Raven Row opens

Sainsbury’s latest offer
New non-profit gallery opens in London’s East End

British collector Alex Sainsbury is opening a major new non-profit gallery space in east London on 28 February. The gallery, Raven Row, is entirely funded by Mr Sainsbury, the son of Sir Timothy and Lady Sainsbury.

Raven Row has taken over two 18th-century Huguenot silk shops, at 56 and 58 Artillery Lane, Spitalfields. The Grade I- and Grade II-listed buildings had been empty for ten years, and London-based practice 6a Architects have built two contemporary galleries at the back in spaces that the previous owners had created but never developed. “6a designed those spaces in conversation with me, it was a great dialogue we had,” Mr Sainsbury told The Art Newspaper.

The opening exhibition is what Mr Sainsbury calls a “museum-scale” show on the New York artist Ray Johnson (1927-95), entitled “Please Add to and Return”. Johnson, who largely rejected the gallery system, created collages and was a pioneer of “mail art”, sending works via post for recipients to add to and send on. This is the first large-scale European show of Johnson’s work, and the first to show his mailings.

The gallery’s programme is in place for the next 15 months, including a smaller exhibition of site-specific work commissioned for the space, and a show of installations by the German filmmaker Harun Farocki in November. “As we develop the programme we can be quite flexible,” Mr Sainsbury told TAN. “We’ll work through a number of different models and different programming possibilities. Broadly speaking we expect there to be five exhibitions a year.”

Mr Sainsbury sees Raven Row as something in the vein of a small-scale institutional space, such as the German kunstverein, or a grass-roots non-profit gallery such as east London’s the Showroom or Chisenhale Gallery. “There are none exactly the same,” he told TAN. “I think the important thing is to offer something different to London, otherwise I think there would be no point in doing it. My hope is that it isn’t going to be exactly the same as anywhere. But what I can do, which is quite exciting, is move between one model and another.” There will also be a series of residencies, with accommodation available on the upper floors for visiting artists and curators.

Mr Sainsbury established the independent Hoxton-based arts organisation Peer in 1998, which he is no longer connected with. He subsequently set up the project space 38 Langham Street, a “preamble to Raven Row”, which ran from 2001 to 2003. “I didn’t make a bit deal of this because I was working out what I wanted to do,” he told TAN. “It was set up notionally as a commercial space, but I didn’t represent any artists. Apart from the excitement of showing artists that weren’t otherwise showing in London, it was a good way for me to find out whether there was anything useful I could do in the art world in London.”

Mr Sainsbury has been collecting contemporary art since 1993, but he sees it as a “very separate activity” to the gallery. “My collection is not of the foundation kind,” he told TAN. “There are some very nice works in it, but it’s a small collection. It’s not the sort that needs a museum to house it. I’m certainly not going to show any of it in this space. There’s no interaction between my collection and the activities of Raven Row.”

Raven Row is a long-term project, and Mr Sainsbury feels passionate about its future. “I hope it’s going to be a very interesting part of London’s visual culture,” he told TAN. “I think it will be running for a long time, with or without me as director. My directorship is dependent on my ability to produce a programme of interest.” The gallery has been set up as a charity, with a board including Jenni Lomax, director of Camden Arts Centre, Alex Farquharson, director of Nottingham Contemporary, and artist Silke Otto-Knapp. “I work together with the board, and we’ll examine the success of the programme. I don’t want this to be anything other than a worthwhile project. I intend Raven Row itself to last at least 20 years. It’s definitely not a fly-by-night commitment—certainly not after working so hard on fitting the building out.”

This article was published in The Art Newspaper, February 2009, p7. To see it in context, click the PDF link below.

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