This is how The Photographers’ Gallery will look when it re-opens. Design by O’Donnell + Tuomey, image courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery.
Now that it’s closing for the next year, we asked the director of The Photographers’ Gallery to explain the strategy behind its renovation work, and to answer criticisms that it has lost its way. Olivier Laurent has this exclusive report
Later this month, The Photographers’ Gallery will close for up to 14 months as building work begins on the renovation of the Soho site it moved into nearly two years ago, transforming the building with the addition of three new spaces.
The Capital Project, as it’s called within the gallery, will cost £8.7m, partly financed through Arts Council England, which granted £3.5m to the gallery, and via a £1.41m remortgage against the current the Ramillies Street building. But the final design, shown here for the first time, is a scaled-back version of the gallery’s original plans.
When it first talked about moving out of Great Newport Street – its location since Sue Davies founded the gallery in 1971, up until 2008 – the plan was to build a new six-storey premises on Ramillies Street with “ceilings as high as 10m in the gallery” [BJP, 12 December 2007], at a cost of around £15m. But the gallery failed to raise enough funds (until last year it was still looking for £7m), and so opted for a cheaper alternative.
“Over the past two decades, the gallery has examined various options, from redeveloping the original Great Newport Street site to moving to other locations,” current director, Brett Rogers, tells BJP. “In the end, we opted to purchase the site in Ramillies Street with the idea of exploring two alternatives – pulling the building down and starting again, or refurbishing what was there.”
After putting the project out to tender, the gallery hired Dublin-based architects O’Donnell + Tuomey to develop both schemes (see illustrations) and, in the end, the “trustees and staff decided to pursue the extension and refurbishment option since it fulfilled all our needs in terms of what we felt we needed to provide – three gallery floors, one education floor, new retail areas and a large public lift. In terms of both economic and environmental factors, this is undoubtedly the most favourable choice and, having had the past 18 months to ‘test’ the current building, one that we know will work well”.
Work on the new space is expected to begin this month, which will force the gallery to close down for the next year, but in the meantime it is planning a programme of events and exhibitions.
“During our construction phase we will be operating a reduced programme off site, both in Soho and with other partners in and around Westminster,” Rogers reveals. “Bloomberg is funding three innovative artists’ projects in Soho, starting with the British artist duo French Mottershead next spring, a residency with [Swedish photographer] Anders Petersen next summer, and a major new Fiona Tan commission continuing throughout all of 2011.”
The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize will continue, but will be shown instead at the P3 Ambika space at the University of Westminster on Marylebone Road, opposite Regent’s Park. The print sales department will run from the gallery’s temporary offices near Warren Street, and the book shop will switch between these and pop-up locations around Soho. The gallery is also working on offering “customers access to as much as possible of our current range of books, magazines and cameras through a new online service which will be launched later this month”, and it has a programme of talks and events running in various lecture spaces and bars in Soho, some in partnership with BJP.
“As you can see, the Ramillies Street building may be in redevelopment, but The Photographers’ Gallery will be continuing its many activities as ever and maintaining our strong links to the Soho area.”
But if Rogers sounds pleased with herself, not everyone is as happy with the direction the gallery is going. And while a gallery focusing on contemporary practice will always have its critics, the noise has been getting louder in recent years.
Some of the gallery’s detractors have begun lobbying for a debate on its future, first in private and now more publicly, and the most vocal is London-based Magnum photographer Chris Steele-Perkins, who told an audience at Host Gallery in June, “I don’t hate The Photographers’ Gallery, I just think they’re shit.” His major gripe is, he tells BJP, that the gallery is failing through its programming.
“My main concerns are that, for all intents and purposes, The Photographers’ Gallery seemed to have been hijacked a long time ago from its main purpose as I understood it. The reason it was set up was to be about photography as a broad church, but with a concern for the best practices within that broad church, [but it has now become] a very, very narrow definition of photography, and very often a mediocre representation of that practice too.
“Sue Davis started it as a gallery about photographers and photography, and that’s an expectation that continues but is very rarely met. There are now other institutions doing really interesting stuff, and it does tend to beg the question, ‘Is it actually relevant to have The Photographers’ Gallery at all any more?’, as it is being incorporated more and more into other spaces.
“I think it is, but it would need to be stripped out from scratch,” he says. “Start again with a new remit and a cleanout of the whole system. But that’s not going to happen.” And, he adds, “It’s not me alone, there is an awful lot of indifference or anger directed at The Photographers’ Gallery.”
