This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen on 03/11/2017.
Croydon Arts Store: Croydon’s culture is in safe hands
‘Meanwhile use’ is proving a vital driver in keeping Croydon’s cultural scene alive.
There are many players in the melodrama of Croydon’s struggle to come into its own as a vital cultural hub. But bigger than Boxpark, or Matthews Yard, or Fairfield Halls, perhaps even bigger than the spectre of gentrification that looms over it all, is the fate of the Whitgift Centre.
Since 2013, the Westfield proposal, a project that would see the existing Whitgift Centre torn down and replaced with a new centre of commerce fit for a world-class city of culture, has been the engine firing Croydon’s new-found self-image. On this stage, Westfield is Godot; it is the driver of everything… but never steps into the light.
So what do we have in 2017, in a community that’s waiting with bated breath to make its next move? A shopping centre that’s gradually sloughing tenants and with every passing month making moves towards a closure that seems to always hover on the horizon. To walk around the Whitgift Centre now is to find a place strangely subdued, a palpable feeling of closure in the air that is common to any other civic precinct on the brink of change. Except that, in one corner by the Wellesley Road entrance, life is finding a way. Something is flourishing.
In the loft, a show of works by local art students
Croydon Council (along with the Greater London Authority and TfL) has put £500m aside for the development of what it calls the Growth Zone. While this program of works is primarily designed to assist Croydon’s regeneration, it crucially includes ‘meanwhile use’ schemes, money for projects that put the empty spaces we are left with while waiting for the future to come to good use. Enter Croydon Arts Store; a four-storey arts space filling the boots of what once was the Grange furniture store.
On 28th September, Croydon Arts Store opened its doors for a grand opening evening. (Constrained as it is by the opening times of the shopping centre it inhabits, the opening was on a Thursday – the one day of the week when the Whitgift keeps selected stores open until 9pm). In the basement, a former storage area is now a maze of artists’ studios for hire, still in varying degrees of completion. On the ground floor, a space owned by Croydon-based artist-led contemporary arts charity Turf Projects features a brand new exhibition by Saelia Aparicio, ‘Peaks & Troughs’. On the first floor are tables and art supplies where children and adults are talking and creating, a table displaying relics from the building’s days as a furniture store, a more straightforward homage to the space’s history than the numerous sly but loving incorporations of its older fittings and fixtures all around and a research space run by the Kingston School of Art proposing a future Croydon biennale and asking visitors how they imagine that would look. Then finally, in the loft is a show of works by local art students in a room that will be free to book for future exhibitions and events by whoever wishes to do so.
All four floors will be open from Wednesday to Sunday, 11am-5pm
Turf Projects, which previously inhabited a space at the foot of the Centrale shopping centre on Keeley Road, has since its inception curated politically-engaged contemporary exhibitions that reflect Croydon and its people. Its inaugural show in its new home at CAS is no different, a solo exhibition by 2016 Bloomberg New Contemporaries alumnus Saelia Aparicio. The work discusses a need for social housing and the use of abandoned buildings, subjects deeply apropos to the show’s location. Alongside the exhibition is a reading room, and a signature of Turf shows; a grass-green rack containing A3 activity sheets for children exploring the exhibition, transforming the often oblique meanings of contemporary sculptures into simple but poignant questions to stimulate deep thought in young minds.
From now and for the rest of the year, all four floors will be open from Wednesday to Sunday, 11am-5pm, with a rotating schedule of talks and exhibitions. At a time when many questions about Croydon’s master plan remain unanswered, it’s refreshing to find the future we were promised springing up already in the unlikeliest of places.