An Artist-Led History

Celebrating 25 Years Of Cubitt

A Q&A with the current curator of artist-led gallery Cubitt ahead of the ICA's premier of a new documentary about the past and present of the organisation.

Alex Krook and Morgan Quaintance

1 Nov 2016

Cubitt is an artist-led gallery, studios and education provider run on a co-operative model and managed by its member community of over 30 artists and a team of professional staff. This year it celebrates its 25th anniversary with a new documentary on the organisation. Ahead of our premiere screening of Cubitt 25 Years: An Artist Led History on 2 November, current curator Morgan Quaintance discusses the documentary and the organisation.

What made you decide to create a documentary on the history of Cubitt? How did you approach the project?

When I started my fellowship, Cubitt was figuring out how to mark its 25th anniversary, and there was a lot of discussion about open studios and one-off events. These sounded interesting if a little predictable and ephemeral to me, so I thought I could contribute to everyone else’s efforts by making a documentary about the organisation’s history.

The documentary is divided into three sections: Cubitt Artists, Cubitt Gallery and Cubitt Education. I wanted to do it this way so that I could focus on each of the three arms of Cubitt and tell their individual stories. In the Cubitt Artists section there is a mix of archive images (old grainy photos, faxes, visitor books and the odd written insult), interviews with artists from the gallery’s first decade in the 1990s, and archive footage of Kings Cross during that period. What you get from this is a real picture of the highs and lows of running an artists’ led space in the 90s, from managing vast warehouses to navigating the red light district and the drugs traffic that was rife in the area at that time. The Gallery section looks primarily at the Curatorial Fellowship from 2000 to the present, and it features interviews with past curators like Polly Staple, Emily Pethick and Fiona Parry, while the Education section looks at the team’s community work and to key events: the annual ball held for pensioners and a summer school for young people held at Central Saint Martins.

What does Cubitt offer visitors that is different from a traditional gallery?

There’s a really interesting point in the film where former studio holder Emma Kay talks about the moment where Cubitt realized that its identity as a gallery was to have no identity. What she’s talking about is the fact that a gallery’s identity usually stems from the exhibitions and projects it stages, which are devised by a curator. Because Cubitt changes curator every 18 months, it also changes identity every 18 months – or rather, its identity is to have no fixed identity. For me that fluid curatorial identity and the shifting nature of the programme that follows is what keeps Cubitt interesting for visitors, and what also keeps it relevant in these fast-paced and heterogeneous times.

Cubitt is a massively significant institution, and discovering everyone who has been involved or passed through its doors has been a real mind blower.

How has Kings Cross changed over the past 25 years and what has it meant for Cubitt?

I think through the 1990s Kings Cross went through a fast, brutal and unforgiving process of redevelopment, social cleansing and community displacement. Cubitt’s itinerant nature (the fact that it moved three locations in around eight years) is testament to that. Corporate developers were just sitting on the land for decades waiting for the Eurostar to turn up. When it did, they got everyone out and moved the big money in. Now Cubitt’s brilliant education team are involved really closely with both young and old people in Islington and so are at the heart of what is happening in the borough. It’s striking that Islington is one of the most deprived places in the country, and the communities the education team work with and support most definitely feel the brunt of that.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of the project?

I think the most rewarding result of doing this has been how well I’ve gotten to know the organisation. I knew at the beginning that in the process of making this film I’d become one of the few people to have a thorough understanding of Cubitt’s history, and gaining that understanding has really enriched my experience on the fellowship. It’s also been great to connect with some of the early pioneer artists who set things up back in the 1990s, like Helen Ireland and Andrew Carter. Cubitt is a massively significant institution, and discovering everyone who has been involved or passed through its doorswhether it was Tomma Abts, Chris Ofili, or Martin Creedhas been a real mind blower.

It’s striking that Islington is one of the most deprived places in the country, and the communities the education team work with and support most definitely feel the brunt of that.

Having the opportunity to explore the Cubitt archive must have turned up some fascinating things. Any highlights?

I think two of the most interesting things I found in the archive were the collections of documentation around two big shows the artists put on in the 1990s, one from Ida Applebroog and another by Günther Förg. Those names might not sound familiar to younger ears, but both of them had really established international careers and paintings that came with super-hefty price tags. I think the artists were really surprised that they actually got the chance to show them. What you can see in the correspondence and minutes of meetings is that there was a fair amount of panic happening at the time about whether they could actually secure the funds to pull both shows off. Förg was also a pretty controversial figure (I think there were some rumors about fascist sympathies) and so there was some interesting discussion around that plus discovering the fact that the gallery was leaking when they were showing his huge works made me smile.

What next for Cubitt?

It’s difficult for me to speak on what is next for the organisation because my time here is basically up. After we show the film on 2 November I’ve got one more exhibition and then I’ll be leaving in December to move on to new things. But, I’ll be keeping my eye out for who’s appointed next and definitely looking forward to their programme. ■

Cubitt 25 Years: An Artist Led History screens at the ICA on 2 November, followed by a discussion involving Cubitt artists and curators. The event is realised with support from Outset Contemporary Art Fund and the dedication of Cubitt artists and staff

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This article is posted in: Events, Interviews

Tagged with: Cubitt, Gallery, Artists Spaces, Q&A, Documentary