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INTERVIEW: Sally Williams, Art Consultant at Canary Wharf.

30 April 2019

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The AOP celebrated its 50th year the AOP50 exhibition which was showcased in The Lobby of One Canada Square, Canary Wharf. Due to the successes of the exhibition we were delighted to be invited back to display The Awards 2019 exhibition - currently on show until 31 May.  We speak to Sally Williams the Art Consultant for Canary Wharf to find out more about its fascinating history, their public art program, the move towards exhibiting photography and what we can expect to see there over the coming months.

Can you tell us about the Arts & Events program at Canary Wharf and your role within it?

I have worked as Public Art Consultant to Canary Wharf Group since 2002, a part-time role undertaken on a freelance basis that covers overseeing the company’s permanent art collection and its temporary exhibition programme.

To give a bit of background, Canary Wharf gets its name from one of the former wharfs in West India Dock, which opened in 1802, named for the trade with the Canary Islands. In 1940-41 much of the Isle of Dogs was flattened by bombing, the docks a prime target as an important trading asset. After the war the docks prospered once more, but from 1965 largely as a result of containerization and increasing focus on the more accessible docks at Tilbury, the old docks in East London declined and by 1980 had ceased to operate. At that time it was widely anticipated that business growth in the UK was set to double and in London, with limited development opportunities to the west of the centre, the derelict land in the former docklands in East London was an obvious proposition. The notion of setting up an enterprise zone here was first mooted in 1978, and London Docklands Development Corporation was established by the government in 1981.

Plans for developing the former docklands as a business district were initially drawn up in 1984 for American developers G Ware Travelstead, whose scheme got planning approval in 1985 and in outline resembled what was later built: a formal layout of medium rise buildings and skyscrapers. However, in 1987 the Travelstead consortium collapsed, unable to find the funds to continue, and in July the Canadian property developer Olympic & York completed the deal to take over the site. At that time Canary Wharf represented the biggest single business development in Europe and is one of the few places in London built to a masterplan. The original plan for the then 71-acre estate – 25 acres of which were water - comprised 26 buildings to provide 10m sq. ft. of office space for c.60,000 workers and also 750,000 sq. ft. for retail and leisure facilities - shops, restaurants and bars. In 1992 came the massive slump in the property market, and, with its main tower One Canada Square only partly let, Olympia & York went into administration. However, by 1993 a new consortium had been put together and with new investors secured a loan, with the proviso that improved transport would be guaranteed with the extension of the Jubilee line to Canary Wharf. The site was bought back from the banks in 1995, and the project was resurrected, the company renamed Canary Wharf Ltd. Today four sub-companies comprise Canary Wharf Group plc, between them designing, building, leasing and managing the estate.

Canary Wharf Group plc has now created more than 16.5m sq. ft. of London real estate, which houses local and international companies and renowned retailers, with five shopping malls. There are over 200 shops, bars and restaurants, and over 20 acres of landscaped parks and plazas. These include the award-winning Crossrail Place, which houses one of London’s most stunning roof gardens, as well as a cinema.  

From the outset of planning the estate, the developers invested in the work of artists, craftspeople and designers to realise their commitment to creating an exemplary environment. A public art programme was initiated in the early 1990s, with leading artists and designers commissioned to create functional and sculptural works. As the first buildings became occupied the company instigated an arts and events programme that was funded through the maintenance charge for the building. It was conceived as free entertainment for the office workers at lunchtime and after work, and included music, comedy, street theatre, dance, and exhibitions of contemporary art and design, originally held in converted empty retail spaces. The arts have continued to be an important component of the cultural dimension of Canary Wharf, and today the Arts and Events programme provides over 200 events each year for the workforce and visitors.

Following a successful Millennium exhibition in 1999 - The Shape of the Century: 100 years of sculpture in Britain, which saw work displayed across the estate - the notion of establishing a temporary exhibition programme arose. Canary Wharf’s then Public Art Consultant Theresa Bergne, working with freelance curator Ann Elliott, began the ‘Sculpture in the Workplace’ programme in the Lobby of One Canada Square. The intention was to show work by artists from well-established names to those early in their careers, with the aim of engaging and informing workforce and visitors alike. The programme was later expanded to show work in outdoor spaces, initially in Jubilee Park. The audience represents a wide cross-section: business people, local residents, visitors and tourists – those who regularly visit art exhibitions and those who do not.  Mindful that the spaces are not conventional galleries, this informs how exhibitions are selected and the importance of providing accessible information.

