Turning into the alley that houses the Nunnery Gallery, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into another century. Until you look up that is. The alley is a Dickensian picture of rusty red brick facades looming over a cobblestone pathway, but above hang dozens of lights, like great neon raindrops suspended in air.
It’s fitting that the Nunnery should have such an eclectic setting. Tucked away and out of sight, the gallery has been 150 years in the making, during which time nuns, craftspeople, and artists have all called the space home. Today, free to the public and open Tuesdays to Sundays, the Nunnery offers a diverse gallery programme with a focus on local heritage.
We caught up with gallery director Sophie Hill and Bow Arts founder Marcel Baettig to discuss the gallery’s evolution from creative commune to grown up exhibition space.
It has always been something of a hub. Sophie Hill has worked at the gallery for three years and still relishes its position at the centre of Bow Arts’ headquarters on Bow Road. A resident of Roman Road for years, Sophie was drawn to the idea of integrating art with its surroundings.
‘It is a cultural community,’ she tells us. ‘Our artists range from what you would think of as fine artists — so painters in a studio — but also makers, designers, and other vocations. We have architects next to us. It’s a rare and special thing to be surrounded by that.’
The Nunnery Gallery has been a haven for East End culture since opening in 1998, and local groups are essential to how it operates. Bow Arts’ education program works in over 100 schools in the surrounding boroughs, and the gallery has worked hard to build relationships groups like the Bromley by Bow Centre and the Idea Store.
Local people come to see the Nunnery, but the Nunnery also goes out into the area. The gallery is currently doing a residency in partnership with Poplar HARCA on Stroudley Walk. Artist Emma Curd operates an open-door policy in one of the empty shop fronts, inviting passers by in for a cup of tea and chat about Sylvia Pankhurst, who gave a speech there during the height of the Suffragettes powers.
Sophie’s face lights up as she’s telling me about this. ‘You have to do some things on the ground. Social media is great, we can tweet and instagram out of our ears, but actually a lot of those local users won’t be following us, might not even have constant Internet access at home.’ Building relationships requires a material presence. ‘It’s really word of mouth and work on the ground that does that better.’
The Nunnery’s self-sufficiency is key to all of this. Bow Arts was set up as a creative enterprise, something that wasn’t reliant on grant funding. ‘Unless you’re a really successful commercial gallery, the gallery model doesn’t make money,’ Sophie tell us.
‘You need to sell an awful lot of work if you worked that way. While some of our exhibitions do sell work, that’s not their main driver. Our exhibitions are very much about highlighting local history.’
One of the most popular examples of this has been the ongoing Raw Materials research projects. The gallery works with community members to explore the Lea Valley’s industrial heritage.
Each year looks through the lens of a different material. 2017 was wood, 2018 was textiles, and next year will be plastics. ‘Those ideas wouldn’t come through if we were totally reliant on selling work all the time,’ Sophie says with a smile.
It’s at about this point that we’re joined by Marcel Baettig, the messiah of Bow Arts (Sophie’s words, not ours). Marcel founded Bow Arts in 1994 and its first Bow Road site soon provided studio space to over 100 artists. When the charity received a grant from Arts Council England in 1998, it was able set up a gallery, somewhere anyone could go for free to see the work being done.
The building Marcel opted for, an old convent, was derelict. The restoration was done in-house. ‘We had no heating, we had no proper lighting,’ he recalls with clear delight. ‘There were walls and floors and we cleaned. We loved it.’
‘Back then it was very much an artist project space. Because of our geography at the very eastern end of Tower Hamlets, we were a dedicated journey.’
Early shows were a collaborative affairs curated by volunteers. It wasn’t until 2011 that the gallery was able to fund a permanent gallery director post. ‘That was when the Nunnery really changed from a project space to a proper contemporary gallery.’
Whatever the contents, the Nunnery is a truly unique space. Its nave has the original arches and tiles of the 1800s, and mysterious trapdoor leading to nowhere. Its historic connections go back as far as Chaucer, who referenced ‘the scole of Stratford atte Bowe’ in the Canterbury Tales.
‘It’s all in that context of what I would call the gateway to London,’ Marcel says. ‘In one sense the Nunnery Gallery is the first gallery as you go into London, and I’ll stand by that.
Does he miss the more fluid early days of the gallery? In a sense. ‘I like that self-help art world,’ he says. ‘I think it’s quite visceral, quite exciting, has a lot of ideas in it, and now things are more arm’s length.’
But holding onto the past is not what the Nunnery is about. Exhibitions like that of the East End Group are products of the gallery’s evolution. ‘Spaces have to change, they have to change and move on naturally with what they’re trying to do.’
Under Sophie’s guidance, the Nunnery is doing lots of new things. It commemorated Bow Arts’ 20th year by launching a series of prints, each by a different artist the charity has supported. A new print is added to the selection each year – a testament to the gallery’s vibrant, ever-present ethos.
The Nunnery’s current exhibition, Visions, is a showcase of moving images selected from over 1,500 worldwide submissions. Very modern, but Sophie is quick to note the first iteration of Visions was all the way back in 1999, when the name of the game was VHS tapes in bin bags. In January next year the gallery will presenting a retrospective of Doreen Fletcher’s work. That blend of tradition and innovation, artists and community, still sits at the heart of the Nunnery’s work.
As Marcel notes, that’s likely what has helped it to flourish. ‘Unless you are a West End gallery and you are about sales, then you’ve got to be about the making of work and how that work goes together. I think there are an awful lot of galleries that are too interested in themselves and their own cleverness, and what I like about the Nunnery is it’s very interested in the process of creating art and putting shows together with people. It feels a little bit more honest.’