This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen on 07/09/2017.
Art, inclusivity and the awesomeness of Croydon: the Citizen meets the man behind Warhol Month
Kevin Zuchowski-Morrison explains why he’s filled the streets with Warhol-influenced art.
I’d like to interview more people next to a bomb. Not because of the implied time pressure – this bomb, mercifully is deactivated and covered in paint – but because, well, it’s a bit of a story to tell, isn’t it?
RISE Gallery is full of things that could form the basis of a gripping anecdote, though there’s only one bomb. I’m sitting with Kevin Zuchowski-Morrison, founder of Croydon’s award-winning gallery in St George’s Walk, and the mastermind behind this September’s Warhol Month.
“Warhol Month is a landmark cultural initiative”, he tells me, “dedicated to the life, career and legacy of Andy Warhol. The main driver behind it is taking art out of an institutional environment, the kind of environment where you would normally expect to see this kind of work, and breaking down some of the barriers some people feel exist with art”.
How will those barriers be broken down? “Really it’s about bringing art to a level playing field. The whole month is about inclusivity. It’s so important that it’s something that’s enjoyed and feels attainable by all members of the community, regardless of background.” Kevin and the team have gone to great lengths to reach these goals – there will be tours in minority languages as well as British Sign Language, and ‘relaxed tours’ for people who are less mobile. Most importantly, absolutely everything in the month is free.
“For me, the most important narrative is about free public access to art”, says Kevin, explaining that the decision to make everything free came right at the start of the process. “The tours, the exhibitions, the lectures, the screenings, the all-day activities, the workshops – everything is free. It had to be.”
Another example of this phenomenon is that many people would be surprised by the extent of Warhol’s contribution to the world of film. “He was a really accomplished filmmaker. He made over forty feature films and more than 4,000 screen tests – he used to do screen tests of all his friends. These are very experimental films: there’s thirteen hours of a guy sleeping in Sleep.”
Kevin made his start in the art world as a dealer of Warhol’s works, and his knowledge and experience of the cultural icon comes through as we talk. I find out that Warhol may be the most prolific artist in history, leaving behind somewhere in the region of 95,000 works. I also learn that while widely respected today, Warhol was hugely controversial at his peak. “People at the time called his use of prints ‘the death of art’”, Kevin remarks.
I immediately want to know more about Warhol the man, as well as Warhol the artist. The good news is that just like everybody else, I can go to a series of free lectures that are part of the month. “We’ll be covering his portraits and other subjects, and all the lectures will be to an industry standard. Whether you know a bit about him or are very accomplished in your Warhol knowledge, you’ll find out something new from the heavyweight experts we’ve got speaking.” One such heavyweight is Henry Koelsch, who is flying over from Los Angeles to speak about the artist he has studied for thirty years. Lectures will take place in the Braithwaite Hall and the Spread Eagle pub, while feature film screenings will be in the David Lean Cinema. “We’ll show Warhol’s screentests in a unit in Centrale.”
The most noticeable aspect of Warhol Month is the transformation of Croydon’s streets into impromptu galleries. Kevin and RISE have been behind murals and street art before, but areas outside their usual domain now contain unmissable artwork. What’s the story? “We’ve engaged with a lot of contemporary artists who are influenced by Warhol. What we’ve done is create a street exhibition which pays tribute to Andy Warhol in the thirtieth year since his death.” Kevin tells me how appropriate the use of new works created by artists in tribute to Warhol is – the man himself played such an important role in so many artists’ development.
The art will be on the sides of buildings, or on freestanding structures. “There are twelve artworks that are going to be elevated, most of them are four metres by four metres in size.” Tours of all of the artwork will run at lunchtimes and in the evening, every day throughout September. They last ninety minutes, and if you can’t make it, don’t worry: there’s an app available that lets you do the tour in any order you like, with audio descriptions of what you’re looking at. Kevin’s really pleased about that.
“At the end of the month, the works themselves will be auctioned off to pay for frontline services working with refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Croydon”, he adds, ensuring that the exhibition has an impact beyond its month of existence. But there’s a question that I’ve been meaning to ask. Why bring Warhol to Croydon? What connection does he have to the borough?
“There isn’t a connection”, says Kevin brightly, “but why does there have to be one? When central London hosts an exhibition on Ai Weiwei, nobody goes ‘well, what’s the Chinese connection to London, then?’”. It’s a good point, and we start talking about Kevin’s history with Croydon and his decision to open RISE here three years ago.
“Croydon’s awesome!”, he says immediately, clearly understanding his audience. “The memories that I have of Croydon are from when I was very young – they’re all very positive. One thing that I like about Croydon which you don’t get until you’ve been away and come back is the smell of it. The mix of people is just brilliant.”
Kevin was a private dealer specialising in selling Warhol works to individuals, most of whom were using art as a vehicle for investment. “The subject was almost secondary to that. It dampened the spirit of it for me.” Deciding to open a gallery built on different values, Kevin began scoping out the town of his childhood. “I think that art can be a real catalyst for positive change in a community. We’ve worked with homeless people, people with learning difficulties, and encouraged people to engage with art who previously maybe hadn’t had art in their lives. And we do that in addition to selling works by Banksy and stuff like that. We’re really different to traditional ‘pictures on walls’ galleries!”
RISE chose St George’s Walk as its home because Kevin had been consistently saddened that the neglected shopping parade had never really worked. “I read that Nestlé was leaving its building [at the top of the parade] and that people were really suffering with the state of uncertainty. St George’s Walk has got loads of character, and it feels like the stronghold for independent shops in Croydon now. If you go around the corner, you’re paying a lot more for a unit.” Yards from where we sit, fashionable chain eateries are replacing big chunks of Croydon High Street. Kevin has a point.
Kevin’s very pleased with new St George’s Walk owners RNF. “They’re really lovely and really helpful. Hopefully this is the start of a reinvigoration.” With RISE at its heart and Warhol Month spreading the love across the town centre, it’s hard to not feel hopeful for St George’s Walk and Croydon’s much-maligned cultural offering.
See you on a tour?