From outside, it doesn't much look like one of the country's top contemporary art galleries. It isn't wacky and post-modern, nor does it have the awe-inspiring feel of the Tate Gallery's stone steps and uniformed staff. Think, rather, of a post-First World War brick factory in Tower Hamlets: metal security shutters over the entrance, wire and railings everywhere, a brewery next door with smashed windows, and tower blocks looming overhead. Opposite is a Victorian primary school.
The entrance desk is staffed by volunteers, but there's only enough to stay open in the afternoons, between Wednesday and Sunday. It's nowhere near a tube station. And it's in the East End - not the trendy part, where the Suits drink double espressos, but the tatty bit, where women push prams and odd little shops sell foam and cheap photocopying. The confusion, of course, is perfect. The best possible location for a hip, contemporary art gallery is somewhere deliberately down-at-heel.
Indeed, since its opening in 1986, the Chisenhale Gallery has been at the fashionable epicentre of Young British Artistry, the Britpack - products, largely, of Goldsmiths art school - who, over the last seven years, have won prizes and plaudits from Minneapolis to Paris. London is their city, the East End their stamping ground, and, for their first show, many have chosen the Chisenhale.
The East End is now said to have a larger concentration of artists than anywhere else in Europe. Some say this is partly due to the Thatcherite aggrandisement which saw arty types pushed out of Docklands, to make way for offices and Conran restaurants, and into the badlands of E3. That's the legend. Certainly, these are artists who have set out to be famous. "It's a reversal of the artist in his garret with his ear cut off," says architect Piers Gough, one of the Chisenhale's trustees. "These people aren't waiting to be discovered."
The gallery, sponsored by the London Arts Board and Tower Hamlets Council, has to find separate funding for every exhibition. But it has shown an unerring knack for exhibiting artists who then go on to hit the big time. Rachel Whiteread, winner of the Turner Prize and this year's Venice Biennale, had her first solo show here in 1990. Two other Venice winners, Pipilotti Rist and Sam Taylor-Wood, also started there. And out of the four nominees for this year's Turner - Gillian Wearing, Christine Borland, Cornelia Parker and Angela Bulloch - all but Bulloch had their first big exhibition at the Chisenhale.
Curator Judith Nesbitt is engagingly modest about the gallery's track record. "Half our success is due to the space," she says. In fact, the gallery is nothing more than 2,500 square feet of concrete rectangle. No windows, no pillars, no arches. I'm not sure if there's even a public toilet, and there's certainly no bookshop or cafe. "Our uncompromised approach makes visitors concentrate on the artists' work," she says, "and, since there's only one room, it makes the artist focus on doing their best. People are inspired."
She manages an all-female team, and much has been made of the all-women shortlist for the Turner, but Nesbitt denies she has any feminist remit. "It's how history happens," she insists. "It's like the arrival of all the women MPs at the election. Their time had come. And it's the same for artists. There are now fewer restrictions on women: there's equal male-female intake in the art schools, so I think, on graduating, more women have the confidence to become artists. As for my staff at the gallery, well, that's just a fluke."
Male or female, the gallery's greatest hits have generally been solo exhibitions. There was Ghost, the eerie plaster cast of an entire living room, by Rachel Whiteread; there was Cornelia Parker's exploded garden shed, each shard hung painstakingly on a separate strand of thread to display the moment of disintegration; and there was Yukinori Yanagi's wandering ant, its wanderings traced on the concrete floor in felt-tip.
Much of the work is specially commissioned, and the Britpack, whose marketing savvy has included ferrying art critics to and from exhibitions by taxi, clearly likes having a gallery so uncompromisingly organised to suit their whims. But no need for them to order taxis any more. When an exhibition opens at the Chisenhale, the dealers, curators, critics and collectors, whose combined patronage is vital to the whole movement, are not far behind.
