“A big part of the space is about storytelling. It’s a place where people are invited to talk about themselves, their history, their past, their identities,”
Located in a recently decommissioned bank vault at 93 Baker Street, The Koppel Project is an all-encompassing creative centre, hosting a contemporary art gallery, creative work and learning space, a cafe and Phaidon’s only UK bookshop.
The aim of The Koppel Project is to expand the art audience and make the experience as inclusive as possible. To achieve this, The Koppel Project mentor artists and writers and run a programme of free cultural events.
Supported by Aid for All Ltd and Free2Learn they offer traineeships, work experience, and mentoring programs. The Koppel Project is a non-profit venture, run by creative director and co-founder Gabriella Sonabend and Hannah Thorne, the gallery co-director and co-curator. We caught up with Gabriella who told us of how it all began, her background and education in the art world and the Latin American influence, which has directed the culture of the gallery and the ensuing exhibitions.
Hi, Gabriella! Please, can you introduce The Koppel Project?
The Koppel Project is a creative hub, with its core as a contemporary art gallery but we are very much a social space. Our art gallery is located in an underground-decommissioned bank vault; we have a cafe, a Phaidon bookshop and a co-working area upstairs. Because we appreciate how difficult it is to find an art space in Central London we are savouring every second of being here and trying to be as socially engaged as possible. We have a very different mentality to other galleries because we strive to be a creative work, learning and social space, which is formed by our community. We hope to break down barriers and broaden the art audience making the gallery experience as inclusive as possible.
Because our ground floor space is an open, bright and welcoming café and bookshop, often people wander in without knowing we have a gallery, some of these people might never have visited a contemporary art exhibition before and are lured into our vault gallery and surprised and overwhelmed but what they find.
We have adopted quite a Latin American attitude here, with a ‘seize the day’ approach. I have been very influenced by other spaces around the world, after having lived in many different countries, inspired by the immediacy of certain creative projects and a freedom, which we often lack in the UK. Although we plan our exhibitions far in advance, we don't worry about months of planning ahead for events and talks; we just get on with it.
TI(L): Which is why you have made such tremendous progress since your launch just a few months ago, with your spontaneity!
Yes spontaneous, but more seizing the moment and seizing the day. People often come in and say they have a crazy idea for an event, it’s totally mad but have a listen. And if we think it’s good, we might just program it for next week!
TI(L): So can you take us back to how this all came about?
In 2014 I spent 7 months in Colombia with Sol Bailey Barker (my collaborative) researching Colombian history and mythology, travelling across the entire country, collecting stories and responding to events and histories. The project expanded and grew, we lived in many landscapes including in the heart of the Amazon jungle in a mud hut for 2 months. We went very off grid and I wasn’t sure if we would end up coming back to London, but we did, bringing with us a significant body of work. I had created a large painting series.
Back in London, I was at a dinner party where I met Gabriel and Gabriella Gherscovic, I told them about my project in Colombia. They asked to see my work, I showed them some of my paintings, which they loved and they offered me an exhibition in their gallery in Holborn. From that point things accelerated rapidly, I was offered a studio space in Holborn and Gabriel became a mentor to me. We discussed how his current gallery could function better and shared ideas of exciting potential projects. During this time 93 Baker Street became available for lease and Gabriel was interested in running a project their, which involved a community and education programme and engaged with culture. However, the building was 3 stories with an enormous bank vault and he wouldn’t need it all for his education programme. Knowing that I really wanted to run a creative space he offered me the opportunity to put together a business plan.
I went along and visited the space; at that point it was a derelict bank with low ceilings, horrible floor tiles, graffiti on the walls, bordered up windows and dodgy electrics… The ex-bank workers had crudely drawn on the walls, and they had used one of the pillars to mark their heights. The bank vault had no light and seemed to be endless, we walked around with torch light and I couldn’t believe my eyes, it seemed like the perfect gallery space.
I put together a plan for a multi-disciplinary, self sustained, socially engaged space and Gabriel took an enormous leap of faith in me facilitating and guiding the making of The Koppel Project. It has been an incredible journey, and it’s all happened so quickly. I have rapidly had to evolve from artists to businessperson learning about every aspect of business from marketing to sales, to working with suppliers and managing teams. We got access to the space in October, started renovating around January, opened in March and here we are!
