We only really realised twenty two hours ago that it had been ten years this week, I mean, we were vaguely aware, we had been thinking about it, if we should mark it? How we should mark it? Indeed was it worth marking? An awful lot has gone into those ten years, a lot of time, money, emotion, sacrifice, quite a bit of stress, some blood, a fight or two, lots of good people, exciting art, events, paintings, performance, Police raids, artist raids, one dropped sculpture (thankfully it was mine), some battles to make the rent, and mostly some really exciting artists and quite a few shows
We started Cultivate ten years ago this week, we first opened our Doors on September 2ns 2011. We had initially though it would be some kind of collective, a group of like-minded artists, a shared responsibility, it only took a couple of meetings to figure out that was never going to work and so two of us, Emma and I, took the plunge. We were both taking part in various shows, I had just held a rather successful solo show, over in West London, we had been putting on group shows in various spaces, we had put on the Stinging Netil earlier that summer, the success of that event was where the first notions of something more, maybe even a permanent space, were seeded. The Stinging Netil was an art fair, Emma Harvey and I took over a whole East London Market space, they held Markets on a Saturday but on Sunday the market was closed, all that space and all those stalls and no one using them (back then it was more of a car park with a bike repair hut and an old red bus that doubled as an alternative library, a far more friendly inclusive place then the over-priced middle-class hipster hangout it is now). We had something like 40 proper old-school market stalls, each stall taken on by solo artists or groups of artists, I think we all chipped in something like thirty quid a stall, we had a whole day of music, bands, performers, it was a real DIY artist-led thing, we had one hell of a day, the Stinging Netil as already been well documented on these pages, we celebrated the tenth anniversary of that one back in the summer, that day really was something to celebrate, maybe we should have left it there? No, those days and nights down Vyner Street were very very special we don’t regret any of it, not for a moment, the only regret was that we couldn’t get any of the other galleries or the London art press to help us fight to keep it all alive, far too many people took Vyner Street got granted. Ten years ago tonight East London’s art scene was buzzing, First Thursday was buzzing, Vyner Street, Redchurch Street and all points in between, it was all buzzing, there were dozen and dozen of shows opening, it was genuinely exciting, First Thursday always was back then.
And so, full of the high of the Stinging Netil we wanted to do more, initially we were thinking about a big group show and gathering some of the artists together again, back then in 2011 there were lots of spaces and lots of reasonable posibilities, it wasn’t that difficult to find and hire a space for an art show, there was a number of galleries that were just about space to hire, any group of pro-active artists could get together and take the spaces on. True, some of the galleries were run in a very cynical way, some saw us artists as nothing more than cash cows, there were some dreadful artist-exploiting organisations around at the time (one or two still are), and hire prices were on the whole a tiny bit outrageous. We were getting rather sick of the Zap of it all actually, some of us were getting rather angry – ten years later and the situation is far far worse, at least back then there were spaces, there were options, the poisonous thing that is Appear Here hadn’t sucked up all the available spaces and every available empty shop wasn’t immediately converted to become yet another gentrified coffee shop or beard-trimming tattoo bar selling Scotch Eggs at ten quit a shot. There were lots of options along Redchurch Street, Vyner Street, around the East, down Brick Lane, and no we don’t mean the damn Brick Lane Gallery and their millions of pounds for a metre of a wall and their promises of fame and fortune that somehow lots of out of town artists fall for again and again – the more we looked in to things in terms of hiring a gallery space for a one-off show the more we thought about taking on a space for ourselves and our fellow artists. And then we found a beautiful space, it turned out the monthly rent on our own space was going to be cheaper than hiring most spaces for a week would cost us.
