From the deserts of Arizona to a crumbling Victorian school building in Bloomsbury, that’s the incredible back story of a gallery usually mentioned in the same sentence as pioneering and innovative.
Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, the October Gallery has been revisiting those it has championed over the years, a long and impressive list that includes beat generation scribe William Burroughs and his ‘cut up’ art, installation artist Romuald Hazoumè and the painters Kenji Yoshida and Aubrey Williams.
Many of those featured in recent birthday show, Dream No Small Dream, owe their arrival on the international stage to debut shows at the gallery, which opened in 1979 with the bold declaration that it would be promoting “artists from around the planet”.
One of the gallery’s founders, the American polymath John Allen, even coined a term for this – ‘transvangarde’. Short for trans-cultural avant-garde, the aim was to challenge the dominance of orthodox western art.
“Transvangarde was embedded in the gallery’s concept from the very beginning and meant reaching out and bringing in other cultures. It was an inclusive vision to understand that the world was not a small place,” explains Elizabeth Lalouschek, who has been the gallery’s artistic director since 1987.
She adds: “We were pioneers in our showcasing of contemporary African art. People came here because there was no where else to go. It was hard to push the door open and it was only in the early 2000s that we started to make progress and the mainstream moved in our direction.”
One of those who reaped the benefits of this was the Ghanaian metal work sculptor El Anatsui. Little known outside of West Africa when he was first exhibited at the October Gallery in 1995, he is now considered a major figure on the contemporary arts scene, one whose striking wall hangings have graced the Vienna Biennale and Royal Academy of Arts, and currently Munich’s Haus der Kunst as part of a retrospective show.
Elizabeth, a graduate of the Royal College of Art, came across his work by chance in the early 1990s and recalls how difficult it was in the pre-internet age to track him down. “It took us several months to get there after we put the word out that we wanted to contact him. But it was well worth the effort.”
The resulting exhibition, the first of several at the gallery over the years, caught the eye of the British Museum, which, aside from taking up the baton to promote El Anatsui, has now become one of the October’s principle collaborators.
The gallery’s expansive vision is inextricably bound up in the extraordinary figure of Allen, now 90 and in his element at a recent talk there as part of a series of anniversary events. One day a metallurgist, the next a poet, philosopher and adventurer, he is better known as the instigator of Biosphere 2, a sustainable ecology project based in the Arizona desert, which itself inspired the Eden Project in Cornwall.
Joining him on an earlier desert venture was October Gallery director Chili Hawes. Their mission was to not only to save the world but change it. “This was the 1960s when there was a real opening up of new ideas. We were very idealistic. It was incredible – we just wanted change,” she tells me.
In their quest to create a permanent platform for the free exchange of ideas, the group travelled to England in the early seventies. “We came to London because even then it was culturally diverse,” Chili explains.
Tucked away in a narrow street just off Queen Square was a derelict but lovingly designed three-storey building dating back to 1863 that had once served as the girls’ section of St George the Martyr School. After purchasing it for £200,000, the 12-strong team began the work of refurbishing it in their usual hands-on fashion. It was October 1978.
“It was in an extremely poor state and smelt very bad because there was a lot of dry rot and no drainage. But we managed to open to the public by the following February with our first exhibition,” she adds with a flourish.
The October Gallery quickly became a cultural hub, where art, performance and debate would seamlessly rub together and visitors could experience work seldom seen in Europe, or even heard of.
Since 1986 it has furthered its reach with a thriving education arm, with workshops linked to the gallery’s exhibition programme. Regent High in Somers Town was among the more than 80 schools it has recently worked with.
Now that the artistic landscape has begun to shift towards greater diversity, the Gallery has to compete on a bigger stage, which puts the squeeze on small charitable concerns like itself. But its June exhibition, Hidden, British sculptor LR Vandy’s first solo outing that includes her acclaimed ‘Hull’ series, demonstrates that it still has its finger on the pulse when it comes to championing emerging talent.
October Gallery, 24 Old Gloucester St, London WC1N 3AL. For details of current and forthcoming exhibitions and events ring 0207 242 7367
This article appeared in the Camden New Journal group of newspapers in July 2019