Director of Matt's Gallery
were you born and when?
was born on the 28th January 1947 in South Africa and came to England
do you think such a large number of artists moved into the East End
during the late 70's and 80's?
"In the first instance I know why I was
there, because we were all moved from St.Katharines Dock in about
'70/71. That had been a large warehouse that was also the beginnings
of Space Ltd whose aim was
to get studios cheaply for artists.
This was right at the beginning, Space existed
before Acme. I was a student in 68 and got a studio straight away at
St.Katharines Dock, was there for 2 years, then the lease expired, I
dont know how but we were moved to Martello St in the East End.
The other artists went to Stepney Green, also in the East End. All of
us got rehoused; one at a school, one in a warehouse at Martello St.
Martello street still exists as of now (I think it was a 2 year maximum
lease and its still running) and Stepney Green has been bought by the
artists, they now own the building themselves (some of them were original
The reason people moved into the East End was because they wanted to
get cheap delapidated property, and the same reason still exists, but
its now becoming very chic. Wherever artists go it becomes chic! After
we left St.Katharines Dock it changed, go and have a look at it now
its chic but a bit of a ghost town."
What effect if any do you think artists moving into those local East End areas have?
"Artists obviously moving into the area bring some form of culture with them, and then sooner or later it gets popular."
What do you think were the local peoples reaction to artists moving in, do you think there was an awareness of what was happening?
"I never actually lived in the East End I
lived in a very delapidated artists house in Islington with Ian McKeever
so i dont actually know but what I feel is that artists living in these
areas are actually local people. I don't make the distinction between
artists and any special idea of local people in the area."
There is a statistic that states that there are more artists living in the East End than any other part of Europe which has been quoted many times. Do you think artists were aware when they started to take on and move into the cheap housing and studios that they were starting to build a community?
"I think it was purely incidental, I mean
there are a lot of artists in the East End, but then what is the East
End? If you loook at The Whitechapel Open the East End seems to stretch
down to Deptford and various other places now. I have just had a phone
call from someone who wants to visit galleries in the East End. I don't
really believe this East end thing, its very convenient for marketing
though. At present Hoxton Square seems to be the centre of activity.
Everyone is suddenly going to Hoxton square, but there are also very
fancy clubs in Hoxton sqaure and expensive properties to live and work
in and nice new restaurants and bars."
What agencies do you think were instrumental in assisting artists and people like yourself to set up studio etc?
"I think initially organisations such as
Space were absolutely instrumental, Acme
followed Space. Acme have always been far more professional than
Space and much more effective, although I was in a Space
Studio 1970 to 1991, 21 years in all, I also started the original
Matts Gallery in that Space building in Martello Street E.8.
All I got however was much opposition from within
the studio, this idea of having a gallery in a studio complex in 1979
when we opened wasnt on. People were complaining saying why have you
got a gallery when its a place for studios, of course now its commonplace
every studio complex has a gallery space or spaces."
Was that opposition from the artists?
"The opposition was from some of the artists
and also a little bit from Space. They were getting complaints from
artists saying that because I was getting a minute little grant I wasnt
an artist and that all I was doing was showing people around. I showed
very few artists from the building itself, I showed Ian McKeever , Hannah
Collins, Nat Goodden and Michael Porter. We were open for a week at
a time and would have a PV on a Sunday afternoons, shows were open for
a much shorter time then. The work was actually made for the space and
indeed still is here in the new gallery. I felt uncomfortable there
because I always felt that I was treading on certain artists toes, they
did not like it, it was jealousy and of course some of the shows I had
were noisy they used sound and of course there were people trying to
paint next door who would get upset!
The other organisation of course is Acme who are far better organised
and who seem to have developed. We are now sitting in a building that
Acme have bought with Lottery money, together with another new live\/work
building they have acquired.
Space have not used me , Acme have used me, they wanted me to come into
their building. They knew I was looking for a new space and said they
would find us a building, and they wanted us to be here downstairs.
