Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Organisational Development: Visit to PEER, London

The last of our organisational development visits was carried out by Rebecca Davies. In March, she met with Alice White, Curator for Local Audiences, at PEER - an independent arts organisation based in Hoxton in East London. "Peer has evolved from the ground up over the past 20 years, putting down deep roots within the socially, culturally and economically diverse area of Hoxton.."

- We don’t exist in isolation. We are public. -

I arrive at PEER on a sunny Spring afternoon.

During the morning, I’d been exploring/making the most of London and time with my brother who was over from Germany.

We start at the Lisson Gallery – both spaces.

I stand outside in awe of their purpose built architecture – something I am becoming increasingly mindful of. Why? Because AirSpace was not originally built to be a gallery – not sure what it first was, but it became a resting/safe space for young women suffering from domestic abuse. Then it was a bank.

Now it’s AirSpace – Gallery and Studios. And a great job has been done to turn it into exactly that, despite my feeling sometimes the building makes it a bit of a challenge.

Lisson has shit loads of money: its an incredible space to view work, to show off the work it has on its walls and plinths AND, in the case of this particular show we saw, warts and weaknesses (gaah it was so boring – apart from one piece that was basically van Gogh postcards in a frame).

We moved on to The Approach – a small gallery space above one of my favourite East End pubs. Definitely NOT built to be a gallery, and I’m sure some of the Eastenders old and new are surprised there’s white walls, and meticulously placed expensive artworks right above the space they lovingly refer to as their local. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful space and nice to hear the hum of afternoon pint drinkers climb it’s way up the stairs and provide (me anyway) comfort while looking at the art.

A bus ride from Hackney Road to Old Street.

A short walk through Hoxton Square.

The old White Cube looks derelict – now surrounded by gourmet burger cafes and cocktail bars. Some people ACTUALLY LIVE on Hoxton Square. EU Flags hang in the door way of what looks like a sexy design studio. I’m not digressing, I’m trying to set the scene, because then you’re on Hoxton Street and outside PEER. Where it feels so, so, so different to any of that: just a five minute walk from the terrifyingly polluted and noisy Old Street Roundabout there is a neighbourhood. And there is PEER.

The Khadija Saye Garden is blossoming and a luscious green (I learn later that Khadija was once a gallery intern at PEER and the garden is a memorial to her after she died in the Grenfell fire). Two trees with circular benches are full of college students, and skateboarders are utilising the spacious pavement outside the gallery - which, to the passing public, is two giant windows from ground up. The invigilator beams and stands up from her chair (not behind a desk) when we come in. We like the exhibition – but we’re struck even more by the action and life outside. It feels like a two-way viewing space. The pavement is a stage, but to those sat on the benches in front of the gallery, we are onstage.

I say to the young woman invigilating that I am here to meet Alice, but know that she’s tied up right now having a meeting at the local sixth form college. "So I’ll just hang out here till she arrives," I comment; "oh in that case… would you mind filling out a feedback form? It won’t take long," she responds. It is actually quite lengthy, but I am pleased to provide some feedback and take photos of some of the pages on the i-Pad she’s passed to me.

I happily share why I’m there, when I was last there, why I went last time, who I am, where I live – because answers to these questions, I am learning, are very important if you are a gallery that wants to listen to people and create a space which tries to engage its audiences – or represent and engage better with the ones it might not be. She tells me she went to the local Sixth Form and it was through a talk that Alice gave at the college that she heard about opportunities at PEER to work – PAID – in the gallery.

Alice arrives and we go through to the back – a smaller space with a video playing and PEER’s edition prints of artist works are hung on the walls. She makes me tea and dries the cups using a tea-towel that hangs from a cat’s bum tea-towel holder in the kitchen.

"I’m a curator FOR local audiences. Not OF. And people often say OF. But it’s FOR - they’re local PEOPLE I work with. NOT objects." She has said this to me before (we are currently working together on a project in Barking and Dagenham with social services.) "PEER sits within the community, down the street from the library, a social housing estate, next door to a post office, it’s on a street where there are other cultural organisations, cafes, restaurants, newspaper shops, hairdressers, bakers, a funeral director and a Poundland. We don’t exist in isolation. We are public." One wall of the gallery is pretty much a window – "..the hope is that outside will know about what we’re doing here and be able to look in."

PEER maintains a core ethos to make ‘art part of daily life’ – I instantly think of the beautiful street clock that Chris Offili made with them, standing outside the gallery.

A brief introduction to the gallery’s Director, Ingrid Swenson MBE (for services to the arts in East London) actually turns into a much longer discussion with her about NPO – PEER surviving on 5OK from its first three years as an NPO – it being difficult for some time, but how she’s glad they went for it. We plan a PEER trip up to Stoke – the potential of AirSpace being a location for their touring shows is discussed, and Alice and I go back to the space where we’d started our conversation.

There is a map of the local area titled ‘Adopt a Tub’ – it sets out the locations for bath tub planters across the estate – a recent offsite project that Alice has been leading on with an artist and a gardener. Alice recently successfully applied for Paul Hamlyn funding with the gallery – a sum of money that covers her leading PEER Ambassadors (enabling young people to get paid Gallery Assistant experience) and PEER Notices (a year long public art project on Hoxton Street across a year; allowing deep and embedded relationships to form with place and the people who live, work and study here,) thus "pioneering projects across two years that aim to provide opportunities for local young people from BAME and lower socio-economic backgrounds and artists to work together on public art projects."

This is great news and means Alice can continue collaborative activity, like the Adopt a Tub scheme, in the local area. Alice is passionate about such collaboration, and about PEER working with local residents, "it’s where they live; they have the power to shape it." It’s clear how important it is to her that people locally feel like PEER has got their back, "because some people feel powerless in their home situation." This has meant that Alice’s role at the gallery includes going off-site a lot, meetings and projects at the local college, attending Local Ward meetings. And we discuss the politics of this, the level of responsibility Alice has for locals working on these projects, how involved she can or can’t get when situations between residents and the council arise – and how important it is for her and PEER to represent those residents when they too are a neighbour. "Residents ask you to fix things," but that’s not Alice’s job. Is it?

For me, working in a similar way on projects, i.e The Portland Inn Project, it’s about putting the pressure ON. Not taking it off. To be truly collaborative is about solidarity – and there are certain things that cannot be fixed in this way – that is the job of local services/the council. "Sometimes," Alice continues, "there are snapshots of a failing system, but then you see small moments of great things happening."

These conversations with Alice, I don’t doubt, will continue (I hope) for years. I think we both see sharing this knowledge as a vital way of our learning methods of best practice. PEER is important. As far as East London galleries go, it’s quite an exception. It listens, it works with, and is truly neighbour to the area it sits in – and Alice’s role is imperative in that.

Thank you to Alice White and PEER.


This activity has been funded as part of an Arts Council England National Lottery Project Grant.