"Working with artists to realise their vision is incredibly rewarding and from the perspective of an artist myself; being around committed, interesting and driven people is really inspiring and definitely feeds my own practice."
Could you talk about your background: how did you become co-founder / Director of Block 336? Would you also talk about your space in Brixton (South London) and the journey that took you there?
Block 336 was founded by myself and Xabier Basterra, an artist I met whilst doing my BA. We had organised a show as part of a professional practice project at City & Guilds of London Art School and discovered the basement in the Brutalist space where Block 336 is now located. We recognised the potential of developing something there so when I finished my Degree we approached the building's landlord with the idea of setting up a project space and artist studios. He was very open minded about our proposal and was pleased with how the student show had gone (despite him having been rather nervous at one point when he saw the excessive amounts of alcohol going in for the private view. Although everyone behaved!)
Block 336 is a large space and we realised we were going to need a bigger team. We approached Robert Bell and Alex Gough who are part of the original group, with Tom Groves joining us shortly after we opened.
From the start we wanted to create a platform where artists were able to develop new work in the space - where they would have time to test something ambitious that they might not be otherwise able to create. We hold approximately 4 exhibitions per year with at least 3 of those being solo projects. We feel that it is important that artists have time to think about how they are going to work with (or against) the space as well as having the time to make, build and develop work on site rather than it being something that is parachuted in. Typically artists will develop their work at Block 336 for 4-8 weeks prior to an exhibition. The emphasis for us is on supporting artists so they can push their practice as well as enabling them to discover something new or something different from the way they might respond to a commercial gallery setting.
We became a registered charity twelve months after opening and alongside the exhibition programme we have partnerships with other charities such as Lambeth & Southwark Mind, Certitude and recently, a local school - Trinity Academy. In February, we held Lambeth & Southwark Mind's 2017 Annual Lecture. They do amazing work, which includes a free psychotherapy service for people in Lambeth. They also run a number of support groups for people with mental ill health. Given the cuts to the sector since 2010, their work is more necessary than ever.
What has been your biggest obstacle and greatest achievement at Block 336?
It would be difficult to name a single achievement, but we recently celebrated our 5th anniversary. It was amazing to reflect on what has been developed over the last five years and think about the 100 + artists we have worked with. We've held over 25 exhibitions and had over 10,000 visitors which feels like a real accomplishment. Working with artists to realise their vision is incredibly rewarding and from the perspective of an artist myself; being around committed, interesting and driven people is really inspiring and definitely feeds my own practice.
In terms of obstacles, as with most arts organisations, ensuring financial sustainability can be challenging. We have been fortunate to receive support from the Arts Council England, the Wellcome Trust and more. Most of our projects are delivered on a shoe string but the hard work of a small team who genuinely believe in what they're doing means that minimum compromises are made in terms of quality.
How do you feel the art world is changing? Do you think art fairs are becoming the life blood for most galleries?
I think art fairs are becoming more and more important for commercial galleries. Spaces like Ibid who closed their London space earlier this year are a good example of this. It doesn't necessarily make sense for them to pay very high commercial rent in the centre of the city when their income is predominantly coming from participating in art fairs around the world. Our model is not a commercial one and therefore we are more able to offer something essential to artists at a grass-roots creative level: that being time, space and support.
How do you differentiate yourself from other galleries?
Block 336 is an artist-run project space and studio provider. We prioritise time, space and support for artists to develop new work. Working within the 336 building, we recognise the importance of widening participation and collaborating with our community, with partnerships with charities both in the building and elsewhere in Lambeth. As mentioned previously, we tend to hold approx. 4 exhibitions per year and the emphasis is on the artist developing something as an extension of their work that they have been unable to produce previously because of time constraints or space limitations. Because we are in Brixton, which could be said to be slightly off the beaten track, we aim to be generous with exhibitions. It's great when visitors come and want to spend time properly engaging with the work.
What do you look for in an artist?
There certainly isn't a formula, but I would say we look to work with artists that have an individual voice, are ambitious and prepared to take risks in order to push their practice. The artists we work with tend to use the opportunity at Block 336 to do something bold. Working with Jennet Thomas, Robin Mason and Sarah Roberts to name but a few was a total pleasure. The projects end up becoming very collaborative at a certain point and tend to grow in terms of what can be achieved.
What advice can you give to young artists?
For most people, the opportunities coming out of art school are limited. I would say that the time following a degree is an opportunity to keep pushing the work, to play and test new things. For many artists, it takes a while for the practice to become robust so time for development is essential. Keeping in touch with a network of artists is important because aside from the dialogue, opportunities often arise in a DIY style or through the connections you make through each other. Having the ear of someone who you trust and whose feedback you really value is critical, particularly for the times one feels existentially wobbly! Having a secondary skill that allows you to stay engaged in the creative arena can be really useful - working as an art technician, studio assistant, photographer, writer etc. means that one can continue to work within the arts and gain experience and meet interesting people. Internships can also be good in terms of gaining experience and meeting people but I would encourage careful thinking around this: if only expenses are being covered one needs to be able to weigh up the benefits of the opportunity. Look carefully at the role or job description and consider what will be gained during the process.
What's the future for Block 366? Any exciting new shows lined up?
When we set up, we decided each artist that was part of that team would have a solo exhibition. We will hold my show this October. I'm excited about this as it will be the first time I have undertaken an exhibition at this scale and I have a good understanding the space. I will show new paintings and a connected sculptural installation that comes out of my recent research around desire. It will be interesting to be on the other side, so-to-speak. In November we will present the first UK solo exhibition of film work by Irish artist Kevin Gaffney. Unseen By My Open Eyes (which is the title of the show) will be curated by Kathleen Soriano, the current chair of the Liverpool Biennial and former Director of Exhibitions at the RA. Kevin and Kathleen are both fantastic to work with and we are very much looking forward to November. In January 2018 we will host Bloomberg New Contemporaries which will travel to us following the launch at BALTIC and BALTIC 39 in September 2017. There are 47 artists that have been selected by panellists George Shaw, Caroline Achaintre and Elizabeth Price. It's great to work with Bloomberg New Contemporaries as they consistently select work by really exciting artists, some of which we have worked with in previous exhibitions.
As for projects following this - all will be revealed in due course.
Banner image: Robert Bell. AXON. October 2014
All images courtesy of Block 336
Interview published 01/06/17