Its to do with profile and I am happy to be with them because they are
my landlords and rather than have a bad landlord I have a good one who
will understand what I am trying to do. Space wasnt a good landlord.
As much as I love Space I think they lost their way after 1970 honestly."
What was the position of the local authorities and councils do you feel? Did you have any direct dealings with Hackney for example?
"I have never had any direct dealings with any council including Hackney nor have I received any monies from the GLC or local boroughs. Other places do, I know that Chisenhale actually receives educational money from Tower Hamlets.Quite a lot of other galleries do but we never have"
What do you think was your own and the galleries contribution to the artistic dialogue ?
"I think we showed a way that it was possible
to get out of a gallery system (of which there are very few in this
country and very few opportunities for people to show) and that it was
possible for someone to open up his or her studio in a dilapidated brick
building, be open for a very short space of time and yet actually cultivate
an audience. People found it quite strange, quite exciting to ring a
bell, to be led in through a derelict building, back out of the building
and then back up the famous wrought iron stairway and in. It was personal.
It has now become very commonplace, everywhere you go you have to ring
a bell. We were one of the first and it worked .
Things obviously changed dramatically with Damian Hirst when he saw
another opportunity as a student at Goldsmiths to find a building and
do some form of promotion. But what Damian was doing was to get exposure,
whereas what I was trying to do was to show art with the artists, it
wasnt about this mega exposure. I suspect that places like Matts and
Maureens at Interim and Chisenhale helped show the possibilities, that
these places can and do work and that you can run them for different
Other galleries particularly from the earlier periods and the 80's have come and gone. What do you think it is that caused Matts Gallery to survive?
"First and foremost it is because of the
artists that I've shown, together with my determination to continue
to do what I wish to do and that is to show. In the beginning I had
small amounts of public money and at present have a relatively large
amount, but many of the shows that I've made have become seminal sorts
of shows, whether they have been Richard Wilson, Susan Hiller or an
artist such as Willie Doherty, who was probably almost unheard of
when I first showed him and has now become an international artist."
Would you say that it comes down to a style or aesthetic?
"I think that the artists that Ive shown are in the first instance good artists but secondly its actually the way that we show the art.Its because we take great care with installing, preparing and making shows. To quote Louisa Buck in a forthcoming book,I think she says that I am 'dogged'.
The reason that it has continued is that other places don't wish to be galleries, a lot of the spaces that have come up only want to exhibit for short periods of time; if you take somewhere like Chisenhale they have had five or six different directors whereas this gallery has only ever had whatever you want to call me, Director or rector, so its highly unlikely that Matt's will exist if I go.
Its not an institution and thats what some people have found quite strange,
especially people today, that we are essentially a public gallery running
on public funding.I have Trustees now but they don't have an artistic
say. If I say I need this or that they are there to help me.There are
some who say that my vision is rather blinkered and singular in what
I want to do, and it is but that is part of why Matt's is still going."
Think of the demise of Air Gallery and how important it was
"Yes I mean when they moved the Air Gallery
to Roseberry Avenue it was the same as everything Space did it crumbled.
They could have survived but they didnt try to use the people within
the organisation. I actually went for a job at The Air Gallery once,
I was desperate. Yvonna Blaswick was leaving and I had this interview
and we sat there and I told them what I did which they knew and they
said "why do you want to come here? You are better off where you
I said that I was going to keep Matt's and planned to run Air as well. Annely Juda said that I would be mad to go there and to stay where I was.I said I know this, I panicked, I'm going now. They were right and Sara Selwood got the job."
What do you think is different now from say 1972? 25 years what is the main difference if you are an artist now?
"I think the main difference is that you
expect to be successful now.This is what Damian and the rest have done,
students expect to be sucessful let alone artists. I find it quite horrifying
because I'm 51 years old and a bit old fashioned maybe, I mean 2nd year
students expect to get shows, Damien was a 2nd year student when Saatchi
first bought him, but everyone is not a Damien Hirst."
