Is our obsession with image hurting art on its home turf? It may seem like a contradictory notion, but for Shoreditch’s galleries it’s a very real concern.
A short journey through EC2’s tangled streets offers no shortage of artistic expression. Whether it’s street art, exhibitions or installations, the area has long flown the flag for alternative and recognised channels of creativity alike. First Thursdays, the monthly happening that sees Shoreditch’s galleries throw open their doors to the public after hours, remains a staple for art lovers, even if interest has waned in recent years. While many have declared it a fossilised scene, it remains a stomping ground for some of the UK’s most successful artists.
But, as the conversation so often goes, things ain’t what they used to be. There’s no denying the Shoreditch we have now is a more manicured and exclusive animal. Chock-a-block with big brands, glossy retail spaces and aspirational new developments, there’s a strong sense it’s cleaned up and sold out. For some, the art scene is following suit.
Graham MacCallum is clearly a man who loves what he does. As we wander through Kemistry Gallery’s latest exhibition – a selection by children’s toy luminary Fredun Shapur – he takes the time to point out his favourite pieces and the stories behind them, a passionate curator in his element.
Upstairs, we sit down to talk about the future of Kemistry. Earlier this year, the gallery – which works alongside Kemistry design and branding agency upstairs – was bluntly informed its rent was about to triple with the arrival of a new landlord. To keep the gallery at its current location in Charlotte Road, Kemistry would be looking at £80,000 to £100,000 rent per year. The price, MacCallum explains, was simply too high.
“Kemistry Gallery has very much become part of the Shoreditch scene; we’d love to stay in the area, frankly,” he reflects.
“The fact that we’re going is very much a measure of how it’s changing. When we came to this building there certainly wasn’t a Subway on the corner. Things have changed so much since we’ve been here, compared to the ten years previous to that. It was fairly desolate when we first arrived, full of squats.”
As he points out, Tramshed, the restaurant on Rivington Street, used to actually be a deserted tramshed; now one of Damien Hirst’s pickled cows watches the diners serenely.
The loss of their space on Charlotte Road is far from the end for Kemistry. In fact, it’s the beginning of a whole new era for the gallery.
“We had so many people saying ‘don’t go!’, that we thought maybe it’s the kick up the pants we needed to do something bigger and better,” says MacCallum.
For the last decade, Kemistry has celebrated graphic design with a respect usually reserved for more traditional artforms – the only gallery to do so in the UK. The long-term goal is now to reinvent Kemistry as a non-profit space and education centre that continues to acknowledge contemporary and classic graphic creations.
To do this, a milestone pop-up exhibition is planned for February 2015, to showcase the best graphic art the gallery has exhibited over its first decade. They’ve already received a £15,000 blessing from Arts Council England for a feasibility study into the next phase, while a Kickstarter campaign for the pop-up had just nosed its £15,000 target at the time of writing.
Adapting to survive
Kemistry’s rescue plan is representative of the way galleries in East London are thinking on their feet to cope with mounting commercial pressures.
Jealous, a screen print studio, recently opened its second site in Shoreditch, a stone’s throw from Kemistry. While a working studio first and gallery second, its flexible business model gives a good indication of how the East End’s art scene is diversifying to survive.
“Galleries are clearly under more pressure now,” affirms Dario Illari, owner and director of Jealous. “Having a gallery here, I have to be open to having pop-ups and events. It’s not ideally what we’d like, but it’s a compromise that lets us do the stuff we want to.”
Indeed, Jealous’ flexibility – and the current appetite for screen printed art – places it in something of a sweet spot. Via printing jobs and publishing artists’ work, it can get involved in more diverse, non-profit projects, such as its annual shows exhibiting the best in the latest wave of art graduates.
As Shoreditch and other parts of East London become more moneyed and aspirational, so the market for statement art has bloomed. As a long-term art collector himself, Illari has witnessed the shift first-hand.
“More than ever there is art as product,” he says. “What art does now is to give people social eloquence. Sophistication. To many, art has become a brand. People recognise a Banksy or a Tracey Emin, and will pay for an edition.
“It’s not wrong or right, but there are many galleries now selling to that market.”
The rise of the art fairs has played a key role in this trend, he argues. For many, these are the out-of-town supermarkets to the galleries’ local corner shops, dragging away the attention and cash of consumers in an on-trend feeding frenzy.
As MacCallum points out, it’s the same as it ever was. If the art characterising the East End is becoming more predictably commercial, it’s only a matter of time before the scene rejuvenates itself.
And while Shoreditch will soon be saying goodbye to Kemistry, the iconoclastic tradition of the area’s art scene remains. “Two roads over from here, they discovered the original Shakespeare’s theatre on Curtain Road,” he says. “It was the first theatre in England.
“Shoreditch was outside the city wall, so this was where all the revelry went on. In a funny way it’s kept that spirit today; bang up against the city but full of strip clubs, nightclubs, theatres and galleries.
“You can trace a continuous line, all the way back.”