Alex Sainsbury on Raven Row
Alex Sainsbury on Raven Row
The British architectural historian Niklaus Pevsner wrote in 1952 that 56 Artillery Lane in London’s East End possessed “the finest 18th-century shop front in all of the city.” Yet for the past 10 years the building has sat empty with a Grade I architectural preservation order bestowed by English Heritage. On February 28, this will change, when, perhaps ironically, the finest 18th-century shop front will be reborn as a 21st-century nonprofit, Raven Row, an art space that takes its title from the historical name of the curved street.
Adding another twist is that the new enterprise is funded and run by Alex Sainsbury, heir to one of the largest fortunes in Britain.
Sainsbury, 41, is the son of Sir Tim Sainsbury, who, along with his brother John (and, prior to his death, a third brother, Simon) co-owns the eponymous U.K. supermarket giant. The family is also known for its prodigious arts patronage, as evidenced, most famously, by the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery.
With this grand lineage, ARTINFO was surprised to discover a youthful Alex Sainsbury dressed in sneakers and jeans and very much involved in unpacking newly delivered reception furniture when we visited Raven Row last week. He took us on a tour of the three-story Georgian townhouse, which, with its Rococo fireplaces and ornate flourishes, is far from a neutral white cube. Along the way, we discussed the space’s inaugural show (featuring the work of Ray Johnson), the center’s residency program, and how to nourish art outside of the market.
You seem like you’re enjoying yourself!
This is the fun bit, getting furniture delivered and hanging the show. The hard part — getting the building design right, working with the architecture — is all finished now, and the first show is taking shape.
You are starting off with an expansive look at the late Pop artist Ray Johnson. He is pretty unsung compared to some of his contemporaries.
When Johnson and Jasper Johns did a show together in 1958, a critic wrote, “Jasper Johns is exhibiting alongside the rather better known artist Ray Johnson.” Now his work is certainly less famous, and he is hardly cited at all in Europe. Johnson increasingly absented himself from the mechanisms of the art world, despite initially being very much part of the scene — hanging out with Johns, Robert Rauchenberg, Cy Twombly, and later Andy Warhol, whom he knew because they were both involved in commercial design in the early part of their careers.
Johnson is probably best known as the founder of mail art. How did he get into it?
That stemmed from his design work. He initially mailed out illustrations to advertise his services. I suppose, though, that the real origin was when, in his school years, and despite being gay in his adult life, he sent illustrated postcards to a girl he liked.
Why did you choose Johnson for your first show?
First, he has never had a solo show in London. Second, he found ways of working outside the art market, and this space mirrors that endeavor. I have a huge respect for the market — it is the principle generator of visual culture — but at the same time it’s interesting to see what art can do outside of that context. This space can do something that commercial spaces cannot.
Will that be the guiding principle for all of your exhibitions?
Yes, we will always go back to what art can do without commercial restraint. It would be pointless to duplicate a commercial gallery’s activities.
What will you do instead?
If an artist has representation, a show at our space is a chance to exhibit them in a new context. For instance, our second show is of Ann Lislegaard. I would call her a filmmaker, and she also makes sound work, but if she were having a gallery show with Galerie Paul Andriesse in Amsterdam [or Murray Guy in New York], she would show mostly object-based work.
I can also mix and match. I will be showing Lislegaard alongside Thomas Bayrle, an older German Pop artist who has only had one small show in London.
Another new initiative is your residency program. Can you tell me about it?
It’s by invitation only, and the artists we choose will stay in the two flats at the top of the gallery. Our first residents are an international activist art collective, Ultra-red. Their work could end up feeding into the Lislegaard-Bayrle show (which runs concurrently to their residency), but with no specific funding streams I can leave it open. If I had Arts Council funding I would have to have a specific plan.
You’re a collector, too. Will that role feed into Raven Row? Will you showcase work from your collection?
No, I think of the roles very separately. I’m not a massive collector; I like to enjoy the art I own and not just have boxes of it for the sake of ownership. I think my Raven Row activities will be a counteraction to my collecting in that I plan largely to eschew work on walls. The Johnson show is an exception!
You come from a family of collectors. Were you interested in art from a young age?
I was introduced to art when I was a kid by the paintings from my dad’s collection on the walls, but I didn’t feel any family pressure to do this or not do this.
Were you inspired by your family’s history of patronage?
Yes, though I see this gallery as something different. The patronage of a collector is not a full-time job, whereas Raven Row is much more than a charitable company funded by me — I am totally engaged in running it.
I gather that you are not actively involved in the Sainsbury company. Is the directorship of Raven Row your main concern, or do you have other business interests?
I have a grant-making charity, and I sit on a few boards, but my full-time job now is to ensure Raven Row lasts without me running out of steam. This is absolutely my main concern now.