The Camberwell Society

Society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell

Fire Station “always ready” for new curators


In September 2023 it will be five years since the South London Gallerys Fire Station annexe opened on Peckham Road. Angela Weight pays a visit

The conversion of the old fire station building aimed for flexibility, so that different spaces could be used in various ways according to need. To begin with, the building comprised three exhibition galleries, an archive room, kitchen, artist’s studio, and education facilities, supplementing those available in the main building. As was foreseen, there have indeed been changes of use, most obviously because of the need for storage space.

The gallery has an ongoing artist residency programme, during which an artist occupies a studio in the Fire Station for six months of the year. Initially the studio was on the top floor at the back of the building, but this space is now used for tech storage. The large light-filled space at the front of the building, known as the attic, is currently used on an occasional basis for educational projects.

The artist in residence now uses gallery five on the second floor as a studio. When not in use by this artist, the studio is used by groups such as Southwark Carers or the School of Speculation, an independent design school which aims to increase diversity in art and design education.

The spacious community kitchen opposite gallery five has a small, wood-floored terrace that opens off one corner, its railings entwined with green plants, giving a tantalising glimpse of nature in this packed urban environment. On the first floor, galleries 3 and 4, either side of the lift shaft, remain as exhibition spaces.

Initially, the ground floor room at the back was an archive room, an unsupervised area where people could access local history material on touchscreen computers. But the space was underused. So, the archive is now accessed via touch screen tablets in the entrance hall, where there is also a computer with a digital map of the local area highlighting points of interest. The back room has now been freed up for exhibition use. The SLG’s own archive since 1993 has been digitised and is available on the gallery’s website, as well as on the tablets in the entrance hall.

The long, narrow entrance hall is double height and top lit. On entering the eye is drawn to the glass wall at the end, behind which is another sliver of garden and greenery. The reception desk is here, but the small retail space has been removed to make space for the archive. There is a pleasing absence of polished concrete throughout. The architects retained the original chevron brick floor in the entrance and wood boards in the exhibition rooms.

Interestingly, the Fire Station receives more drop-in visitors than the main gallery. Whether this is because of curiosity about the building itself or because it does not look like a municipal institution is hard to say. In the summer visitors can relax in outside chairs and tables, but in cold weather there is nowhere to encourage people to hang out. Currently, the large, cobbled forecourt is rather bare, apart from the new colourful digital sign. The plan is to install planters, benches, and outdoor lighting to soften the space, while still allowing access for lorries delivering artworks. However, money is needed to pay for these things.

The SLG has always been deeply embedded in its community, whilst presenting high quality international art exhibitions. It is renowned for its extensive and varied educational programme. In a further endorsement of its reputation in this area, from autumn 2023 the Fire Station will be the operating base for New Curators, an ambitious new charitable organisation whose three directors are all highly experienced ex-Tate curators. It is running a paid twelve-month curatorial programme based in London for individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This sounds like a timely addition - or perhaps a challenge - to London’s existing university-based, fee-paying curatorial training courses.

The South London Gallery will also present New Curators’ first exhibition in 2024. No doubt the Fire Station will play a significant role in the activities of this exciting new venture.

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The Camberwell Society was formed in 1970 and is the recognised amenity society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell.

The Society’s objectives, as defined by our constitution, are: to stimulate public interest in Camberwell, to promote high standards of planning and architecture in Camberwell, and to secure the preservation, protection, development and improvement of features of historic or public interest in Camberwell.

We are a charity and raise money for local charities. In the past we have raised money for Southside Rehabilitation Association, St Giles Trust, Cambridge House, the CamberwellCommunity Choir, the HollingtonYouth Centre and the Camberwell Arts Festival