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In the south London borough of Lewisham, beneath the stately galleon of a weathervane that turns atop Deptford Town Hall and in the immediate orbit of the renowned artist (anti) finishing school of Goldsmiths College, builders have been busy repurposing the baths on Laurie Grove and the water tanks that fed them. Where there were changing rooms there are jet-cleaned brick walls and sleek concrete walkways; where there were drying racks and creaking pipework there are white-cube gallery spaces; those cast-iron water tanks of yore have been transformed into unusual salons for showing art and hosting talks. This is the new Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art and – unless it’s part of a contemporary artist’s take on, say, baptism – bath time will just have to wait.

“I’m totally ecstatic,” says director Sarah McCrory, beaming, as she waltzes through the rooms. “It was a tricky footprint to work with but every time I walk around it, I know what people mean when they talk about a ‘dream project’. They mean this.” That tricky footprint was re-engineered by London-based, Turner prize-winning architecture firm Assemble, which beat some 85 others to win the commission. “Artists will have to take the building into account when they plan a show,” says McCrory as she runs a hand along the rust-coloured walls of the tank space. “They’ll need to control these spaces and the bleed of light or sound; it’ll also help us steer the sort of artists we’d like to show here.”

The first of these is Argentine Mika Rottenberg, who will be showing video and sculpture. “Mika was very enthusiastic about doing something here that works with the gallery and maybe even fights it,” says McCrory. During October and the events surrounding London’s Frieze art fair, McCrory and curator Natasha Hoare showed work by Scottish poet and absurdist Ivor Cutler in the gallery’s atrium. Shows by Estonian mixed-media artist Kris Lemsalu and the Chicago Imagists will follow.

Now, you might have thought that building a contemporary-art gallery next to – and sharing the name of – a university whose alumni include Antony Gormley and Gillian Wearing, and where Michael Craig-Martin taught a young whippersnapper named Damien Hirst, would be a cinch. But, as McCrory says, “Goldsmiths is full of great academics and students and their job is to question everything.” And then, with a smile, “As will all the artists who we’ll show here.”

In fact, the gallery is physically linked to the students’ studio spaces. A large, once-exterior window now provides an internal light through which artists and curators, both up-and-coming and up-and-come, can regard each other with warm fellow feeling (or a certain froideur). “At the outset there was some friction between the university and our new building,” says McCrory. “After all, what does it mean opening an institution here, now that it’s quite a hard time for students amid strikes and fees? How does it contribute to the area, gentrification, local people’s access?” The fact that Lewisham is one of London’s poorest boroughs can swing both ways too. As McCrory says, “Goldsmiths feels like a gated community in Lewisham and maybe our building can be a bridge between the university and the borough.”

Luckily a new public art gallery that’s free to visit is difficult to sniff at for long. The ball started rolling thanks to Richard Noble, head of the art department at Goldsmiths since 2009. “One of my goals was to engage more with the contemporary-art world in London,” he says. “Under Michael Craig-Martin [the art department] had been very outward-looking but it’s easy for institutions to become self-enclosed and interested in their own issues.”

Noble is a go-getting kind of academic who rang around Goldsmiths’ notable alumni to ask for artworks as donations in a fund-raising auction. Forty lots were auctioned at Christie’s and raised an initial £1.4m. As Noble says in his Canadian burr, “This was the likes of Damien, Antony – they were very generous – we weren’t exactly just asking for a print, you know?”

Back in the gallery, Adam Willis of Assemble is taking his own reference photographs while trying to not be in ours. Asked if the atmosphere of the building is the one he’d aimed for, he’s philosophical and positive. “Yes, I hope we’ve created an atmosphere of welcome; there’s a looseness to it, something fluid. There are lots of views through to other parts of the building; it feels like a place to explore.” The finishes too – scrubbed brickwork, smoothed concrete, as well as classic crisp white walls – are less intimidating, say, than wall-to-wall perfection. With a budget of £4.2m, the Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art comes in at a third of the cost of some of the recent gallery extensions in London to which it will inevitably be compared: its near-neighbour at the South London Gallery, the newly refurbished Royal Academy and the Nottingham Contemporary further up-country. These are the sorts of things that Sarah McCrory will tell you if pushed – but, really, she’s all about the art.

As yet McCrory’s office is still spartan so what’s the first thing the director will hang on her walls? “Oh, now that’s tricky,” she says. “I have a painting by Ella Kruglyanskaya of an angry woman – maybe that’s not right. Or a watercolour by Sanya Kantarovsky called “The Bureaucrat’s Chair” – it’s a chair with a grumpy face in it,” she says. “Again, maybe a bit much for the office.” It seems that McCrory has the important details locked down; the personal touches in her own eyrie will just have to wait.


A splash of colour

That the South London Gallery’s new annex should have opened a mere couple of weeks after the Goldsmiths gallery may be a fortuitous coincidence but it represents more than just competition for Goldsmiths’ latest venture. It’s a step up for an area that’s long been home to fledgling artists but not that well served by bigger contemporary institutions.

Based in Peckham Road, the rambunctious artery crossing through southeast London, the South London Gallery has taken over the former Camberwell fire station, a smoke-blackened building and the oldest surviving fire station in the city, built in 1867. A respectful refitting by 6A Architects almost doubled the exhibition space of the gallery’s original location across the road by adding four new exhibition rooms, an archive, a communal kitchen, a top-floor artists’ studio and education room.

The patchy transport link to the city centre – the bane of residents and visitors’ lives – is one of the factors that has kept south London’s artist studios relatively affordable. Creating a network of sizeable new galleries will surely encourage more people to cross the river while serving and representing the communities surrounding these cultural spots.

southlondongallery.org

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