When the Gallery opened in 1983, it was less than two years after the famous Brixton Riots – or Insurrection, or Uprising as some called it. Whatever name you prefer to use for that strange, spontaneous expression of urban discontent, it certainly added to the reputation of the place and reinforced any prejudices held about Brixton and its inhabitants. So, for every businessman and shopkeeper who was prompted to consider relocating away from the area, half-a-dozen anarchists, punks, bohemians, wierdos, students and no-hopers fancied the idea of moving in.
Whereas some areas of London, which shared similar levels of poverty and deprivation, seemd to exude an aura of desperation and gloom, Brixton never seemd like that. There was always a buzz about the place, something in the air that came across as a kind of nervous energy and vitality and an absurd optimism teetering between hysteria and desperation. In short, it was the kind of environment that seems to attract artists of one kind or another – in other words, a great place to stick an art gallery.
The building occupied by the Gallery comprised three interlinked railway arches, two facing Atlantic Road and one at the back that looked onto the street market in Brixton Station Road. Among the neighbouring shops were a hairdresser, Italian delicatessen and fishmonger – all of which seem to still be present twenty-plus yeras later, although the grim and grimy Railway pub that stood directly opposite has gone. Sadly, there’s no blue plaque or any other sign to indicate the former presence of the Gallery and the current tenant, a discount carpet shop, is practically identical to the one who leased the space just before the Gallery moved in.
Being located in a busy shopping area with a continual stream of pedestrians walking past was certainly one of the factors that encouraged the high numbers of visitors to the Gallery – a hundred on a week day and double that on Saturdays. But we were also lucky in having an enormous glass frontage that allowed people to stand outside and get a good view of what was going on inside. For those locals who had never entered an art gallery before, being able to see other people walking around taking a look at things, was sufficient encouragement to get them to take a chance and enter the space. While many others, having caught a glimpse of something interesting as they walked past, felt impelled to detour back, walk through the doors and get a better look. Of course, few of the local kids had any inhibitions at all. One completed a full circuit of all three arches without bothering to dismount from his mountain bike. Another pair furtively managed to urinate in the corner of an installation and a few times someone manage to wrench the donations box from the wall and race out into the street with the handfull of coins it contained.
Other, slightly more sophisticated visitors were attracted by the publicity we managed to generate and by word of mouth from other artists. We were also helped by newspaper and magazine articles, in particular those of Nigel Pollitt from City Limits magazine, whose continual and very enthusiastic support was such an enouragement. Other favourable, though far less frequent coverage came from mainstram media including Waldemar Janusczak in the Guaradian, Sarah Kent in Time Out and Guy Brett in Artscribe.
So, the Gallery was a popular place with artists and public alike. It was ideally located, the rent was cheap – at least for the first few years when British Rail wanted to be seen to be supporting local voluntary initiatives – and it was a really good size. With total wall space of 300ft and floor space of 3,000sq ft the 1985 Members Show displayed works from nearly two hundred artists. There was also additional space for a small kitchen and a upstairs office.
There was, however, on big problem that never did get solved. The roof -or whatever the correct architectural term is for the structure built above an arch – leaked. It had evidently leaked for many, many years for much of the elegant Victorian brickwork was permeated with damp. On hot summer days or even cold, dry winter ones, the Gallery could look really smart – especially with walls and floor freshly painted, new work hung and a show about to open. But, if it had been raining during the night then one dreaded opening up in the morning, knowing that there would probably be pools of water on the floor and that depressing smell of damp that nothing could dispell.
Herb Opitz – artist, architect and one of the most dedicated members of the Collective – drew up a series of wonderful plans for renovating the Gallery and for a while we allowed ourselves to imagine how this idealised place might look one day. But, in the end, we could never raise the funding to turn these dreams into reality and instead the leaks kept getting worse and then BR decided that it wanted the proper commercial rent from the space. For some of us this combination of factors suggested that a season had ended and it was time to move on – and so with some great memories and a feeling of great sadness, that is what we did.
Andrew Hurman 2008
Below: Me standing outside the Gallery, 19th January 1986.