How Croydon’s grass roots art scene bloomed

By - Friday 30th October, 2015

Grass roots artistic revivals, like that in Croydon’s new arts quarter, are part of a proud tradition, says Sean Creighton

Damien Hirst Gallery in Newport Street.
Photo author’s own.

The Damien Hirst artworks on show in Croydon have been brought to us by Kevin Zuchowski-Morrison of the RISE gallery in St George’s Walk. He has shown that those involved in art can bring high priced items to those without the money to pay to enter exhibitions. Kevin has also initiated street art and other projects that enable a wide range of people to enjoy contemporary art within the context of Croydon’s new arts quarter.

Hirst’s creations can also be seen in other galleries away from central London, such as in Falmouth. Hirst himself has a growing empire. On Tuesday 13th October, I ended a history walk through Vauxhall and Kennington at his newly opened Newport Street Grallery, close to many council estates as well as to expensive apartments on Albert Embankment. The opening exhibition, Power Stations, displays John Hoyland’s paintings from 1964-1982.

My history walk revealed so much artistic energy in Kennington and Vauxhall. The area has several art galleries including Danielle Arnaud’s near the Imperial War Museum, and a new gallery is being built on the edge of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Down at the Oval end of Vauxhall Street is the Gasworks gallery, recently refurbished with improved gallery space and artists workshops. Its current exhibition until 8th November is by the South African artist Kemang Wa Lehulere. As part of the walk we were able to go in (though it was closure day) to see and have an explanation of the exhibition, discovering that one of the works was inspired by the 1914 visit to London of Sol Plaatje, then lobbying for black rights. Plaatje went on to become a key founder of the African National Conference.

Bottom-up art initiatives make a vibrant scene, and that’s what’s happening in Croydon

Gasworks is not just a gallery in a specific geographic area. It is part of the international Triangle Network of small-scale arts organisations and projects that support and disseminate the work of emerging artists through artist-led workshops, residencies, exhibitions and outreach events.

Photo by Wes Baker, used with permission.

The Lambeth area has a rich history of creativity in art and design. St Oswald’s Street was the home of the Lambeth School of Art. The school was the brainchild of the local vicar who saw the opportunity to set up social, educational and employment projects on part of the site after the close of the former Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in 1859. The school led on to the foundation of the City and Guilds School of Art on Kennington Park Road. This remains an independent college without government funding, dependent on donations and fees.

And what relevance does this have to Croydon? It shows that bottom-up initiatives by artists and entrepreneurs can create vibrant local arts scenes. And that is what has been happening in Croydon too, with visual arts initiatives such as Kevin’s RISE Gallery, Turf Projects’s new gallery in Keeley Road and the expanding Click Clock Gallery.

You may not like it, but Hirst’s cow certainly makes an impact

Apart from a few entrepreneurs like Hirst, the new galleries may not create many jobs, but they inject colour and life. They enable people to change their perceptions of the world by offering different visual interpretations. You may not like everything you see but when a Hirst cow lands up as a feature in a Mark Hicks restaurant, you know that he’s making an impact.

Unfortunately it takes money to realise some project ideas, like the fascinating exhibition in Falmouth Art Gallery, , by artists inspired by the life-giving role of soil, which includes a video of film take underground showing the tiny organisms in the soil accompanied by words and music. Given the growing energy of bottom-up initiatives in greening Croydon, it would be great to have that exhibition come to here too.

All art is an interpretation. Even historic portraits and landscapes need to be interpreted, for all may not be as it seems. One clear meaning of our new arts quarter is that Croydon’s creativity is alive, vibrant and growing, from the ground up.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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