There is no traditional rite of passage now
"No such thing as doing your time in a freezing
studio now or even doing your time at art school. You are even taught
at Goldsmiths now how to become a professional artist, there are almost
as many curating courses as art schools, Goldsmiths has one so does
R.C.A.They are teaching people how to curate shows.
Expectations now are so much higher than ours were. I went recently to see a second year show in Brick Lane of Goldsmiths students, there was lots of video it wasnt good or bad, but the students were most upset because they hadnt had a review in a national newspaper, only Sara Kent had done it for Time Out. I said that they were very lucky they had'nt had a review in a national paper because the work was not up top being reviewed, that it was excellent as 2nd year work but not mature enough to be reviewed. Im not sure the change in expectation is for the better."
Someone commented recently to me on the changes that have happened to galleries and private views, how everyone wears black and looks smart
"Its true someone like Jay Jopling has been
able to be truly sucessful as a dealer with a space the size of a black
cab, I know he has had bigger spaces but the man deals out of a room
and is the most successful dealer around.
Just to go back to our Sunday openings, since Ive moved we gave up the
idea of private views because as you say its just a bunch of people
hanging around and so we dont have them. The difference is that our
shows are on for 2 months rather than a week now but the quality or
the nature of the shows are the same.There is a place for private views
but I find it all too stressful for myself and thats perhaps why our
profile isnt as high as it could be. Also the nature of the work I show
doesnt allow opeople to hang around. When we get this room we are sitting
in now developed a bit we may have private views again. We do have little
drinks within shows for the artists as opposed to 2 to 300 people who
don't see the work and who never come back and yet have an opinion about
a show they havn't seen because they have'done it'at the PV. I find
that attitude rather discouraging."
What do you think actually happened from the early 70's to now in terms of British Art?
"Well I think we have contributed, I mean Britain was put on the map and Brit art is wanted everywhere."
Do you think the art process now say as manifested in the Sensations Exhibition at the Royal Academy is the same as that started in the East End?
"I think it is an ongoing thing, half
of the artists in Sensations probably have studios in the East End,
yes I think its a process and that Sensations is the end of an era.
Strategically this is whats happened and I suspect that Charles Saatchi
will start buying something else. I mean I was quite surprised to
see artists like Mona Hatoum in there, it was quite interesting to
see Sensations in the Academy, it doesnt work as a show but it does
show you whats been made. Its hijacked of course by Damian Hirst again.
It was really the seal of approval and everyone makes money. For me
the whole show was truly summed up by Sarah Lucas' piece with one
mattress, one cucumber, a couple of melons and a bucket.That was the
strongest piece ; brash, quick, cheeky, the whole thing there, a bit
sexy, everything, it summed it up for me. Within the context of that
show that was the best piece it said much more than anything else"
What are your plans for Matt's
"My plans are touch wood hopefully
to continue and to develop the room we are sitting in which is meant
to Phase 3, developing it into an archive and a room that people could
come to in the day look at the archive, books and to do small seminars
with the artist. The seminars would not be like those at The Serpentine
or Camden, they would be very much smaller, I', not setting up an
educational propgramme but we do have an archive and we havn't yet
sorted it out and we don't have any money. To get money we would have
to apply to The Lottery and even if they gave us money to do the building
we wouldn't be able to employ anyone to do it. We are still staffed
by two people; myself and Simon Morrissey the administrator so we
don't have enough man hours to do it. But I think thats another reason
why matts has actually survived theres only me, and there has only
been 3 administrators. first of all there was Chrissie Isles, she
is now at the Whitney Museum, second was Alison Raferty she is now
freelance and now Simon who has been here a couple of years.we survived
because Matt's is a really small organisation with big shows and two
of the largest, uninterrupted spaces in England.So, we have been very,
very lucky. Whether our funding will change we will know in the next
two weeks because there is a new policy coming out of the London Arts
Board but we have not yet had the results. There is going to be a
shake up but how much in the Visual Arts we don't know.We'll see."
Robin Klassnik interviewed October
Other Educated Persons
Map of Hackney
Map of Tower Hamlets
Background tile:John Frankland
"what you lookin' at?"
April-June Matts Gallery