Interview with

Robin Klassnik
Director of Matt's Gallery

Where were you born and when?
I was born on the 28th January 1947 in South Africa and came to England in 1960.
Why 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 tenants).
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 reasons."

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 are"
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 Gallery?
"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
1997


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Background tile:John Frankland
"what you lookin' at?"
April-June Matts Gallery
1996