We collaborated with great brands to furnish the space; it’s thanks to them and our Danish designed Bjorn Huges that it looks so amazing. Our furniture is from Kartell, Atrium supplied our lighting, our flooring is from Pur Natur and is sustainably sourced Douglas Fir from the Black Forest in Germany. Then, of course, we have the Phaidon bookshop. As soon as we got the space, I began to build a relationship with Phaidon. From the beginning I was set on working with them, I have always loved their publications and felt that both visually and content-wise their books are extremely considered and have an integrity I really respect. When I realised they didn't have a London shop I immediately got in contact. Our relationship has really flourished. We now host Phaidon book launches, author talks and children’s workshops. We have a very busy schedule throughout September – November.
We have also just opened our co-working hub. There you can rent a desk for a day, a week or a month. And with our membership package, you get discounts on books, coffee and invites and priority booking to our events.
TI(L): It’s like a members club!
Yes, but an affordable one! We want it to be affordable. I was not interested in opening an art space in Peckham where all the artists already are. A lot of artists are being forced out of London, and it was really important to find a space where they could be brought back. It's exciting; it’s almost feels slightly radical. We are reclaiming this territory for creatives whilst giving back to the community as well.
We are on a bit of a social campaign here! There is this assumption, which people have, that if you live in a particular part of London, you’ll be a certain type of person. There’s a misconception this area is only lived in by the super rich. But the truth is the people who live around here are from all walks of life, with every different kind of career going and all are welcome here.
TI(L): How involved is Gabriel, does he spend a lot of time here?
Yes, he is very hands on. He is the Managing Director/CEO so he is always mentoring, guiding and helping us with the business. We are not, and we have no intention of making a profit. Any profit we make goes straight back into the project to fund the arts. That's the whole idea, but obviously, we have to function as a business otherwise we won’t be able to afford to be here and Gabriel continues to mentor me in how to run a successful business.
Gabriel’s main company is called Free2Learn, it’s an amazing education company providing free apprenticeships and vocational training to people who have recently become unemployed. The Koppel Project is aligned with Gabriel’s passion for education and we are always discussing ways in, which our programme can help to support a wide group of people.
CREATING AN INCLUSIVE SPACE
"Our generation is about to inherit the responsibilities and issues of the world, and there are many people who do want to take responsibility and are very conscientious."
I feel very strongly that our exhibitions and events need to accessible, and many people should have the opportunity to be involved. Our previous show referenced the refugee crisis, we worked with six artists, whose worked explored notions of displacement, freedom and dependency. The exhibition coincided with Refugee Week, during which we programmed 5 evenings of events including a talk by Baroness Helena Kennedy, a brilliant human rights lawyer, discussing the refugee crisis; followed by interviews with the artists in the show. Our last literary event was completely booked up with 60 people squeezed into the vault, right in the middle of the exhibition, I’ve never witnessed so many people at an experimental poetry reading before; it was extraordinary. Our Programme Co-ordinator, Max Vickers is brilliant at bringing talented people of different disciplines together and hosting hi-brow yet accessible events. In the next few months we will be hosting a series of live-readings, a talk by a former UN member who protected the rights of indigenous peoples in Latin America, artist talks, storytelling workshops and book launches.
TI(L): It’s fantastic that there are so many young people getting involved in events like this.
Well, it’s amazing that despite Brexit, and the feeling that the world seems to be in a state of terror and turmoil, we have the privilege of witnessing so much optimism that seems linked to creativity and social engagement. We can't lose sight of that. Our generation is about to inherit the responsibilities and issues of the world, and there are many people who do want to take responsibility and are very conscientious. This project has fuelled my own optimism and really reinforced by belief in the power of community spaces and creative platforms.
At the core of The Koppel Project we are focused on storytelling. We invite people to talk about themselves, their history, their past, their identities, whatever it may be, our role is to listen to and form a programme that reflects the needs and concerns of the world around us.
CHOOSING THE ARTISTS
As an artist, I have participated in quite a few international art residencies and I’ve exhibited internationally. As a result of this, I’ve met fascinating artists from all over the world, staying in touch and following the progress of their work. I continuously visit exhibitions, read proposals and watch artists careers developing. I studied at The Slade School of Art, through which I formed a large network of artist friends, I was very privilege to be studying with an exceptionally talented peer group and some of these artists for example Harriet Poznansky, I still work with today.
Hannah Thorne, who is my co-curator and who co-directs the gallery, has worked in Mexico, Peru, the USA and London with many brilliant artists, curators, foundations and collectors. Hannah and I have extremely similar taste and are both obsessed with stories. Working alongside her I have been able to reach new artists and expand my knowledge of the Latin American art scene, which has been particularly exciting. We both work with artists that are international, and we both have a strong focus on Latin America, which will be the direction of the gallery over the next six months.