And so we did it, we sat outside the pub over the road looking at the space from across the street and then one of us picked up the phone, called the owner and said yes we’ll do it. It wasn’t that difficult, we didn’t have to jump though legal hoops and turn up with references or do that much in terms of bank statements of any of the millions of things we’d have to do now, we simply paid a month in advance and a month’s rent, and signed a simple one page six month agreement with the landlord and off we went. The bills were all included, the place was a wreck, full of junk, it had been used as a gallery before we took it on but it hadn’t been unused for a good few months, they were selling bikes out of the place that summer if I remember it right. The location was brilliant, smack bang in the middle of Vyner Street, right on the corner in the middle of it all, galleries all around us, art and artists everywhere, it wasn’t the biggest place in the world, but we were stupidly excited, an artist-led space right in the middle of it all, doing it on our terms, yes!
I just found this social media post from Friday morning, September 2nd 2011
“So the short version of what happened this mad week goes something like this… A small group of us got a little fed up with the way galleries work for us artists who want to show work, so we thought we’d grab our own space. And if we’re going to do it ourselves then we may as well plant it right in the middle of it all. We’d had our eyes on this empty space right in the middle of the gallery-packed place that is East London’s Vyner Street and the owner, once we’d got hold of him, turned out to be rather keen that art should once again be on show in his empty space (that was apparently just about to become an electrician’s workshop).
So on Wednesday evening at 6pm we signed the papers and took on the space. We put out a shout a couple of hours later, told a few artists about what we were doing, and gave ourselves 22 hours to pull together an art show. It can’t be done they said. At 3pm on Thursday September 1st 2011 we finally got the keys, we found the space still full of old beds and such, we cleared it out and by 5pm the artists we had invited (and a couple who we didn’t expect and who just turned up on the off chance) started turning up with work. We got it all up and opened five minutes late at five minutes passed the announced time of 6pm. Strangely enough we even managed to find a perfectly good white plinth on a rubbish dump at the bottom of the street when we went our searching for something to put some sculpture on.
We knew the street would be busy anyway, First Thursday on Vyner Street, always busy, especially in the middle by the pub, didn’t quite expect so many to come in though, the gallery was busy all night until we were finally ready to drop and we finally locked the doors just after 11pm.
So, art, chaos, beds, hammers, nails, last minute jumping right in at the deep end and opening a gallery, artists getting the spirit of it all and just rushing over with their pieces of work, naked bands covered in red something or other turning up and playing out of the back of a Luton van and playing right outside (don’t ask us, why would such a thing be anything to do with us on an opening night!?), lots of beer, live painting, bodies left on the floor as we left. And a gallery was opened, and hopefully a little more artist-friendly than the norm. Now all we have to do is name it, book some shows and worry about paying the rent each month, if we can break even and survive and put on some exciting events and some quality art for the next six months we’ll be very happy. So what are we going to put on next week? Haven’t a clue yet..”
And that was where it all started, ten years ago this very day. The artists that night who joined us for that opening – us being me, Sean Worrall and Cultivate partner in artistic crime Emma Harvey – were David Agenjo, Infinity Bunce, Danielle Hodson, Stephen Rawlings, Carne Griffiths, Joanna Rose Tidley and an artist we didn’t really know called Gaia who just turned up with a painting as we were all clearing the place out and rushing to hang the show. It wasn’t a bad show considering we had less than a day to pull it together and indeed at 3pm on that Thursday the space was still full of old beds and bits of broken old furniture. The fingers were firmly pointed at us when a band turned up in that van and started playing right outside our new space and naked men painted red and covered in very sticky honey piled out of it and started hugging everyone, it really was nothing to do with us, people still insist it was! It was a glorious day, it was a brilliant night, it was the start of many things, not everyone on the street was happy about us being there but there we were and there we stayed for far longer than the six months we had agreed to take on the space for. And here we are still Cultivating, still putting on shows, plotting shows, two artists and a cast of over two thousand painters, printers, performers, here we are still doing it.
We followed up that first night by rehanging the show and opening properly as “Cultivate Vyner Street” with a show called 22 Hours, we followed up the week after with a show called “What Price Art?” that allowed the buyer to name the price of the art on the wall, then a Steven Rawlings solo show before we really announced ourselves with a very bust group show called Red for the first two weeks and the First Thursday or October, the ten year adventure was underway…
Happy Birthday to us, stay tuned now, more to come, watch this space….