South London and the heart of art

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The South London Gallery in Peckham is one of the five winners of this year’s Art Fund Museum of the Year Prize, sharing £200,000 with the Science Museum, Gairloch Museum, Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum and Towner Eastbourne. Winning for the SLG is a personal triumph for the woman who has led it since 2001, Margot Heller

The Museum of the Year Award is different this year. The Art Fund has doubled the prize money to £200,000 but shared it among five outstanding museological achievements of 2019 For the South London Gallery the award is a long-awaited endorsement.

If Peckham has become the artistic hotspot Antony Gormley says it has, Margot Heller and the SLG have been the catalyst, having achieved what seemed impossible: to embed contemporary art in a community and at the same time establish an international reputation.

Its contemporary shows over the last two decades have increased the visitor numbers from 20,000 a year to 140,000, with exhibition space expanded fourfold, always respecting the unique character of the Victorian building in inhabits. And so esteemed has the gallery become that an admirer made a gift of the nearby Old Fire Station which, opened two years ago doubling the SLG’s square meterage.

Fundraising is a constant challenge, made even more tough this year, but Heller sees it as part of the creative process of being a director, bringing new people and their experiences into the gallery. It won, according to the Art Fund judges, because of its “integrity, creativity and inspiring leadership”.

The SLG has a long history. It started in 1868 as the South London Working Men's College whose principal was Prof Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s academic champion, and its manager, William Rossiter, evolved it into a Free Library and Art Gallery which had its first exhibition in 1879. It was supported by the art establishment – Frederick Leighton, Edward Burne-Jones and G F Watts were patrons, with William Gladstone as its first president. It had several homes around south London until 1896 when it moved into the Vestry for Camberwell where it remains, next to where Camberwell College of Art was established in 1898.

It became the SLG under David Thorp, appointed its director in 1992, and offered itself as a home  for the Young British Artists and their allies emerging at that time – Gary Hume, Damien Hirst, Matt Collishaw, Sarah Lucas – and caused a sensation in 1995 by showing Tracey Emin’s tent, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995. It acquired works by, among many others, Antony Gormley, Angus Fairhurst and Anish Kapoor.

When Heller (above) succeeded Thorp in 2001 the SLG was still funded by the local authority, but in 2003 she separated amicably to turn it into a charitable trust (three Southwarfk councillors are members of the trust which is chaired be Frieze founder Matthew Slotover). It was the catalyst for a major plan to extend the building while respecting the Victorian architecture, a speciality of the architects Stanton Williams for the first phase which opened in 2004, a second coming in 2010 after the takeover of a derelict building next door allowing the addition of a new wing, and in 2016 a magical artists’ garden was devised by the installation artist Gabriel Orozco with Kew horticulturalists.

After graduating from Sussex University, Heller was at first a picture researcher at Tate before becoming an assistant curator at Southampton City Art Gallery and finally director, before moving on to be director of exhibitions at the Anthony D’Offay Gallery.

Her staff has grown from five to 50 allowing Heller to conscientiously create an ethos of mutual confidence between curator, artist and public. She works closely with artists to create their exhibitions, the secret of the success of shows for such as Steve McQueen and Thomas Hirschhorn, and more recently Pae White and Oscar Murillo. The gallery remains strongly associated with Camberwell College of Arts next door, “They nourish what we do” she says simply of her neighbours, and Heller has effectively embedded the gallery in the community - it’s even got a gallery in a nearby block of council flats, and visiting international artists will be invited by residents to tea or a bite to eat, and to chat – and the Orozco garden gives access to the Sceaux Gardens housing estate.  

But despite her expansions, space had always been tight for a gallery that likes to encourage artists to be expansive as well as providing a local education programme, and out of the blue the answer came almost literally gift-wrapped. 2015 an anonymous fan gave the gallery the Old Fire Station opposite the Vestry, Grade II listed and the earliest surviving example of a purpose-built fire station dating from 1967 (main image). It was converted by 6a architects and after a £4m remake opened in 2018, doubling the gallery’s size and giving four floors of gallery space, an archive room, artists’ studios, a kitchen and a terrace as well as community and education facilities.

Clovid-19 arrived as the SLG was on a crest, Heller says, and survival has depended on resources of ingenuity as well as money, so the award is perfectly timed, says Heller. “The financial insecurity brought by lockdown has forced us to find new ways to connect with local schools and families” she says. “The award will allow us to continue our existing programmes, as well offering us the chance to commission an exciting new work”. The SLG reopened in August, admission free

The Art Fund judges’citation says the rest: “South London Gallery is a world-class contemporary art space, built for and with its culturally diverse communities. For more than 125 years it has stayed true to its aim, ‘to bring art to the people of south London’, evolving in response to the needs of artists and audiences and promoting inclusion at the heart of its mission”.


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