It was Nesbitt's predecessor, Jonathan Watkins, now overseeing the Sydney Biennale, who put the gallery on the map with a series of ground-breaking exhibitions. Michael Landy's Scrapheap Services, exhibited last year, has now been snapped up by the Tate, as has Cornelia Parker's Cold,dark matter. "It was a breakthrough for me," says Parker. "The gallery just allows you to break all the rules. When I suggested actually blowing up the shed in the gallery itself, Jonathan said, yeah, that would be fine, even though he'd just had a new floor installed. In the end, I used an army site, but the point is that Jonathan was happy to go along with my original idea. And a commercial gallery could never have given me the necessary back-up."
Yet the Money certainly comes sniffing. Dealer Karsten Shubert hasn't missed a single show. "The great thing is, it doesn't look like a museum," he says. "It hasn't got all the restaurants and so on, like the ICA has. It's just very lean, very flexible."
Or at least it gives that impression, which is all part of the trick. As the art critic William Feaver points out, because it's publicly funded there is no whiff of high turnover - "unlike the Saatchi [Gallery]," he adds. "And there's no taint of royal allegiances or stuffy trustees, like the Serpentine Gallery. It's just one room, run on a shoestring budget, so there are no huge responsibilities."
"The gallery doesn't need to be popular," says Piers Gough. "Difficult work isn't immediately popular; but you need galleries who have the ability to do difficult work, otherwise nothing moves on." Indeed, compared to the public duties of larger galleries like The Whitechapel, the casually liberating air of the Chisenhale is overwhelming.
Take the recent exhibition of photographs by Wolfgang Tillmans. The photos, stuck up on the wall with Sellotape, were of Concorde flying overhead, or of trees and fruit. However, one was of a naked man with chained nipples who was masturbating, and another, very big photograph of the same man revealed his particular pleasure in urinating over a green office chair. There was a small notice, propped up at the door, saying that the exhibition wasn't really appropriate for under-16s, but that was the only warning. The gallery even organised visits for local primary schools."We just covered up the photos we thought might offend the teachers," says Judith Nesbitt. "The children took their own photos and exhibited them alongside Tillmans' work. It worked out very well."
The Chisenhale does, of course, have its trustees and corporate identity; there's even someone from BP on its board who gives the staff training in commercial skills. But the overall impression is of a place run overwhelmingly for artists - who make up two-thirds of all visitors, in fact.
The artists who gathered for The Magazine's group photograph seemed to treat the gallery as their own property. Everyone appeared to know everyone else. Latecomers were mocked roundly, beer was passed around, and people took turns to hold children. It was a highly communal event, somewhat at odds with the Britpack's fabled self-promotion - more like the atmosphere of a trade union group between the Wars.
Apart from their high priest, Damien Hirst, all the British art luminaries attended who could, including Rachel Whiteread, Sam Taylor-Wood, Christine Borland, Simon Patterson, Cornelia Parker, Gillian Wearing and Sue Webster. There was a couple of older artists, in Richard Deacon and Grenville Davey, and a high number of women; but who's concerned about tokenism? The Pack believes itself a meritocracy.
"It's like a club where you might have a rave," William Feaver says of the gallery. "It has a wonderful feel of not appearing to be mainstream, whereas, of course, it is very mainstream. Yes, the art it shows might be fluff, but there's nothing wrong with fluff. Artists themselves are pretty boring, but the type of artists shown by the Chisenhale have a wonderfully exciting lifestyle. They're more interesting than someone sitting around painting beautiful stripes. I mean, you can't go clubbing with a Patrick Heron."
All true, but at least Patrick Heron's stripes have passed the test of time. Will the Britpack be around as long? And will the Chisenhale still be there to mark their progress?
Dealer Maureen Paley, whose own gallery is just down the road, thinks that this British art movement has another 10 or 20 years to go. "It has legs. They might all become incredibly middle-aged, but, if you look at the States, artists who were all very famous when they were 25 continued to be famous when they were 35. Warhol continued to work. Someone like Damien Hirst will be going strong."
One is inclined to agree, contemplating the queues for the British Art Fair in Islington, the Tate having to shut its front door on the crowds wanting to see Hirst, the covers of Newsweek and Vanity Fair, the hysteria over Rachel Whiteread in New York, and the arrival of the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art in 2000. So it may well endure, this moment when the East End is the toast of the international art world.
