Why gallerist Serena Morton wants to transform a developing part of Ladbroke Grove into the area’s creative hub
Not many art curators would look at a funeral directors and betting shop sat side by side and picture their ideal arts space, but Serena Morton is not most curators. ‘I’ve gone from undertakers to bookmakers,’ she says, letting out a husky laugh. After taking over the former morticians last year to build a contemporary art gallery named Serena Morton, she’s transformed the William Hill next door for her eponymous sequel with co-curator David Hill, Serena Morton II, which will showcase 20th Century and modern photography.
Sitting near Canal Way at 343 Ladbroke Grove, it’s an unusual choice for the location; a distance from the station that puts a strain on the hamstrings with few businesses for company, but Serena maintains it was very deliberate. A known operator in the London art world for almost two decades, she previously launched Morton Metropolis concept gallery with Amy Winehouse’s old manager Raye Cosbert and another on Dover Street, Agent Morton. She’s ‘been and done’ the West End, she says. ‘I always thought it was the pinnacle. But I’ve done three West End galleries, and with the prices… The numbers just don’t add up.’
According to Serena, though, it’s not just a question of money. In an area of Ladbroke Grove that’s facing mass regeneration, she wants to be the first building block in the development of a creative hub for the area. ‘I’m concerned about the re-housing issue, and arts aren’t exactly top of the list. But if you’ve got an art community, keep it there, like they did with Dalston or like they created in Peckham, it helps the whole spirit of the community… My vision is that it will have commercial galleries in the front and creative art therapy unit at the back. Let’s make it bigger, let’s have workshops, let’s make an exhibition space. Let’s make a Battersea Arts Centre or Camden Arts Centre.’
Raised just off Old Brompton Road, the grip of Serena’s west London roots have pulled her back in. In her early years here, she started out in fashion, ‘I went through English public school system and fell out of it big time. All I wanted to do was work and move out of home. I failed all my A-levels and by the time I was 20 I was in full-time employment, working for Bruce Oldfield.’ Seeking out new adventures, she found herself in Australia where she began writing for breakfast television and opened an edgy clothing store dedicated to British fashion. When her father became ill, it was time to return to London and change direction, so she took up a job in the British and then Post-War department at Christie’s. Eager to start something of her own, Serena hustled to set up one of London’s first ever pop-up exhibitions on Brick Lane in 1998, showing the work of Welsh artist Peter Lewis.
For this curator, the Ladbroke Grove gallery is about having a place to ‘grow in to’, and focus on the art she loves – which, bar conceptual works, has broad scope. ‘People want to be able to gawp at [conceptual art], laugh at it, but they actually feel really shut out because it’s something that they are not part of, because they are not ‘educated’.’ The walls of this gallery are instead offered to the likes of Emma Levine’s neon laser-cut prints and technical, transformative light sculptures from Julian Abrams. There’s no obvious thread that binds them together, other than what Serena calls ‘the anti “I could do that” school of art! Very post-conceptual.’
The newest solo show to launch is that of Jim Threapleton (Memories of The Hunt) 11 September-2 October) , an artist whom she’s been collaborating with for more than five years. As the ex-husband of Kate Winslet, Threapleton faces the two-toned interest of the British press, ‘it’s unfortunate that in this country if you have an association they’ll always refer to it. But he’s clever enough to stay focused on his work,’ says Serena.
Between looking after her artists, Serena manages a busy home life above the gallery, where she lives with her two teenage children; which has its ups and downs: ‘I had some collectors here, it was Saturday afternoon about three o’clock and the door opened; my 16-year-old daughter came in wearing PJs like “alright, what’s going on here then?”’ she laughs.
Despite the occasional interruption, Serena describes an affinity with the Notting Hill collectors; many of whom, she says, tend to be women. ‘They’re the ones working with the architects, making decisions about what painting goes on the wall, not just sticking it in a storage unit.’ A lot of interest is expected for Serena Morton II’s debut exhibition – a showcase of black and white photos by Andy Warhol’s former lover Billy Name, capturing the lives of the Factory era. Serena’s hopeful that other gallerists will follow her lead, and look beyond Mayfair to Portobello. ‘If it can work for me there’s no reason why it can’t work for others.’ When it’s possible resurrect an undertakers for art, who knows what could happen next.
Billy Name: The Silver Age, 1-23 October 2015 at Serena Morton II, 345 Ladbroke Grove W10; serenamorton.com