Thursday, July 21, 2005

Chelsea Space

Yesterday went to the new (ish) Chelsea Space to see Lisa Le Feuvre’s Avalanche show. Chelsea Space is at the new college campus in the old barrack building right next to Tate Britain. Whether Chelsea will be able to seriously carry on calling itself Chelsea, now that it is on Millbank is anyone’s guess. The new site is many times larger then Manreasa Road and though the next generation of students will miss out on the joys of overcooked cabbage at the Chelsea Kitchen having a generous amount of studio space is some compensation. As to Chelsea Space itself this seemed a really serious attempt to have a viable and dynamic gallery space that responds to, but is not overwhelmed by the institution. Importantly it is located close to the gate and indeed if you walk across the old parade ground from Tate Britain you need not really enter the college at all. This is important as to often college galleries are located somewhere deep within the bowels of the building and this deters all but the most determined visitors. I’m thinking here of somewhere like Central St Martins which has a wonderful space with a domed glass ceiling but first you have to navigate the building to find out. Consequently like many college or university galleries it is often empty.

This picture is replicated time and again and is exacerbated by the programming of many college spaces. Often a hostage to fortune and changing whims on the part of senior management, a college gallery curator has to perhaps fight harder than most to carve out a credible identity for his is or her space. Morley Gallery is a case in point; for a number of years this rather good space based in an old pub over the road from the college had a reasonable reputation, nothing earth shattering but enough to put it on one's “Ill pop in if I’m passing list”. Then the authorities decided that the programme should be more closely linked to the courses run by the college, and in effect the gallery has become nothing more than a showcase for one off shows by this or that evening class. Quickly credibility drains away and before long no doubt the same senior management will be wanting to use the space as a souped up hall.

This often happened at the Stanley Picker gallery at Kingston. A potentially exciting modern venue built by a generous bequest from Mr Picker the gallery suffered from indifferent curation and poor management. I was involved in a group show there back in 2001 and I remember at the last minute the hanging of the show was delayed as the gallery was commandeered for interviewing prospective students.

However I hear change is a-foot at the Picker and a new curator has taken over promising a credible and independent programme. Partly this seems to be being driven by fine art research at the college and the new spring in the step of many art college spaces may have something to do with this factor. With Art departments now in as hot pursuit of those research bongs as science departments there is a need for staff to be seen to be exhibiting rather than just drinking. Often working outside of the commercial gallery sector many lecturing artists have returned to the college gallery as a suitable venue. The college gallery may also be a better location for inter disciplinary or experimental projects that only the most adventurous of commercial galleries would host. So we may be seeing something of a renaissance in the college space but curators will have to fight hard to maintain their independence and get their exhibitions reviewed and keep their venues in the public eye. With Avalanche Chelsea space seems off to a good start.

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