"There is the feeling of a new Renaissance," says Paley. "At the last turn of the century, the important cities were Paris and New York. This time, it's London. I think we can see the seeds of what could be crucial in the next century. These artists can, in a sense, lead what's going on in the world"
Key to page 8/9 1. Alison White-Blakemore, ex-volunteer worker at the Chisenhale 2. Louise Ward, artist. 3. Andrea Sinclair, artist 4. Sue Webster, artist 5. Simon Patterson, former Turner Prize nominee 6. Louise Wilson, artist 7. Kim Sweet, gallery director 8. Sarah Wright, ex- volunteer 9. Stanley & Louis Greenhalgh, artist/ex volunteer10.Justine Ellis, artist 11.Kimberley Foster, artist 12.Stefan & Michael Gec, artist 13. Anthea Williams, artist/ex- Chisenhale administrator 14. Judith Nesbitt, current director, Chisenhale15.Lisa Howes, artist 16.Tim Noble, artist 17.Sam Taylor-Wood, artist18.Samantha Lewis, ex-volunteer 19.Joav Hessayon, artist 20.Neil McConachie, artist 21.Jane Wilson, artist 22.Rachel Whiteread, former Turner Prize winner 23.Christine Borland, Turner Prize nominee, 1997 24.Sue Jones, current curator, Chisenhale 25.Rose Finn-Kelcey, artist 26.Julie Fountain, artist 27.Marion Coutts, artist 28.Barrie Robinson, ex-volunteer 29.Penny Govett, Chisenhale patron 30.Dean Reddick, artist 31.Rene Schaetti, cultural attache, Swiss Embassy32.Octavia Nicholson, gallery services co-ordinator, MOMART 33.Andy Ekins, artist 34.Peter Liveridge, artist 35.Hitesh Natalwala, artist 36.Howard Karshan, Chisenhale patron 37.Deborah Keily, gallery trustee 38.Judy Adam, freelance visual arts co-ordinator 40.Lucy Heywood, artist 41.Karen Hopkins,current administrator, Chisenhale 42.Yoko Terauchi, artist 43.Darrel Viner, artist 44.Edwina Ashton, artist 45.Sharon Byrne, artist 46.Lucy Allen, artist 47.Fiona Campbell, artist 48.Grenville Davey, former Turner Prize winner 49.Perry Roberts, artist 50.Craig Wood, artist, 51.Cornelia Parker, Turner Prize nominee, 1997 52.Jacques Nimki, artist 53.Carol Paul, volunteer 54.Jenny Walker, curator 55.Sarah Weir, Chisenhale trustee 56.Mark Fairnington, artist 57.Ian McNichol, Chisenhale technical advisor 58.Mandee Gage, artist 59.Craig Richardson, artist 60.Richard Deacon, former Turner Prize winner 61.Lisa Milroy, artist 62.Graham Gussin, artist 63.Caroline Russell, artist 64.Lubaina Himid, artist 65.Susannah Greeves, exhibitions dept, Anthony d'Offay Gallery 66.Sarah Cole, artist 67.Sarah Lee, artist 68.Kerri Sellens, artist 69.Melanie Keen, curator 70.John Murphy, artist/curator 71.Amikam Toren, artist 72.Piers Gough, Chisenhale trustee 73.Anthony & Georgia Reynolds, director, Anthony Reynolds Gallery 74.David Rice, Chisenhale trustee 75. Michael Landy, artist 76.Lucia Nogueira, artist 77.Gillian Wearing, Turner Prize nominee, 1997 78.Bob Smith, artist 79.Tim Llewellyn, director, The Henry Moore Foundation 80.Sue Robertson, chief executive, London Arts Board 81.Gary Thomas, film & video officer, Arts Council of England 82.David Cunningham, artist & record producer 83.Alice Evans, ex-Chisenhale education co-ordinator 84. Stuart Croft, artist 85.Mike Watkins, art advisor,Tower Hamlets 86.Emma Dexter, director of exhibitions, ICA/Ex -Chisenhale directorReuse content