History of CoolTan Arts


CoolTan building in Brixton - CoolTan History

History of CoolTan Arts – The story of how we began

CoolTan bottle - CoolTan History

In 1991, CoolTan Arts began as a creative (Do It Yourself) D.I.Y Community, taking our name from the Cooltan suntan lotion factory in Brixton where our studios were originally based. Thousands of London-wide people got involved in the CoolTan Arts project which included a huge gallery space of 4000 square feet, a performance space with opportunities to perform, show and share films to others for evening entertainment, a vegetarian café, rehearsal rooms, welding workshops, photography, life drawing, Tai Chi … in fact if you could teach it, you could run it!

From day one in our history, CoolTan has been a participant-led grassroots organisation, run by and for adults with experience of mental distress, an ethos we still subscribe to.

Slump Exhibition - © Ayse Hason -  Car hanging from the ceiling - CoolTan History

© Ayse Hason

In 1992 we moved to the huge old Unemployment Benefit Office in Coldharbour Lane. In those days we were famous for our fundraising parties, featuring top DJs and sound systems. The huge gallery space enabled us to curate large scale exhibitions such as Manipulated Metals which featured a battered Renault 4 hanging from the ceiling and SLUMP – an open competition called ‘South London Undiscovered Masterpieces Prize’.

In 1997 we became a registered charity with the aim of using the arts to promote mental well-being. Most people involved were trained in the arts and the arts had helped us to stay well. The support for people with mental distress at that time was abysmal and CoolTan aimed to help others.The charity was homeless for a few years, operating out of local libraries. With only a P.O. Box as an address, what could have been more appropriate than an International Mail Art project? Curated by Julia Tant, the project culminated in an exhibition at Brixton Tate Library in 1997.

Cooltan History: Women's  Art GroupIn 2002 CoolTan  finally found a home in a railway arch at Loughborough Junction  which enabled us to start new projects. A Mind Millennium Award of £1000 allowed us to set up an art group for women who had survived mental distress. The classes enabled women to share their experiences and develop their creativity in a safe space. Until the present day, CoolTan continues to run a women only visual arts workshop.

In 2006, CoolTan moved to the lively Walworth Road and was housed in an old linseed oil factory/warehouse. During this period CoolTan developed new projects including our flagship  ‘CoolTan Arts Largactyl Shuffle’ – monthly guided cultural walks celebrating mental wellbeing. Our Self-Advocacy Skills training programme also began in this period. Designed and led by participants, it has provided to people the tools and the confidence to stand up for themselves and their rights.

Painting Workshop - CoolTan HistoryIn 2013, CoolTan Arts moved to our current building also on Walworth Road. This has been a great move, giving us a dedicated gallery space and separate rooms for a wide-ranging programme of new workshops including cooking, web design and creative writing. We also developed our volunteering programme and in 2014 won the Investors in Volunteers (IIV) quality mark.

Feeling less isolated and having a meaningful activity to look forward to go a long way towards enabling our participants to reconnect with the wider world and stay well. One way CoolTan does this is by creating regular opportunities for those with mental distress to engage through our public events and exhibitions. One long-term participant, a 26 year-old woman said: “CoolTan has given me purpose. If you have purpose, then you have meaning. And if you have meaning, recovery is not only possible, but probable”.

Artwork by Ese Inomioro  - CoolTan HistoryOver our 24-year history, CoolTan has gone from strength to strength, expanding our output but never losing sight of our founding belief in the power of art and that mental health needn’t be a barrier to this. Despite severe funding cuts, we continue to work with thousands of individuals face-to-face, and the many more who attend CoolTan events on a yearly basis.


If you would like to help support CoolTan Arts with a donation you can do so online here.

Read more about CoolTan’s early history here.

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