Camden Arts Centre celebrates 50th birthday

A Still from UR Feeling by Simon Martin, part of the latest show at CAC picture: Valerie Bennett

A Still from UR Feeling by Simon Martin, part of the latest show at CAC picture: Valerie Bennett - Credit: Valerie Bennett /Camden Arts Cen

Over five decades the centre has gained an international reputation for championing overlooked, emerging artists - with no concession to populism or localism, says Alison Oldham.

Camden Arts Centre is celebrating two anniversaries this year. It’s 50 years since the handsome late Victorian library became an arts centre and 25 years since its current director, Dame Jenni Lomax OBE, was appointed, following the distinguished directorship of Zuleika Dobson.

Originally called Hampstead Arts Centre, it was renamed in 1967 when the council took over. The building was then used by the Hampstead School of Art and there were regular shows by local artists, for whom the centre was a focal point.

There are still studios and an ambitious education programme but the scope of the centre’s activities changed when the school moved away in 1992. That year there was a popular and memorable exhibition of an artist forever associated with Hampstead, Mark Gertler.

Subsequently the emphasis has been on transforming CAC into an institution with an international reputation. One route to this is staging first public-gallery UK exhibitions by overseas artists, such as the Swedish painter of otherworldly narratives, Karin Mamma Andersson in 2007.

Arguably this policy is one reason behind the claim made in promoting CAC’s 50th birthday of it being known as the artists’ gallery: “Its exhibition programme serves as a barometer of artists’ thinking, often championing overlooked but influential artists, supporting emerging artists and regularly presenting shows curated by artists.”

But staging shows by artists whose names are unfamiliar to the public comes at a cost. It works for those looking for a fresh viewing experience but means a loss of visitors attracted by a chance to see favourite artists, as with Gertler, and of those looking for local art.

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Lomax recognises the problems involved in the changes and recently told one journalist “We’ve agonised over our name because people think it’s a community arts centre. They don’t quite link it with major international exhibitions – it can really work against us.”

Since the centre’s £4.2 million makeover completed in 2004, there has been only one major exhibition with a strong local connection, by Hampstead constructionists Kenneth and Mary Martin in 2007. So the description of CAC as “the artists’ gallery” grates with those who feel excluded from exhibiting in the generous spaces to which they once had ready access.

Two artists whose large dramatic abstract paintings have been cited as ideal for the high white-walled galleries are Hampstead’s Sheila Girling (the late Lady Sheila Caro) and Highgate’s Frances Aviva Blane. Lomax has said she believes the gallery in the Swiss Cottage Library provides a public exhibition space for local artists. However its size precludes exhibitions of large works and it does not have the prestige expected by many established artists.

The current CAC exhibitions are quintessential choices. Towards the Land of the Giants is a new series of paintings by Amsterdam-based American artist Jo Baer. Inspired by Palaeolithic cave paintings, these depict evocative imagery from her years living in rural Ireland. Springs, stone alignments and phases of the moon are montaged against rolling green landscapes.

British artist Simon Martin is showing a wordless film titled UR Feeling, his first collaboration with performers – a female dancer and male musician. Through their choreography improvised to visual clues he aims to consider how people feel in response to the inherent codes of the built environment, illuminating experience through the senses.

Whether this is communicated without prior knowledge of his intentions is doubtful. But the soundtrack is unquestionably mesmerising. It includes field recordings from Wapping Old Stairs on the Thames and samples of a reconstructed Lyre, thought to be the oldest stringed instrument, excavated from the ancient site of the Mesopotamian city Ur.

Until June 21 at Camden Arts Centre, Arkwright Road NW3, Tues to Sun 10am to 6pm, Wed 10am to 9pm. For related events see