How a North London stadium became home to the first gallery devoted to football and the culture that surrounds it.
At a major Sotheby’s auction in 2015, just as Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild was breaking the record for most expensive work by a living artist, a football match was kicking off. Tottenham Hotspur were playing Liverpool. My twin loves of art and football were clashing. I was meant to be writing a report on this landmark auction, but my attention was elsewhere. Quietly, covertly, I found a stream of the game on my phone. Sure, paintings by the greats of 20th-century art were being sold for astronomical sums (Abstraktes Bild eventually sold for $46.3m), but Harry Kane was also about to score his 23rd goal for Spurs and, well, priorities.
Like so many people, my teenhood was full of categories and genres, choices to make and tribes to belong to. It was the classic fork in the teenage road: are you a jock or a geek, are you into sports or arts? My colours were pinned to the mast of music and art and, from then on, my love for football was hidden away. Once I became the art critic for a major London publication, it started to feel more like a dirty secret than a hidden passion.
The idea, from the start, was to use football as a lure to get people to engage with art
But at that Sotheby’s auction, I suddenly wasn’t alone in my dual affinities. People had gathered behind me and, eventually, more than a dozen people were watching the football match on a phone in an auction house, and something clicked – the binary was gone. You could like sport and art at the same time. Even in the same place.
This triggered a period of feverish research leading me to the discovery that countless artists throughout history had used football in their work. And the art was good. There were 16th-century Dutch landscapes with kids kicking a pig’s bladder around, surrealist paintings of hallucinatory goals, contemporary video installations, performance pieces… all using football to deal with ideas ranging from passion, belief and belonging to bigotry, pain and movement. There was Hank Willis Thomas turning football shirts into Asafo flags as a comment on tribalism and racism. There was Eddie Peake creating naked five-a-side performance pieces to quite literally lay bare ideas of machismo and masculinity. There was Francis Alys filming a flaming ball being kicked through a deserted Mexican border town. There was just so much to explore, to say, to think about.
That was the genesis of OOF, a project (launched alongside gallerists Justin and Jennie Hammond) that started as a biannual magazine about the relationship between art and football, and which has now grown into a gallery situated in the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. The idea, from the start, was to use football as a lure to get people to engage with art. The magazine worked, featuring articles on art being created by artists such as Juergen Teller, Chris Ofili and Rene Magritte. But we wanted to push it further.
It’s in the gallery that we can really engage with the public. The space – a Grade II listed townhouse that the stadium itself is built around – is accessed through the club shop, meaning we get over 20,000 visitors a year, over 95% of whom have never been to a contemporary art gallery. That’s a privilege and a responsibility, but it’s also a challenge. How do you curate art and photography exhibitions that can appeal to everyday sport fans, without compromising or dumbing down the work you’re showing? How do you curate for local children and youth groups who don’t regularly get taken to museums?
We’ve shown work by major art figures like Sarah Lucas, Martin Parr and Hank Willis Thomas, as well as by brilliant early-career artists. Some of the art has made an immediate impact on viewers, some has been a bit more challenging. But our latest show has been our biggest success in terms of reaching the public.
‘The World of Gazza!!’ is based on a series of posters for imaginary exhibitions created in the 1990s by the Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller. We made that dream show a reality, bringing together memorabilia, archive material, existing artworks and new commissions to explore the figure of Paul Gascoigne, one of England’s greatest ever footballers.
Visitors come in to see the shirt he wore in Euro 96, or a pre-match meal list from his time at Spurs, and end up encountering paintings by Lydia Blakeley and Glen Pudvine, and artworks by Douglas Gordon and Jeremy Deller. They’re seeing art placed not on a pedestal, but on a level playing field with memorabilia and archive material. It makes them realise that art can be, and is, for them.
For the school groups, both primary and secondary, that we’ve welcomed to the gallery, the football elements act as an access point, a way into what can often be a difficult subject. We create an unintimidating, unpatronising environment for art viewing. Our workshops see kids and teenagers creating sculptures based on footballs, or drawings based on kit colours. It’s art without the artifice or intimidation factor of your typical art gallery.
What we’ve learned over the past years is that we can use football as a sort of Trojan horse for getting art into people’s lives. They come to see a match or go on a stadium tour and find themselves looking at a painting. I said from the start that if we managed to convert just one out of every 1,000 visitors into art fans, we’d be a success. We just didn’t realise how much of an open goal that would be.
The real trick, it turns out, will be to see if we can get any art history graduates to go watch a football match.
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