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The art world grieves for one of its brightest stars

The death from cancer has been announced of the founder of the celebrated WAPPING PROJECT and award winning Australian theatre director who embraced cinema and photography. Jules Wright was much admired curator in Contemporary Photography. This was a conversation we had with her about the birth of an amazing London venue and her Australian background in theatre in 2012.

Text: Mike von Joel | Images:

Located in Wapping Wall, the Prospect of Whitby (formerly the Pelican) claims to be the oldest riverside tavern in London, dating from around 1520. Views from this pub were sketched by both Turner and Whistler, whilst the writers Charles Dickens and Samuel Pepys were customers – as was the notorious ‘hanging’ Judge Jeffreys. On the opposite side of the road is a discrete steel doorway.

One particular summer evening this portal is being guarded by a tall and glamorous blonde girl with a clipboard, valiantly keeping an enthusiastic crowd at bay. It is a scene reminiscent of New York’s Studio 54 in its heyday. And the cause of such excitement? It is the access to a preview party for the late French fashion photographer, Guy Bourdin, at the Wapping Project(1), a red hot arts venue secreted away behind the high, ivy covered wall.

Once inside, the building is buzzing to overflow, with guests including Natalie Portman, Bourdin muse Nicole Meyer, Bryan Ferry and Mike Figgis; artists who look as if they have just stepped out of the studio, and fashionistas who look as if they have just stepped out of a private jet. All amazed by the 32 previously unseen Bourdin images, blown up in oversized formats, the on-trend music, the light effects and expansive hospitality in this cavernous, awe-inspiring former hydraulic pumping station. But amidst the mad partying there is one elusive person every guest is trying to snatch a moment with – a slight figure with flaming red hair and enigmatic smile passing effortlessly through the crush. Jules Wright is the owner, creator and artistic director of the Wapping Project – acknowledged today as one of the most dynamic arts venues in the UK – and she is in her element.

Three years after the Bourdin party, and 12 years since the Wapping Project officially opened, Jules Wright leans back in her office chair, flashes that engaging smile, and declares herself tired. Really tired. ‘I work all the time and now desperately need a proper holiday. I have a passion for Burma now that it is accessible. Especially during the monsoon – you have such silly little rain here in the UK,’ she sighs with just a trace of her original Australian accent. Maybe even the Gods have acquiesced to this feisty director of performing and theatre arts and brought the monsoons to Britain – for she is adept at making her dreams come true. Nevertheless, it is has been a long, exhaustive journey from Adelaide, South Australia, via a sojourn in Bristol so her then husband (she married at 19) could take up a job and avoid the Vietnam War.

Born in Melbourne though brought up in Adelaide, Julie Wright originally studied Educational Psychology but diverted to theatre studies as a Commonwealth Scholar at the University of Bristol, extending this to a PhD examining links between psychology, performance and place. Her life changing moment came in 1978, when Clare Venables (the infamous Joan Littlewood’s successor) asked her to start as Assistant Director at the Theatre Royal in Stratford East. Julie became Jules, and it was the launch of an effervescent theatre career that rapidly encompassed Resident Director of the Royal Court (1981); Artistic Director roles at the Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court, the Women’s Playhouse Trust, and the Liverpool Playhouse; and then Deputy Artistic Director at the Royal Court (until 1992).

At a 2012 ceremony to award Wright an honorary Doctor of Letters degree, Dr Angela Piccini, University of Bristol, noted: ‘A visionary commissioner and curator of contemporary artists, radical theatre director, innovative performance maker and inspiring feminist practitioner, Jules Wright epitomises the leading-edge, mixed-mode practices that have come to mark out as distinct Britain’s cultural and creative economies.’ She might well have added filmmaker, television director and gallery owner to this impressive list for latterly Wright has spun off in new directions. But whatever creative path she treads, her innate Australian sensibility shines through to inform all the basic decision making.

Although legendary in the arts arena, today the wider public know Jules Wright through the Wapping Project – her development of a semi derelict, Grade II Thames side pumping station, built in 1890 and decommissioned in 1977. Ms Wright looks askance. She has recounted this story a thousand times, but her genial Australian temperament allows yet another telling.

‘In 1991 I was scouting for a film location [in some versions it is for an extension for the Women’s Playhouse Trust] when the chief of the Docklands Development Corporation, Eric Sorensen, showed me the power station. I now think their secret plan was to let it fall down and then build flats. It was love at first sight. I imagined myself as a London version of Peter Brook with his Bouffes du Nord in Paris and so we initially made it into an ad-hoc performance space. That was back in 1993.

‘Financially, it would not be possible today – the world is harder and a lot more wily. It’s only 20 years ago but so much has changed. Nowadays people would understand the potential immediately. The Wapping Project was a moment in time – and you have to seize the moment.

‘I turned into a lunatic property developer overnight. We needed 4 million pounds to do it – and it’s not that difficult actually. We had a rehearsal space in Islington that we sold with planning permission; the LDDC let us get planning permission to develop a bit of land on the back of the Wapping site which we then sold on for £1.2 million. Add to this cash from English Heritage, the LDDC itself and various other sources and we made it.’

The freehold was finally secured in 1998 and the Wapping Project opened officially in 2000. Intimately involved at all stages of this was Jules’ architect husband Joshua Wright, whose Shed 54 practise redesigned the site, paying particular attention to retaining evidence of its former industrial role. Although this came at a price, and she has been quoted as claiming that ‘…just to rebuild the top of the tower cost £250,000 because we had to get bricks made at the original kiln up in Yorkshire’.

