New contract and a new lease of life for art gallery hit by fire

Basildon Recorder: Amy McKenny, in purple top, and her TAP crew look forward to a September relaunch after the fire Amy McKenny, in purple top, and her TAP crew look forward to a September relaunch after the fire

WHEN the TAP gallery went up in flames earlier this year, things looked bleak for the arts’ project. But three months down the line, the gallery and studios have risen phoenix-like from the ashes and now have a confirmed three-year lease on the building.

It’s a long way from the Sunday in May when Amy McKenny, who runs the project, in North Road, Southend, woke the morning after a private view of artist Chris Lang’s work to find dozens of frantic missed calls.

She recalled: “I just knew it was a fire. It couldn’t have been anything else. As soon as I turned my phone on I had calls from 5.30am, 6am, all the way through – my legs had already gone by that point. “It was gutting. The weirdest thing about it was that from the outside it looked OK. I drove in and thought, ‘Oh, it’s not so bad’. But then you went in and it was like, ‘No, it’s gutted’.”

Amy spent the next few days on autopilot as she and the other artists who have studios in the building set about coping with the aftermath.

Her first priority was the exhibition itself – a posthumous collection of work by artist Chris Lang, who died last year, and his late wife, Gwen.

Curated by their son Joe Lang and TAP curator and artist, Jon Kipps, it was a hugely personal body of work, and heartbreakingly some was destroyed in the fire. Much of the rest was also damaged by soot.

“Jon and Joe put the door back up because the firemen had battered it down,” says Amy.

“We all sat there. It was really strange. We all went for lunch together and suddenly it was 5pm or 6pm, and we had no idea how we had got to that time.

“I was numb when the loss adjustor came. We went to a cafe round the corner and he basically answered my questions for me.

“I couldn’t look at anything positively while Joe’s work wasn’t dealt with.”

Print artist Lee Sullivan adds: “Because of the nature of the work that was damaged, I think that’s what we were all thinking about at the time.

“It was only later we even thought about the building. It wasn’t that we didn’t care, it was just the priority was Joe’s work.”

There was another problem facing Amy, Lee and the other artists. They had been on the verge of signing a three-year lease with building owners Essex and Suffolk Water when the fire happened.

After being on a rolling lease, the new contract offered welcome security and longer term projects.

Fortunately, the water company stuck by its deal, which is now offering the group a bright future.

They plan on relaunching the gallery, which is on track to re-open in September, with a joint studio show of work by all the artists, and there are also hopes for a computer room in the main gallery for visitors to use.

Amy adds: “Perhaps some of the visiting artists will do workshops and, again, that gives more insight into their work.”

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