Jules Wright / The Wapping Project Bankside-Mayfair
Feisty, flame-haired Australian Jules Wright came to the UK as a Commonwealth Scholar in 1975. She studied for a PhD in Psychology, simultaneously began directing at the Theatre Royal in Stratford East, and also became the first female director of the Royal Court Theatre. In 1993, she acquired a derelict power station building in Wapping and launched The Wapping Project, turning the site into a restaurant and arts venue, hosting large-scale exhibitions and celebrity-filled opening night parties. In 2009, she additionally launched The Wapping Project Bankside, next to Tate Modern, a commercial gallery, focused on lens-based media. Earlier this year she ended her lease on both and September sees the launch of her new venue, The Wapping Project Bankside-Mayfair, in Ely House, home to Mallett, on Dover Street.
Anna McNay met with Wright to discuss this venture, her work as a whole, and her views on the photographic medium.
Anna McNay: What where your goals initially, when you set up The Wapping Project?
Jules Wright: Oh, my goals in life?
AMc: Is The Wapping Project life?
JW: Yes, it is actually. The Wapping Project as a whole was for me to be in control of my life. I’d run big buildings as Artistic Director and I was sick of being answerable to huge boards. I like making decisions very late and I want to be able to change my mind at the last minute. The Wapping Project – the power station – happened completely by accident. I saw it and I thought: ‘This is the most amazing building and I’m going to do it no matter what.’ I wanted to be free to commission as widely as I wanted and to do so in the most amazing building.
AMc: And the focus there wasn’t specifically on photography?
JW: No, it was across the board. But I did a lot of photography. It didn’t seem like it in the context of that building, but, when I set up the Wapping Project Bankside, the first photographers I took on, I’d commissioned nearly all of them all at Wapping beforehand.
AMc: Was photography a particular area of interest for you?
JW: My interests are very wide-ranging but they are absolutely located in the heart of the visual. My strength as a theatre director has always been how visually strong it is and I think that relates to photography. I always work with people who operate very clearly in their own territory. You can’t confuse two of my photographers. They’re all very different and very individual.
At the moment, I’m looking to take on new artists. But I won’t take on anyone whose work I don’t want to acquire. I’m not a used car salesperson. I can’t sell something unless I love it and think that you should love it too.
AMc: So how did you come to be moving in to Ely House with Mallett?
JW: My five-year lease on Bankside was up and, basically, it had become a problematic location. I’ve known Mallett for a long time and I did a pop-up here last October. The first person who walked in was Valentino and he bought a photograph. Victoria Beckham is going to be next door too. It’s an interesting area and really different in terms of who will walk in and spend money. We’ll see how it works. If it works, it works; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
AMc: Do you have any regrets about letting go of Wapping Power Station?
JW: No, none. It was hard work. I built it from scratch, from a wrecked building, and I did it for a long time. You might fantasise, oh, I’ve got this great building, and I’ll do this and that, and I’ll drift in and out, but it doesn’t work like that. Everyone says: ‘Oh, you must miss it.’ What I don’t want to do is go anywhere near it. Not yet. Because it was an astonishing thing. But it was also very complete. We went out with a bang. We did three fantastic final shows and I think that’s a line in the sand. So no, I don’t miss it. I had sleepless nights the whole time, I really did.
AMc: Do you have a specific vision for this new gallery?
JW: Just to represent more people and to sell more work. My ambitions are really for the photographers. If I do well for them, then I do well. We’ve just sold two pieces to the Smithsonian. Sustaining and developing relationships with museums is very important to me. I like to make editions too. Really small editions of seven – of which one should be for a museum and one for the photographer to keep, so it’s only really five, actually. I want to do more publishing too.
AMc: Do you produce a publication for each exhibition?
JW: No, it’s far too expensive. But it’s important for photographers – for all artists, I think – to have publications, because their work disappears if it goes into a private collection, or into a museum storeroom and comes out once a decade. It’s important that there are really beautiful books, which become documents.
AMc: You said a couple of years ago in an interview that you felt photography as a medium was underrepresented in the UK. Do you still think this is the case?
JW: I think it’s changing. Photo London wouldn’t be happening if things hadn’t shifted. I wouldn’t have moved and still be going. There are a lot more people collecting photography – it’s an accessible art form in terms of price. The Prix Pictet helps, and the Media Space, and the fact that the Tate is doing more photography. I think the public is more aware of the great collections at the V&A now too. But some galleries have closed. So it’s not a foregone conclusion.
We run a lot of tutorials and small gatherings to help people understand what they’re buying, and we’re going to continue to do that – for collectors and for people who just want to know, who might go on to become collectors. We also run a scheme for people, who really want things that they can’t afford, where we let them pay over a period of 12 or 18 months. I’m quite happy to do that. And I have to say that people who’ve bought in that way continue to collect. I did it myself. I bought a big Idris Khan piece from Victoria Miro and it took me forever to pay for it. At at least two Frieze Art Fairs I remember thinking ‘I don’t want them to see me!’ because I was paying for it so slowly.
I also think people have started to understand editions. At first they thought it was a little weird, because you’d have a painting, and that would be that, but with a photograph, you’d have an edition. But you just have to talk to them about printmaking and etchings and so on.
AMc: Do you have a preference for the type of photography: digital or analogue?
JW: We do only analogue. Most people scan their pictures and might do a little retouching in the way that they might have done in a dark room. Not everyone even develops in a dark room, so we do quite a lot of digital prints, but everyone will have shot on analogue.
AMc: So if you saw a photographer whose work you really liked but who worked in digital…
JW: Then I’d want to know how they made their images, because if it was someone who was working in the studio, carefully and slowly and with a very strong vision, then maybe I’d think about it, but not just someone who is out there taking a thousand photographs. We could all do that, we all have the luck of the draw. I prefer people who’ve got 10 shots and tried really hard to get it right. The composition of an image is not an easy thing. I mean, I can take photographs, but they’re not going to hang on anyone’s wall.
AMc: Do you commission projects for your exhibitions?
JW: No. It’s just whatever my photographers are working on. I have commissioned work, but it’s not what I think my job is here. It’s led by them, really. I don’t always agree with it though. I wouldn’t show something if I didn’t feel I wanted it.
AMc: Do you have any particular projects lined up that you are looking forward to?
JW: Juul Kraijer [whose exhibition will launch the new gallery] is really interesting. She comes from drawing and is included in a lot of big collections. She started to take photos of her model, because she couldn’t get the drawing finished in one sitting. So, just like on a film set, she’d take a photograph so that she’d get it right when setting it back up again. And then she realised she loved the photographic process. Her first show was in a museum in Amsterdam, which was where I saw her work. She’s very focused and is working on a new body of work with a contortionist. It’s all quite surreal, not everybody’s cup of tea, but I love it.
Juul Kraijer’s first solo exhibition in the UK will launch the opening of The Wapping Project Bankside-Mayfair from 18th September – 30th October, 2014