a digital array inspired by the poetry of Wilfred Owen to mark the centenary of the poet’s death; in Lisa Watts: Not a Decorator, the performance artist Watts will transform household utensils into performative sculptural objects; a retrospective of the work of the photographer Edward Woodman, who works with such artists as Helen Chadwick, Cornelia Parker, Richard Wilson, and Michael Landy, as well Anya Gallaccio’s a recreation of whose chocolate inspired installation Strokewill accompany the exhibition.

“We want to make the John Hansard local, national and international through our collaborations, our partnerships and our connections with the audience” Kernohan says. “The great joy now is being in this building and learning how to make it work for what we want to do.”

Artist Rooms: Gerhard Richter is at the John Hansard Gallery May 12-August 18.

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