Camden Close-up: Jenni Lomax

In summer 2017, Jenni Lomax stepped down as Director of Camden Arts Centre, after 27 years at the helm. Lomax became Director of Camden Arts Centre in 1990, and established a forward thinking programme of international exhibitions, artists’ residencies and education projects, all of which have artists and their ideas at the core. Love Camden spoke to her about her time at the Centre, taking its building as a starting point for a conversation about memories, legacy and the core concepts that make the Centre what it is today.

Jenni Lomax
© Hugo Glendinning

1. The Entrance

LC: Tell us about that first day when you started at CAC, and what you thought the moment you set foot through the door? What were your thoughts about the space, what were aspirations and how do you look back on that day now? What made you take on the job?

JL: I took on the job because of Camden Arts Centre’s long and respected association with art education and the potential offered by the arrangement of the building. To have studio and workshop space as well as galleries was inspirational; leading to plans to invite artists to work on site and to develop an artists’ centred programme of public events, residencies and exhibitions. I also enjoyed the building’s history. Having previously been a public library, its fabric retains a strong atmosphere of discovery and learning. My first day at work was very memorable in that the floors collapsed in a 1960s extension to the building that was being used for drawing classes. This event confirmed the need to quickly draw up plans for some serious building renovations.


2. The Foyer

LC: If you stand in the foyer, with the building rising up above you, can you say something about how much the building has grown around you?

JL: What is now the foyer has only been so since the major building development in 2004. Before then you entered the building from the rather grand external steps, through the gated entrance and into the piano nobile. The bookshop was there to greet visitors as they entered as it does in its new location today. Over the past 27 years the building has been adapted to become more accessible to everyone and to be even more welcoming through the addition of a café and the beautiful open garden. Our artistic and education programmes have grown too with the upgraded facilities in the gallery and studio spaces. Tony Fretton Architects who designed the remodelling of the building were careful to keep the character of the original architecture so that there is an important feeling of continuity and enhancement rather than abrupt change. Camden Arts Centre has basically been my home since I arrived in 1990 so leaving was a big thing. However, I know that my successor Martin Clark understands the close relationship our regular visitors have with the building and that it will be important to retain their appreciation and fondness for the space. It is always good to look forward and every organisation needs a fresh wind to blow through it at certain times. I am very confident that Martin will build on what is now a very strong foundation to take CAC on to an exciting new phase.


3. The Stairwell

LC: A stairwell is the spine of any construction, do you feel a special affinity for this space? Can you tell us something about the importance of legacy and the relation between the Stairwell, as you have noted in keeping a history of the venue, its use and past exhibitions upon the walls in this space? And the Camden Art Centre’s archive which is up another set of stairs, the beautiful iron spiral staircase on the first floor?

JL: The programme timeline that you refer to was first installed in 2010 to acknowledge 20 years of our artists’ residency programme. Its location in the main stairwell leading up to the galleries and Artists’ Studio means that most visitors get to look at the chart. It is interesting to see the pattern of the exhibitions and the artists-in-residence from 1990 to now. For younger visitors especially this wall is a good art history lesson and a reminder of how many amazing artists have exhibited and worked in the building over this time.

The timeline is backed up by all the material relating to Camden Arts Centre’s 52-year history that is housed in our archive at the top of the original spiral staircase that leads up from the Artists’ Studio. Much of the archive is now accessible through our website and eventually we plan to have documents and images digitised so that the online archive tells the story right from the beginning in 1965.


4. The First Floor

LC: This is the original entrance space, which was later transformed into the Reading Room with the Artists’ and Drawing Studios on either side. How does this space reflect your past in education at the Whitechapel? Does it reflect how important it is for you that art spaces are open to everyone; can you share your vision on creativity, accessibility and engagement?

JL: As I mentioned earlier, the mixture of studio, workshop and gallery spaces was something that attracted me to Camden Arts Centre. The fact that what became the Artists’ Studio and Drawing Studio are on the same level as the gallery spaces – all the doors lead from one central area – means that there is no hierarchy; the residencies, courses, education workshops and exhibitions have equal importance. Along with the Reading Room, that can be a project space or an exhibition resource area, the activities in all these rooms add to the depth of our visitors engagement with contemporary art. It is the role of a public arts space to have as many open doors as possible so that people can encounter art and ideas in different ways.

Our residency programme has been very much at the heart of CAC since I started here. The presence of working artists has lent a strong atmosphere of making to the building. An amazing line of artists have been resident in the Studio or the Ceramics space downstairs, all of whom have contributed both to the public programme through talks, events, film screenings and so on, and to the exhibition programme by feeding in ideas and sometimes showing work themselves at a later date.


5. The Garden

LC: Going out into the garden, can you say something about that space, the commissions you have featured there such as Aaron McPeake?

JL: One of the ideas that the architect Tony Fretton worked around was how to make the outside of the building work with the inside and you can see this particularly with the relationship of the café to the garden. We commissioned the artists and architects collective Muf, to design the terrace and the overall feel of the garden, which they did in consultation with our visitors – in particular with children who enjoy its wildness. Aaron’s sound work, calibrated in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, is incredibly popular with our young visitors. We have had other temporary works outside as part of exhibitions including Shelagh Wakely‘s exhibition in summer 2014 and Duro Olowu’s curated show Making & Unmaking in 2016.


6. The Exhibition Spaces

LC: The exhibition spaces are the heart of the building. In these spaces you programmed a lot of strong female artists throughout your time at CAC, some of whom got their first ever show here. Can you describe how, in turn, artists like Chantal Akerman, Kara Walker and Sophie Calle have influenced you and impacted upon the gallery?

JL: I have always seen exhibitions as thinking machines. One of the my main motivations is to show the work of artists that I really want to know more about and to work with them to present something that is important to their thinking at the time. Spending time with an artist’s work in the galleries helps to draw out threads that form the pattern for the future programme – one thing leads to another if you take time to understand the concepts and connections. For many of the artists who we have shown, their exhibition at Camden Arts Centre was the first in the UK, or in London, or in a public space. Artists like Mamma Andersson, VALIE EXPORT, Dorothea Tanning and Mary Heilmann were all fairly well known throughout Europe but had not had significant shows in London before ours.

Jenni Lomax is an independent curator and former Director of Camden Arts Centre. Martin Clark, formerly Director of Bergen Kunsthall, joined Camden Arts Centre in September 2017.