Off-Space no 9: The Woodmill, London

Entering the Establishment

By Oliver Basciano

Photo: Michael Heilgemeir

Need your passport photo countersigned? Form an orderly queue at my door. For I’m now a director and trustee of a registered company, which, in the eyes of HM Government, means I’m part of the establishment. The company is question is the nonprofit London-based gallery and studios the Woodmill GP. In reality what my new position entails is a meeting every few months to marvel at the industriousness of the core team of artists who actually run the outfit, placing my signature on a few forms and ensuring I’m one of the first through the door at their events. It’s everyone else involved who did all the hard graft of negotiating charity status, finding a suitable property and ensuring that studio rents come in and bills get paid.

The first part of this organisation’s name comes from its previous location – the Woodmill building, rundown former council offices in Bermondsey, southeast London, that, from 2009 to 2011, was home to a hundred artists, designers and filmmakers. The rent-free use of that site was negotiated with Southwark Council, which was happy to have someone filling up the otherwise abandoned complex before the bulldozers moved in and new apartment blocks went up. There was a large yard that invariably had one or other of the studio holders constructing a work that couldn’t fit in the (nevertheless spacious) confines of their individual units, a view from the roof that stretched over the city and a gallery in which the various solo and group shows – featuring mostly younger, emerging, artists – shared space with ivy and other types of invasive undergrowth that were slowly inserting themselves through the walls. When an exhibition opened, the absence of residential neighbours meant that it was possible to throw an ambitiously sized and late-running party to celebrate. It was always going to be temporary, yet instead of bemoaning this lack of security – which is intrinsic to running a low-cost gallery in a city with a property market that’s as aggressive as London’s – the organisation has assumed it as part of its identity.

During a short period of itinerancy, enforced by the end of the tenancy, the six original studio holders – Naomi Pearce, Stuart Middleton, Anna Baker, Angharad E. P. Williams, Richard Sides and Alastair Frazer– in liaison with their newly founded board of trustees spent many hours working out what the Woodmill should be (as well as searching for a new location – no former primary school, warehouse or empty retail unit was left unturned). The upshot of this was a decision to build the idea of constant flux into the organisation’s character. This resolution was not just a pragmatic one, but also one that resonated with the Woodmill’s desire for perpetual reinvention, for avoiding its own establishment and for eschewing any desire to become an institution with permanent footings. Happily ensconced, for now, in a former doctor’s surgery (which supplies the ‘GP’ part of the new name: ‘general practice’) – in which the old waiting room doubles as a shared studio and temporary exhibition and screening space (dinners, gigs and workshops are on the cards), with each of the doctor’s offices becoming private work digs, including a gratis residency studio – the Woodmill will move on again after one year. And it will voluntarily repeat this annual migration for the foreseeable future. Each time it moves, the Woodmill will evolve: it may become more popular; it will engage with more people; it may get written about more; the gallery footfall may increase; the space it occupies may be larger; it may move somewhere smaller. But by the nature of its instability, it won’t put down roots. It won’t be forced into an upward trajectory. Which, in a world dominated by the socioeconomic buzzwords of ‘growth’ and ‘development’, where artists are categorised as failures if they don’t move from the ‘emerging’ label to ‘midcareer’ or ‘established’, is a pretty grand ideal.