Another photographer who knows the gallery from its early days, Brian Griffin, shares that opinion. “Quite frankly, The Photographers’ Gallery is something that never crops up in my mind’s eye,” he tells BJP. “To me it doesn’t exist! At the National Photography Symposium [in Derby this spring], it was heatedly debated. Francis Hodgson [photography critic at the Financial Times] had quite a lot to say on the matter.” Indeed, he had. In fact, Hodgson called for the gallery to be closed down altogether.
The renovation is a scaled-back version of what was originally planned, fuelling criticism that the gallery has failed to take advantage in opportune years of increased public and private investment into cultural institutions. Design by O’Donnell + Tuomey, image courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery.
Some think these kind of comments are tinged with self-interest, but in public at least, Rogers is careful not to address them directly, nor simply dismiss them as a grudge. “Everyone has personal opinions about what they consider to be the most interesting parts of our programme,” she says. “Funnily enough, last year our most popular exhibitions were the fashion show When You’re a Boy and André Kertész: On Reading, which was an inspired double act, succeeding in attracting a substantial new audience that had never previously visited the gallery. With current audiences running at 8000-10,000 per week, alongside consistently broad and positive press coverage, I don’t think anyone could consider the gallery has made itself irrelevant.
“We are building on our reputation as the first independent photography gallery in the world – founded even before ICP in New York – to deliver a programme that explores an expanded notion of photography, no longer as one with narrow definitions around traditional genres such as photojournalism, but one in which photography’s versatility and promiscuity, the way it finds its way into other cultural areas in interesting ways, addresses issues of wider cultural importance.”
Out of touch?
Another criticism levelled at the gallery is that it doesn’t really engage with the wider photographer community. Street photographer Nick Turpin argues that British shooters feel left out. “There’s no submission process for photographers,” he cites as an example. “I’d love to see them support young and emerging photographers, to do innovative projects, but it doesn’t happen.”
“It’s completely out of touch and indifferent to the photographic community,” adds Steele-Perkins. “As a public institution funded by us in large part, they should be addressing British photography far more than they do. Not every show, and not necessarily about individual British photographers, but about ideas, concepts and broad movements. They don’t do it.”
Rogers assures them she’s committed to British photography, but says the gallery “has always been celebrated for its international breadth – from its inception in the 1970s until today”.
“In terms of fulfilling our commitment to British photographers, we continue to ensure that there is at least one solo show every year and that there is consistently a good representation of British talent within our group exhibitions. Then there are the photographers represented by print sales, the vast majority of which are British or British-based.”
She adds that Freshfacedandwildeyed, its graduate showcase introduced two years ago, is also designed to support young British photographers, “which I believe is important, providing support for artists at a critical start of their career”.
Steele-Perkins remains adamant that the gallery isn’t doing enough, but he is willing to wait and see what happens when it re-opens at the end of 2011. But, he says, he’s disappointed and angry at “an institution that promises so much, started so well, and ends up as shitty as it is now”.
But, as photography critic and writer Helen James tells BJP, the perception of a disconnect between the gallery and the photographic community could be symptomatic of a wider issue – that Britain simply lags behind with its lack of infrastructure or any wide-ranging cultural strategy supporting the medium. “For me, all of it seems to link to the fact that there is a mismatch between expectations for photography in the UK, which doesn’t have an international centre for contemporary photography, and all of those doubts and opinions are downloaded onto The Photographers’ Gallery.”
And, with the gallery closing for most of 2011, these doubts won’t disappear, but by the time it re-emerges, there may be another venue competing for our attention, with plans to open the National Media Museum’s London galleries by 2012. BJP
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Gallery tops Arts Council league
The Photographers’ Gallery tops the list of photography institutions receiving funding from Arts Council England in 2010/11.
The Photographers’ Gallery > £852,693
Photoworks > £273,092
Impressions Gallery > £200,765
Open Eye Gallery > £173,847
Photofusion > £162,077
Redeye Photography Network > £58,929
Hereford Photography Festival > £57,618
Four Corners Film > £53,642
Pavilion > £52,472
However, says Julie Lomax, London-based head of visual arts at ACE, these “regularly funded organisations are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to public investment in photography. National institutions such as the V&A and the Tate hold collections of photography and regularly curate photography exhibitions. There is also a growing collection at the National Portrait Gallery. Alongside this, our other funded contemporary galleries exhibit photography as part of their programmes. We also fund production facilities and agencies, including Autograph ABP, which have a strong international reputation”.
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For more information, visit www.photonet.org.uk.
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