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The Centre of Attention on Channel 4, a feature by Stuart Wright March 2003

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HOME IS WHERE THE ART IS

Art is coming to a front room near you as cash-strapped showcasers use their humble abodes as gallery space. Stuart Wright settles down on the sofa at The Centre of Attention.

 

They say that 'home is where the heart is.' For Pierre Coinde and Gary O'Dwyer it's also where the 'art' is. This is not to suggest they are big or even little league art collectors: far from it. Since 1999, they've used where they live to hold art exhibitions and other, one-off, events. Under the banner of Centre of Attention, they cheekily allude to notions of an art institute and not the domesticity of a home address.

Making your home an art gallery has been common practice throughout art history and can be a useful stepping-stone to showcase new and exciting artists/ideas that a commercial gallery might shy away from.

Open access

Opening your front door to strangers is not as illogical as it might at first sound. It's a space that's always available to you and doesn't require a stint of begging, borrowing and stealing to raise funds. Based in East London's culturally evolving Shoreditch, where the jet set have been snapping up plush loft developments, Pierre and Gary found themselves restricted by rising property values and rent levels.

"I had a friend who took on a shop lease to use as a gallery. After six months, she owed £7,000. So the idea is to start with minimum costs and that way, the project has a chance of lasting," says Pierre.

Stands a chance

Even without the cash flow concerns of a commercial gallery, other challenges still remain: how to entice people to your space; how to get journalists previewing and reviewing your shows and how to attract the odd art buyer.

Pierre provides some hard facts. "After a year, whatever your ambition was, it probably hasn't happened. You do have to persevere. That's what other people who have galleries have said. For one or two years, you don't get a lot of feedback, but after that it stands a chance."

It's all academic

In a sense it's about building a brand and getting the name out there. Pierre remarks, "I suppose we do it in a relaxed way because we're not commercial. So, the shows don't have to be regular. I mean there are about eight shows per year. But if we do a film night, to me that counts as one show because it takes as much preparation as a gallery show."

He adds, "The interesting thing about this is not just about building a brand. It's about how far can you take a brand. It's not about 'we have to build a reputation.' It's more about sounding like an academic centre - like The Ministry of Sound."

No stranger to strangers

Chasing publicity for your shows is an industry all to itself. The bigger or established galleries have professional in-house or public relations companies helping to create interest. For the Centre of Attention, like most new galleries, they started from scratch and have slowly built up a comprehensive contacts database. There is one obvious difficulty - lots of strangers in your house.

"That doesn't bother me. It's quite fun, no?" says a laughing Pierre. "I've been to artist studio open days where artists actually show their work in their house. And it's easy to think, 'my god, these people are completely mad,' because when you go in, there are paintings everywhere - on the walls, on top of the TV, in the kitchen, everywhere!"

"Centre of Attention is much more organised. The space, even though it's lived in, allows itself to be used relatively easily. Possibly people think of Centre of Attention as a gallery where someone actually lives in the back, rather than a flat used as a gallery."

Breaking the US

Projects undertaken by Pierre and Gary are not always done from their home. "The first thing we said about the gallery, when we opened in this place, was that it wasn't a space-specific gallery. So we do about 50% of shows here and the rest are elsewhere," explains Pierre.

In nearly four years they've taken Centre of Attention to various venues in London such as the Notting Hill Arts Club, Wilton Music Hall (Wapping), Shoreditch Church, and St. Martin's College. In addition, they've showed in Berlin and Brooklyn. Their latest and most ambitious project takes them to an empty gallery in San Francisco for the Centre of Attention Search Engine. The idea for the show came about when Pierre was looking to combine his holidays with an art event. Having friends who had recently moved to San Francisco, logic followed that he could use the trip to see his mates and take Centre of Attention to America.

American adventure

Pierre elaborates, "We had done shows abroad before based on video art. You can travel with video art because the transport costs/issues are minimal. But this time we thought it's a bit boring doing a video show. We then had an idea to do something that fits into a bag, like work on paper - but that's boring too.'"

"Then we thought that if we took nothing, the artwork would have to come to us. So we thought we'd get the artists to come in, and present their work to the Centre of Attention panel."

It's like Pop Idol, but for artists. Those that impress Pierre and Gary, get to show. Those that don't… well they leave with their work in the bags or boxes they arrived in. "It's about going somewhere, looking around, seeing what you can find and bringing it back to the gallery," says Pierre. "It's about touring a show. We are looking to do it somewhere else in the autumn. This is, in fact, the only touring show with no work in it, because the show is the concept of the show."

Caught in the web

Running from 23rd - 30th March 2003, Pierre will write a web log of what happens during the duration of the show. Those with web access will be able to see whether the San Francisco gallery is being populated or not with art. Centre of Attention see the web as an important and cost-effective way of giving people access to their projects. "It's always about doing the most with not very much," says Pierre.

Memory lane

When asked to identify their own personal highlights with the gallery so far, Pierre and Gary are modest. Pierre says: "It's not one highlight, it's lots of little highlights. When you get press for your shows - it's always a little highlight. It used to be a very exciting thing, but it's less of a shock to see the name Centre of Attention in print."

Gary is more forthcoming. Immediately he says: "Meeting Genesis P-Orridge (Centre of Attention hosted his Candy Factory exhibition in May 2001) was quite a thrill."

After a little more soul-searching he remembers the film event they put on at Shoreditch church. "It was so well attended - over 400 people. That was quite thrilling. We ran out of pews," he jokes. Pierre joins in: "We had to start at seven and Gary said 'let's make everyone wait outside until seven thirty…and then we'll open the doors.' The weather wasn't good, and we weren't ready. So, at seven fifteen I said to Gary, 'I can see 20 people at the top of the stairs of the church and I think we should let them in because otherwise they're going to go.' So I opened the doors and a flow of people came in; it didn't stop for ten minutes."

Check out Stuart Wright's article in Channel 4's ideas factory here.