The main events at the 1983 Brixton Festival – as advertised on all the official posters – were the live performances from reggae, punk and jazz bands. But if you happened to check out the shops under the railway arches along Atlantic Road, you might have discovered the Festival Office and one of the less well-publicised Festival events. The former discount carpet shop had been transformed into an art gallery showing work from local artists and craftsworkers in an eclectic mixture of media and styles.
The exhibition, coordinated by Kevin O’Connor, a local artist, revealed not just the latent talent and energy of the artists but also the enthusiastic interest of the local audience for this kind of visual spectacle. The gallery was filled with a steady stream of those who wnated to see what was going on and those who wanted to find out how they could show their work as well. The newly christened Brixton Art Gallery was, according to Nigel Pollitt, art critic for City Limits magazine, ‘the most exciting exhibition space in London.’
Initially, the Gallery was just meant to last for the duration of the Festival but at the opening party, Kevin and some of the local politicians managed to persuade representatives from British Rail, who owned the property, to let the Gallery stay on the site for a specially reduced rent. Lambeth Arts Council, a bunch of local worthies entrusted by Lambeth Council to award small grants to arts organisations, agreed to pay this rent for three months while approaches were made to the GLC for more substantial long-term funding.
From the very beginning, the Gallery had relied heavily on the volunteer help of local artists to run the space – clearing out the rubbish left by the previous tenant, painting the walls, hanging the shows, photocopying exhibition leaflets and a million other mundane but essential tasks. As a result, Kevin initiated the idea that the Gallery should be run by the artists themselves working as a collective.
There followed what seemed to be an endless series of open meetings, report-backs and discussions until the loose group of artists that had helped Kevin start the Gallery consolidated into the slightly more formalised structure of the Brixton Artists Collective Ltd. The company – a non-profit making organisation – started out with a board of around 20 directors and a membership that peaked at over 200 artists. In a relatively short space of time, the Collective gained charitable status and received the grant funding from the GLC that was to ensure its financial viability for the next couple of years.
The Collective nature of the organisation running the Gallery was a key feature of its existence. All matters concerning the space, from the aesthetic to the practical – from deciding what colour to paint the walls to which shows should be staged – were agreed following open meetings of the Collective, membership of which was open to any artist who paid the nominal £3 fee. Directors were formally voted in at the Annual General Meetings although the role gave no special privileges and, during the two-and-a-half years of my involvement, the Gallery was run on an entirely voluntary basis, with no-one receiving any kind of wage or other form of payment.
Andrew Hurman 2008
And for those who like lists, the following comprised the original board of directors -
Rita Keegan, Andrew Hurman, Ruth Charlton, Teri Bullen, Ian Hinchliffe, Kevin O’Connor, Derek Stockley, Jan Zalud, Anne Greenwood, Francoise Dupre, Andy Carstairs, Ian Rogers, Mark Povell, Robert Bell, Terry Dyer, David Medalla, Gennaro Telaro, Stefan Szczelkun.