From Tate Modern to the Musée d’Orsay, there is a long and successful tradition of municipal utilities being converted to cutting-edge art galleries. The latest transformation sees the former Laurie Grove Baths off New Cross Road and the adjoining water tanks become the Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art – a world-class, eight-gallery space dedicated to exhibitions and artist residencies, marking a momentous step in the cultural evolution of this area of London.
Lewisham has so far lacked the lustre bestowed by the presence of an international gallery – and although there are many local initiatives, the absence of a physical arts centre has meant the creative communities have been disparate and inaccessible to the general public. When Richard Noble became Goldsmiths’ head of art in 2009, he wanted to open up the department and its legacy to the world. ‘We were always a gated community here, not a cultural resource,’ he tells me. ‘I felt we had to be reoriented towards contemporary art.’
After all, the college has long contributed to shaping British and global culture. Alumni include 30 Turner Prize nominees and seven winners. Bridget Riley completed her studies at Goldsmiths in the summer of 1952 when she was 21. And it played an integral part in the development of the YBAs: it was while a student here that Damien Hirst – under the tutelage of Michael Craig-Martin – curated ‘Freeze’, the exhibition of works by his fellow students, including Gary Hume, Sarah Lucas and Mat Collishaw, that caught the attention of the collector Charles Saatchi 30 years ago.
Noble’s idea was to create a public gallery that drew on the art school’s rich past and championed contemporary art from around the world. In 2011, he saw the potential in the shell of the former bathhouse to become that platform. Drawing on the goodwill of Goldsmiths’ former students, the institution held an auction at Christie’s to raise money for the first round of funding, selling works by Gillian Wearing, Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Antony Gormley, Steve McQueen, Sam Taylor-Johnson and Fiona Banner. As the vision grew, so did the ambition; Sarah McCrory, who was running Glasgow International festival, was hired as the gallery’s director and renowned figures became major benefactors; a room on the top floor now bears the name of Bridget Riley’s foundation.
On 8 September, the space will be inaugurated with an exhibition of commissioned and existing works by the Argentinian video artist Mika Rottenberg, and there will be subsequent shows from the Estonian sculptor Kris Lemsalu, the late feminist artist Alexis Hunter and a presentation by the Chicago Imagists. As Fiona Banner observes: ‘When art education is fighting for its life, to make this confident, visionary gallery, which is going to bring art from all over the world into the art school, is great for everyone and is generous to the future.’
For more information, visit www.goldsmithscca.art. ■