Special reports
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Special reports

Home is where the art is: the rise of living room galleries

From council estates to grand Georgian houses, galleries are opening in people’s houses across London

by Cristina Ruiz  |  8 October 2016
Home is where the art is: the rise of living room galleries
The council block in Peckham where Elena Colman runs Ladette Space in the living room of her one-bedroom apartment
A rented flat above a bed shop in Peckham may be the last place you would expect to find innovative contemporary art shows, but Luke Drozd, a graduate of the Chelsea College of Arts, and his partner Eva Rowson have been using their two-bedroom home to put on displays of new art for the past six years. “I missed having fellow students see my work and give me feedback on it,” Drozd says. So he put his own recently completed sculptures in his living room and invited friends over to see them. Then the young couple staged a show of work by graduates from other London art schools. “It was a really fun and laid-back way of meeting all these new people, so we said, ‘While it stays interesting, let’s keep doing it.’”

Work by Dragica Carlin, Harriet Foyster and Madeleine Bates on display in Lily Brooke’s Camberwell home. Photo: Will Webster
Like the enterprising duo, young artists and curators throughout London are organising public exhibitions in their own homes. Many are recent graduates who cannot afford the hefty cost of renting a temporary space. “After I finished art school, I realised I could either do nothing or I could show art in my own flat,” says Lily Brooke, a 23-year-old aspiring curator who has organised three exhibitions in the two-storey home she shares in Camberwell. “It’s completely depressing if you end up doing a job you don’t want to do and have no projects to focus on that you do find interesting,” she says.

“I was very frustrated when I first graduated,” says Elena Colman, who has staged shows in her one-bedroom flat in a council block in Peckham since 2014 while also holding down two jobs. “There’s a pressing need for young artists to find inexpensive places to show art,” she adds. For emerging artists without gallery representation, these shows are vital, says Holly Willats, the founder of the annual Art Licks Weekend, which includes exhibitions in homes across the city. “Bigger commercial galleries get all the press coverage, but shows in people’s homes are particularly important now that the city is so expensive.”
 
Elena Colman transformed her flat for a performance entitled RUBBER, in collaboration with Rebecca Jagoe and Beth Bramich, in October 2015
Isobel Atacus, an artist who has staged two exhibitions of unfinished work in her home in Walthamstow, says part of the appeal of opening up your home is that it enables you to engage in conversations you wouldn’t normally have about art. “I’m interested in how to make things inclusive and creating a community around art,” she says.

All these artists-cum-curators find imaginative solutions to compensate for the relatively small spaces they inhabit. “I choose to work with artists who have exciting ideas about the space, and want to make art that to some degree works with it… rather than use it as a substitute for a white cube space,” Colman says. “I definitely move my furniture around more than most people I know.” So do Drozd and Rowson. For one show they moved their books, records and CDs out of the living room, boarded up the bookcases and flipped over the sofa, which they then clad in timber to create a shop counter. Their living room became an impromptu space for a four-day book fair showing publications made by around 40 artists they had worked with over the years.

Exhibitions in private homes are “a world-wide phenomenon,” says Hans Ulrich Obrist, the co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park. Although these events may be organised for different reasons, they all have a DIY aspect, he says—“this idea of just doing things, not waiting for a better time or until you have a bigger space”. Obrist organised an exhibition in his kitchen in 1991 when he was a student in Switzerland. One of the artists he invited to take part, Hans-Peter Feldmann, thought the kitchen setting was “boring”, so he installed a work in Obrist’s refrigerator. Twenty-nine visitors turned up to see Obrist’s Swiss show. When he staged another display in his Paris hotel room two years later, with pieces by artists such as Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin installed in cupboards, nearly 2,000 visitors stopped by. “I didn’t tell the hotel about the art; they just thought I had a lot of visitors,” he recalls.

Some of London’s most established art dealers also started their careers by showing art at home, including Maureen Paley and Anthony Wilkinson. The latter’s eponymous gallery has its roots in exhibitions he staged from 1995 to 1997 in two “tiny” rooms in his flat in Great Ormond Street, Bloomsbury, with artists such as Peter Doig, Ceal Floyer and Chris Ofili. “It was a great way to start out,” Wilkinson says.
 
It was a precarious existence, though. His landlord lived upstairs and did not know about the shows. Wilkinson once displayed a painting by an artist who was doing a residency in a nearby girls’ school. “One day the artist brought 20 16-year-old girls to visit, all at the same time. We managed to get them in without anyone seeing them,” Wilkinson recalls. For another show, Bob and Roberta Smith filled Wilkinson’s flat with an installation of concrete boats. “For the show’s launch, we took the boats to the Serpentine and dragged them along the edge of the lake. Of course, they all sank because they were made of concrete. So we took them back to my flat and then we all went to the pub.”

Long-time curator
It is not just recent graduates who are putting art on public show where they live. For the past 20 years, Danielle Arnaud has reserved two floors of her grand Georgian house in Kennington for shows, screenings and other events—her current exhibition, devoted to sound and video works by the British artist Simon Pope, runs until 23 October. “Occasionally I dream about what I could do with my house if I stopped doing shows, but if I give that up I would be giving up part of who I am,” she says. Seeing an exhibition in a private home is more intimate, Arnaud says. “You can get very close to the work and nobody is standing over your shoulder.” Arnaud is constantly impressed by the activities of young artists and curators who organise public displays at home. Many of the spaces will not last long, particularly if they are in rented properties, she says, but adds: “They will inspire other people to do it.”

And for visitors, these varied spaces are an opportunity to experience London in a new way. “These home galleries reveal what [the Italian novelist] Italo Calvino called ‘the invisible city’, the hidden creative places we don’t usually get to see,” Obrist says.

Other arty digs

The Baldwin Gallery in Blackheath
The Baldwin Gallery in Blackheath
Baldwin Gallery

The Canadian-American novelist Dennison Smith is opening a gallery in her home in Blackheath on 4 November to show work by Canadian indigenous artists such as Robert Davidson, Steve Smith, Sonny Assu and others alongside European contemporary art. Her four, month-long shows a year will head to the Soho private members’ club Blacks after their Blackheath debut. Smith will also organise salons for invited guests with writers, musicians and academics to help contextualise the works on show. www.thebaldwingallery.com

Siegfried Contemporary in Kensington
Siegfried Contemporary in Kensington
Siegfried Contemporary

The art adviser Andreas Siegfried organises shows for clients and invited guests in his three-floor flat in Kensington. Now on display are paintings by the Cuban artist Michel Pérez Pollo (until 5 November). By appointment only. www.siegfriedcontemporary.com

• Eva Rowson and Luke Drozd run 38b; for details, visit www.38bprojects.com. Lily Brooke can be contacted via www.lily-brooke.com. Elena Colman runs Ladette Space; www.ladettespace.com. Isobel Atacus runs the Icing Room; www.isobelatacus.com/icing-room. Danielle Arnaud’s gallery website is at www.daniellearnaud.com

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