In 2002 Canary Wharf’s Art Programme was recognised by an Art & Work Award ‘for an Outstanding Contribution to Art in the Working Environment’. This was followed in 2010 by winning the Christie’s Award for ‘Best Corporate Art Collection and Programme’ at the International Art & Work Awards.


Can you tell us a bit about the Public Art on display around Canary Wharf?

Throughout Canary Wharf’s public spaces, external and internal, there are now over 70 permanent works of art and design by some 55 artists, forming one of the UK’s largest collections of publically accessible art. The collection encompasses works in a wide range of media, from bronze to sound, mosaic to neon, and includes stand-alone sculptures, integrated art-architectural works and artist-designed functional pieces. In addition to the permanent works acquired by Canary Wharf Group through purchase or commission, temporary loans have also enriched the public’s experience of art at Canary Wharf. The most significant of these is Henry Moore’s ‘Draped Seated Woman’ 1957-58, which is on loan from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and will be visible in Cabot Square until 2022.

An illustrated map, ‘Public Art at Canary Wharf’ with brief descriptions of all the works is available enabling visitors to identify the works of art around the estate.


One Canada Square tends to focus on exhibiting sculpture, can you tell us what influenced the decision to begin showcasing photography?

Sculptural work was initially the focus for the temporary exhibitions held in the Lobby of One Canada Square, and lends itself well to the vast and somewhat cavernous space.  It was felt that scale was important to make an impact here, although smaller work can equally have a powerful presence. The available showing space essentially surrounds the marble-clad lift core in the centre of the Lobby, whose walls have the disadvantage as a display area in that the red marble-tiled surface cannot take fixings that in any way damage the marble. But from the early days, in addition to sculptures shown freestanding or on plinths, new ways of using the available space were devised – including applying coloured or printed vinyl to the windows, leaning works against the walls, and in one case attaching ceramics with Velcro not only to the walls and the lobby furniture. The most spectacular use of vinyl saw a ‘drawing’ by Peter Randall-Page across the 40m south elevation of the building’s windows. In the first 10 years of the programme, work by over 130 artists, many of international renown but also work by art students, had been displayed in the Lobby and Jubilee Park.  

In this period photography was from time to time part of an exhibition, but more recently purely photographic shows have been programmed and have been very successful, the work produced on a material light enough to be fixed with Velcro or reproduced on low adhesive vinyl. The exhibition ‘Big Landscapes’ by Boyd and Evans in 2016 filled the lobby with spectacular monumental photographs relating to their excursions to the deserts of South Western America, a rainforest in Washington State and a massive English beech tree. So in 2017, when AOP approached us to host their 50th anniversary exhibition in One Canada Square, it was immediately regarded as an interesting challenge. Collaborating with the team that curated and produced the exhibition was a highlight of the year for me, and led to some new ideas for using the exhibition space effectively.


Our AOP50 exhibition was showcased last year, how was this received by Canary Wharf and your audience?

AOP50 was regarded as a great success and proved extremely popular. It was the first time that we had been able to hang a series of substantial banners from the ceiling and this was something that attracted much comment.  Naturally the content of the exhibition triggered memories for visitors, as well as raising awareness of some potent issues.

What other events / exhibitions have we got to look forward to that are coming up at Canary Wharf?

This summer we have two installations in the lobby of One Canada Square as part of the London Festival of Architecture 2019, whose theme this year is ‘Boundaries’. This will include photographs by Grant Smith for Article 25, a charity that applies architectural skills to design and deliver sustainable buildings to those most in need globally, with a focus on healthcare, education and housing. This is followed by an exhibition by the highly-regarded performance artist Silvia Ziranek, who will be portrayed through a selection of the badges that accompany her performances, together with artwork for supporting materials and other items used in her performances.


The Arts and Events team have an extremely full programme of summer activities for all ages, taking place in spaces all over the estate. Check the Canary Wharf website for details:

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