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Motion Towards Collapse - Molly Smyth

Coldharbour London

South London's newest gallery provides that much needed community spirit ethos that sets its sight on saving the arts

In this bleak age for the gallery, there are fewer opportunities than ever to create new spaces for emerging artists. Once there was a time where we could see a pop-up gallery spring before our very eyes, showcasing the local unattained talent within a non-institutionalised space. Now, it's more likely that we watch the dust settle over another gallery's lost existence. It was to this pessimistic belief that our ears were pricked up on the discovery of south London's latest gallery Coldharbour London. Situated in Camberwell and opened June this year, the multifunctional gallery space and artist studio showcases enthralling contemporary art in a community that thrives for creativity.

Speaking to the Creative Director, Aretha Campbell; Coldharbour not only seeks to house new exhibitions but also looks to engage as much as possible with the art community, ensuring that there is a sanctuary for those aspiring artists in the struggle to save the arts. We talk with Aretha to discuss the beginnings of Coldharbour London and her arrival into curation, also giving us the scoop on what's to come next for this newly born space.

Dazed Digital: Tell us about your experience in opening up a new gallery, transforming it from an industrial space to a public space?
Aretha Campbell:
Launching Coldharbour London has been an amazing journey through the transformation of this monumental derelict 15,000 sq ft former factory. When Lucy first found the building the roof was leaking, there were no lights, old computers and printing machines from the 1980s filled the rooms but we saw the potential of what this could be - a unique multifunctional exhibition space for showcasing contemporary art. Having worked within the art world for the past 10 years, I had predominantly curated shows in East London and Soho however, in the last few years South London has emerged as a new centre for contemporary art in London. Although the enormity of the project was somewhat daunting, the opportunity to transform this industrial space was so unique we couldn't say no.

DD: What made you want to open an independent gallery during these times?
Aretha Campbell:
With the over saturation of the East London art scene, it seemed like a once in lifetime opportunity to develop not just a unique and innovative gallery but also create artist studios. By developing the studios, we are doing something a little different; we are not just another contemporary gallery, we are a working artist community. With the cuts to the arts funding in this country it is important that new galleries are still opening and supporting young emerging artists, particularly in South London, for instance, Goldsmiths, Camberwell and City and Guilds Art Schools are all nearby and there is a certain creative energy. There is an excitement in South East London and this is reflected in the South London Art Map, and the emergence of young galleries such Hannah Barry and Bold Tendencies.

DD: Would you agree that in order for the birth or even survival of similar spaces there must be something unique and special on offer - With respect what is 'special' about Coldharbour?
Aretha Campbell:
I think what makes Coldharbour London special is having the 30 artist studios within the building as well as the 5,000 sq ft gallery. Developing Coldharbour Studios was our primary focus when we initially began work on the building. The first studios we built were to the spec of the first artists we met who approached us back in December and from there we developed the rest as we built, we rented the studios establishing our own artist community as we went. The studios are all full and we have 40 practicing artists now permanently in Coldharbour from printmakers, to painters, sculptors, photographers and handbag designers. Our launch exhibition Illumination also included the work of Molly Smyth, who also has a studio within the building. There's a real creative buzz in the building.

We are also hoping to run a series of mentoring programmes with some of the artists in the studios and local sixth form art students from Lambeth College, giving advice on further education in the arts and also the business side of being an artist.

DD: How did you become involved in curating?
Aretha Campbell
: I had always been interested in art since I was tiny. I loved painting and also the history of art. So I left school and did a foundation year at Chelsea School of Art and Design and worked every Saturday in a small contemporary gallery in Bermondsey. I decided after a year that I didn't want to pursue a career as a painter. I didn't like showing or discussing my work in public but was much better at looking after and talking about my contemporary's work. I had got the gallery bug so to speak and so decided to study history of art, still working every Saturday at the gallery, as well as assisting independent curators learning everything I could. When I finished my degree I was curious to see if I could curate a show on my own, and took all my savings and rented a space in Notting Hill for 2 weeks. I wanted to do a show of young artists whose skills were still rooted in the traditions of painting but who subverted the regular notions of figurative art. I picked three artists I had come across while at art school Ian Bruce, Hugo Wilson and Vanessa Garwood, two of who had been short-listed for BP Portrait award at the National Gallery. The exhibition was a success.

The owner of the gallery asked what I had planned next, I hadn't thought that far in advance. I just knew I loved what I was doing and she asked me to stay so I managed that gallery, curating all the shows, going to art fairs, learning the business side of running a gallery for three years before establishing myself as a freelance curator 2 years ago. For the last 2 years I had been curating pop-up exhibitions in and around Soho and the East End, converting derelict Georgian townhouses into temporary gallery spaces unique to each exhibition. I guess Coldharbour was in a way a natural progression just on a more monumental scale!

DD: The first expo 'Illumination' uses the Matisse quote "The future of art is light" as inspiration; Your most recent expo 'Instinct for the Actual' comprises of bringing together 5 artists and taking on conflicting notions of modernisation. Why were these important choices as the first exhibits and what part does ColdHarbour play in helping the arts?
Aretha Campbell:
I wanted the first two exhibitions to push the boundaries, to showcase as diverse as possible a collection of contemporary art. With Illumination I built two rooms within the gallery space one was for screening of a film and music composition with headphones suspended from the ceiling the other a white box which housed a sensory explosion of light blurring your vision before throwing you out into the regular gallery space to confront the rest of the exhibition. Instinct for the Actual was quite different, again the gallery was transformed by embracing the space within. I asked another curator Guy Robertson (from Son Gallery) to put together the second exhibition. I wanted something completely different, a fresh perspective. I also wanted to collaborate with another gallery in the area. It’s important to understand we are in a recession and rather than be in competition I think it is important to support each other.

DD: What is coming up at ColdHarbour London in the near and distant future?
Aretha Campbell:
We are closed over August for a little retouch! But September will see us opening with a fundraiser for Oxjam on the 10th September, which is followed by an exhibition of work from New York based artists. The first week of October sees the book launch of photographer Venetia Dearden - the book documents the characters of the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert. Opening on the 13th October - November 16th is an exhibition of paintings entitled Fabonacci - Geometry in Nature, curated by myself. In November I will be curating an incredible exhibition entitled The Day The Factory Died, which is a collection of never before-seen photographs from Andy Warhol's memorial at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. The show will include letters and Warhol inspired work by Gavin Turk and there is also a book that will accompany the exhibition.