The focus for five years had been on getting the ‘job done’ so, typically, Wright had not given much thought to the financial nuts and bolts of actually being responsible for such mammoth space. She had in mind a restaurant along the lines of the River Café as a means to generate cash flow, and previous experience had made her wary of franchises – where you ‘watch the money walk out the door’. Extensive press coverage ensured people turned up in that first week but they were far from ready and the restaurant light years away from the hot ticket it is today.

‘It is crazy, but I had never given a thought to what would happen the day after we opened. People stood up and screamed “this is the worst restaurant I have been to in my life” – it was mayhem! It makes me laugh when I think about it.’

But over ten years of sustained effort and a total submersion in programming the Wapping Project space has taken a toll on Wright and the last 18 months has seen her very disillusioned with it, not to mention an amenable divorce from Joshua. Yet even in the midst of a creative hiatus, nothing can keep this irrepressible Australian down. The office chair she lounges in is not located in Wapping, but at her photographic gallery right next door to the Tate Modern(2). This has to be one of most desirable sites for a gallery in London, so how did she manage to beat off the competition this time around?

‘Remember Lehmans’ went down in 2008. The recession was on. It was a contemporary furniture shop and they just disappeared overnight! I live very near and saw the open door was just flapping in the wind. I thought “this empty space is speaking to me” – so I decided I’ve just got to do it. Harry Handelsman(3) owns the building so I don’t have any restrictions. It is a great location aside from the parking…’

Launched in 2009, Wapping Project/Bankside shows lens-based art and represents a tight stable of photographers, all hand-picked by Jules herself. Whereas Wapping is a not-for-profit operation, this is a decidedly commercial gallery selling artworks. The original ten artists(4) have now been supplemented by Nelli Palomäki of Finland and in only three years Bankside’s reputation is such that this year they have been invited to Tokyo(5), expenses paid, for their first attendance at a major art fair. Actual sales to museums are also on the increase. It is a far different world to the public sector where Wright has spent most of her career.

‘I have spent a life in the arts fundraising, staging gala events and dealing with lack-of-money issues and boards of directors. Those boards are a clique and the individuals move around within all the big institutions. They make the appointments and really have the final word on absolutely everything. It’s actually why some creative people fail – or simply leave. For instance, I found it particularly difficult at the Liverpool Playhouse in spite of support from Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell. In 1991 I did turn down an invitation to run the Sydney Opera House, but there is one big job that would tempt me back in – the South Bank. I love it there and it would bring all my passions together in one role.’

Today, the good news is that Jules Wright’s creative lacuna is over. She has a new passion (a favourite word) for the Wapping Project and is making plans for two major events next year in the performance space: a staging of Macbeth; and Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. For Wright, Macbeth has been an unresolved challenge since her last 1987 staging in Edinburgh, where she felt a there were things that could be improved upon. And, surprisingly, she has never directed a Chekhov before. The reinvigorated ambition for Wapping has also enabled her to revisit schemes for a hotel and ‘something’ to do with the Thames River.

But as if owning a cult arts venue and a trending photography gallery were not enough for this award-winning Australian(6), she is now devoting her considerable energies to movie-making (‘you might remember I directed Daniel Craig’s first film, The Rover, with Andy Serkis and Dougray Scott for the BBC in 1994’). As the luxury luggage brand Tumi discovered when they commissioned Jules Wright to create a presentation for the launch of their new collaboration with designer, Dror Benshetrit.

No doubt envisaging an art installation for Milan’s prestigious Salone del Mobile extravaganza, what they got was Passaggio, a mystery movie. A dark, surreal thriller that begins in Cambridge then races across Europe, shot on location in France, England, Austria, Switzerland and Italy – a girl, her fate in jeopardy yet her secrets safe in her Tumi suitcase. And this to promote a new line in luggage! Jules Wright allows another naughty, mischievous smile to light up her face.

‘It ended up very dark – a murder mystery. I mean, what are you going to do with a suitcase? But you travel with a suitcase. I put lots of tiny thriller film joke references in it (The Third Man wheel in Vienna, an old Day of the Jackal Peugeot in Paris). I’ll never forget Tumi’s faces when they saw the first screening! But it was very, very successful – so now they love it and want to show it in New York. Everyone said: but I thought Tumi was a baggage company in shopping malls?

‘Julian Schnabel is an interesting case. I loved The Diving Bell and the Butterfly about Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby. Schnabel is an artist who is making films for everybody. It is all feasible. That’s what interests me now – a full-length feature film. I mean – it is all doable you know.’



1) The Wapping Project. Wapping Wall. London E1W 3SG was sold in late 2013

2) Wapping Project/Bankside gallery. 65a Hopton Street. London moved to share premises with MALLETT's in Dover Street in the months prior to Jules becoming ill.

3) Harry Handelsman of the Manhattan Loft Company

4) Lillian Bassman, Elina Brotherus, Annabel Elgar, Peter Marlow, Edgar Martins, Susan Meiselas, Stephen J Morgan, Paolo Roversi, Jeffrey Stockbridge, Deborah Turbeville. Tokyo Photo 2012. 28 Sept – 1 Oct 2012 National awards include: Plays and Players (1983); Time Out, City Limits and Plays and Players (1984); Olivier/SWET Awards and Evening Standard (1985); John Whiting Award (1986); Samuel Beckett and George Devine Awards (1988); Evening Standard and Sydney Critics’ Circle (1990); BBC Opera (1992).

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