This September ‘Mitologia De La Tierra’ an exhibition of 7 contemporary Colombian artists opens at our Baker Street site in parallel with ‘From Myth To Earth’ an exhibition based on my original collaboration with Sol Bailey Barker at our new gallery in Holborn. Following these exhibitions we will be exhibiting the lifetime works of Jose Nava, a self-taught Mexican painter, who at the age of 80 will have his debut exhibition of an extraordinary and unique body of work at our Baker Street site. This exhibition is sponsored by Phaidon.
‘IT’S ALWAYS THE OTHERS WHO DIE’
The current show “It’s Always The Others Who Die,” features Nicholas Abrahams, Louise Ashcroft and Nicholas Pankhurst.
Nick Abrahams is a somewhat of a cult figure, a filmmaker who work varies from music videos for The Manic Street Preachers to the Bruce Lacey Experience, made in collaboration with Jeremy Deller. He is a very eccentric, engaging, provocative and imaginative artist. In this exhibition his works play with the relationships between humans and animals, featuring a film said to be originally made by Marcel Duchamp and later re-discovered and worked into by Abrahams.
Nick Pankhurst is a bit of a rising star. His work is a physical and visual manifestation of all the insane things that seem to be going on his head. His work draws on everything; from conversations he has with people on the tube to memories to dreams. His work is very raw and vibrant and has a distinctly refreshing and original feel to it. In this exhibition his immersive installation has entranced everyone who enters it.
Louise Ashcroft is really interesting; her work exists in a territory somewhere between comedy, performance art and real life. As well as being an artist she runs a professional development course at the Chisenhale Gallery, teaches children’s workshops at the Tate and always seems to be involved in socially engaged projects and studio spaces. She mentors young artists and is just a wonderful person who is incredibly kind and generous with her time. In this exhibition Louise has taken the central vault with an installation of ready-mades, surreal sculptures and videos and audio works collecting snippets of everyday conversations.
On the 8th September ‘From Myth To Earth’ opens at our new space The Koppel Project Hive (26 Holborn Viaduct) this is the project that I mentioned earlier that began in Colombia and somehow lead to the creation of The Koppel Project. This exhibition will be a fully immersive, multi-sensory experience, bringing together two and half years of research, a body of new sculptures, audio narratives, paintings, a book, which we are launching at the exhibition opening, an the installing of two monumental sculptures at Holborn Circus. In the exhibition space there will be a landscape of sculptures and a bus shelter that the audience can sit in and listen to stories on headphones. These are stories I wrote during and after living in Colombia, each story draws on personal accounts, research, myth and folklore and each goes with one of Sol’s sculptures, which he created in Colombia and left in situ to communities and landscapes.
The parallel exhibition ‘Mitologia de la Tierra’ will be curated by Sol Bailey Barker and I and opens at The Koppel Project (Baker Street) on 15th September. We have invited artists we met and saw the work of in Colombia, who we felt had varied and insightful ways of responding to and presenting the complex histories and identities of their country. With thanks to the Arts Council, 3 of those artists will be travelling to London for the exhibition (bringing with them the works of the others). These artist will be leading talks and workshops and working with the Latino communities of Wards Corner in North London.
One of the artists we have invited to London is called Ivan Castillo. We met Ivan at an artist residency in Cali called Lugar A Dudas, his work holds both a poetic and articulate way of engaging with history, that Sol and I found incredibly moving and informative. His series ‘One Night’, drawings of the night sky after massacres committed in Colombia in its recent history, will be exhibited in ‘Mitologia De La Tierra’. These works reflect on shared histories, whilst acknowledging the distance between events, geographically and psychologically.
I studied at the Slade, and I spent half a year at the Bezel Academy of Art and Design (the art academy in Jerusalem), and I also studied Tibetan Buddism at SOAS for a year. I’ve worked across many disciplines, predominantly as a filmmaker, writer, painter and I have also worked in theatre. My work is all storytelling; it’s always about other people and communities. Often I focus on people whose voice has been taken away, those who have been pushed to the outskirts of society or perhaps live in a restricted psychological environment. I am interested in interior and exterior worlds and the daily contradictions, which makes us human.
Are your family from a creative background?
My family have always loved the arts and been obsessed with artists and their stories. My grandparents ran a small gallery in the 70s, which gave artists their first show, my great aunt was friends with the great Surrealists who lived in Belgium and France and always had stories about Man Ray and Magritte. My mother is very creative and is always making something or getting involved in cultural projects. Both my parents love visiting galleries and always took me to visit shows and big collections as a child. My cousin Yolanda was a costume and set designer at The Royal Ballet, she used to teach at the Slade and she took me to see a show there when I was only 6, which I never forgot. Historically we are the same family as the Sonnabend Gallery in New York but we never knew Illeana and it always felt more like a wonderful myth!