Open-access content 15th June 2009
Whitechapel Gallery has thrown open its doors again after a two-year multi-million pound revamp - and thanks to a new catering partnership the gallery will now appeal to visitors' tastes in more ways than one
18 June 2009
by David Arminas
After a century of exhibiting art to the people of London's East End it became apparent that the future of Whitechapel Gallery, a not-for-profit educational charity, was dependent on a major expansion. Lack of space meant fewer and smaller exhibitions were being put on. It also meant the closure of the gallery for up to 10 weeks a year just to change exhibits.
In April, a newly expanded Whitechapel Gallery threw open its doors after a two-year, £13.5 million revamp which included taking over the adjacent privately funded and grade II listed public library building. Incorporation of the "University of the Ghetto", as the library was known locally, has boosted the gallery's space by 78 per cent. Importantly the Whitechapel Project, as the revamp was called, has allowed the gallery to move closer to the community. The expanded now three-storey structure has classroom areas for teaching art courses and holding discussion groups. More studio space allows professional artists to work and for children to get involved and create their own masterpieces.
Success now depends on efficiently managing the two structures' building services and a strategic partnership with a leading high-end contract caterer. The belief is that gallery visitors march on their stomachs.
Through the main glass-fronted doors in the original building lies the open reception and a new bookshop before the galleries proper are entered. Around the corner from reception, past the bookshop and into the old library area is a 40-seater restaurant. The décor in the restaurant is clean-lined with solid wood tables but no artwork adorning the walls. For decoration there is, however, a large set of the old library's index cardholders built into a wall. Across the hall from the café, behind a large wall and glass door is the private dining room serviced by the restaurant and available for hire.
As part of a five-year £5 million agreement, contract caterer Vacherin is looking after the gallery's events business, running the restaurant and operating the café/bar on the mezzanine. The partnership between eatery and gallery is as much about bums-on-seats in the restaurant as viewing the works of art. It is the first time that contract caterer Vacherin has "gone public", says business development director Phil Roker.
Vacherin's blue-chip clients include communications agency Imagination, insurance risk consultant JLT Risk Solutions, chartered surveyor Drivers Jonas and estate services business CB Richard Ellis. Vacherin caters for 70 to 1,500 people in these contracts which, to a degree, offers a captive audience, unlike at the gallery, explains Roker.
The contract with Whitechapel Gallery includes catering for functions such as for the 1,000 guests at the opening event. Vacherin will regularly cater for small groups and up to 300 in some of the galleries, as long as the artist whose work is on display allows for their work in a room during a function, mainly for insurance reasons.
"But at the restaurant within Whitechapel Gallery we've thrown ourselves open to the public. We'll be judged by the big media critics and the person on street alike," says Roker who is no stranger to operating in the public eye. Before joining Vacherin in 2006, he worked in five-star hotels in London's West End and in Munich, including as a food and beverage manager. When the gallery is closed, the restaurant remains open thanks to an entrance directly onto the street, a key feature allowing the restaurant to pay its way and also compete with local restaurants.
Throughout the project a major design challenge was the difference in floor levels between the two buildings. This meant that disabled access was a major issue because of legislation requirements, explains Tom Wilcox, Whitechapel Gallery's managing director.
Where the buildings are joined and walls knocked out, the floors are offset. So there is a ground floor and then three first floors - A, B and C. Rather than several steps to accommodate the difference in floor levels, a slope was built that also nicely accommodates wheelchair use. A lift was also installed - there was no lift before - capable of taking wheelchairs and which opens on two sides. In one area with a metre in difference between levels of the gallery and library buildings a small rectangular user-operated glass walled lift-platform has been designed for wheelchairs.
On the top floor the old caretaker's flat has been redesigned into the large Clore Creative Studio. Large sliding-glass doors open out to a rooftop view taking in the spire of the 18th-century Christ Church Spitalfields.
A collection of old art books line the walls of the reading room which is separated from the gallery area. Most of the works were given to Whitechapel Gallery when the library moved. Many were kept and others given away. Works from the gallery archives are shown here on a six-month rotation basis, many relating to the gallery's exhibiting history of works, painters and sculptures.
The Collections Gallery with its original glass ceiling is for major special exhibitions, such as the recent display of £30 million pounds worth of artwork from British diplomatic missions. Such exhibits need protection from light and humidity. Too much or too little is often critical for being successful in getting exhibits. There was a lot of uncontrolled light coming in through old rooftop skylights and then through the massive sectioned glass panels in the room's ceiling. To control light levels sections of large louvres were installed in the rooftop.
The original walls of the Collections Gallery were too thin to allow any building management system to control of temperature and humidity levels. Around 800 mm of cladding was layered onto the walls throughout the room. Admittedly, it cut down the floor area of the room. Also, the cladding has been held back from where the gallery's large roof trusses sit on the original walls. Otherwise, the ends of the trusses would have appeared to unnaturally disappear into the "wall" as it appear to be because of the cladding.
Topping off - literally - the revamped gallery is a large weather vane designed by Canadian artist Rodney Graham, specially comissioned by the gallery. A close-up view can be had of the cooper artwork can be had from a window in the Clore Creative Studio. Graham's work depicts himself as the 16th century humanist and classical scholar Erasmus. But he is seated backwards on his horse, reading his well-known 1509 study, The Praise of Folly, a satire attack on self-deception.
Building services: two into one
Joining and renovating two grade II listed building was never going to be easy. It was, and will continue to be, a "fine balancing act", says Chris Potts, technical operations manager, who joined Whitechapel Gallery in April 2008. He was previously technical operations manager at London's Garden Museum for six years. Potts went through an upgrade there, including a refit of the garden's main building, the former St Mary-at-Lambeth Parish Church within whose grounds lie the remains of Captain William Bligh of 1787 Mutiny on the Bounty fame.
Neither set of ageing gallery and library building services equipment was physically able to run the combined structure. Also, finances dictated that a lot of building services equipment in the original gallery would be kept, such as boilers ductwork and associated piping and wiring. Practically speaking, it was the library that needed completely gutting so out went the equipment, explained Potts.
"We now have equipment in the expanded gallery that literally spans two centuries. The original gallery's boilers are from the 80s and 70s. New boilers in the library side are half their size and run floor areas twice as big."
Upgraded fire resistance throughout the new structure includes fire and security doors. But they discreetly slide back into wall cavities around doorways and are brought out after closing.
Behind a heavy grey metal door in the basement on the library side lies the depository for the hundred-year-old archive. The area is designed to BS5454:2000, the accepted archival benchmark and used by the National Gallery. A specific BMS monitors and controls the humidity, temperature, light and airborne pollutants that contribute to deterioration of archival materials. Carbon filters are also fitted to the air system.
The standard is a temperature range of 16 to19º C and a relative humidity level between 45 and 60 per cent. Importantly, whatever the exact temperature chosen, it should not fluctuate by more than 1°C in temperature and 5 per cent in relative humidity. Entry to the depository is kept to a minimum to maintain temperatures and air quality. Apart from the central building services department, the archivist is the only person with a key.