CoolTan Arts began in 1990 as a creative D.I.Y community space, taking their name from the disused CoolTan sun lotion factory in Effra Road, Brixton, where their studios were based.
Thousands of local and London wide people got involved in the project, which included homeless people living on site, a huge gallery space of 4000 sq feet, a vegetarian café run by different people daily with opportunities to perform and show and share films to others for evening entertainment, rehearsal rooms, welding workshops, photography, life drawing, Tai Chi … in fact if you could teach it, you could run it!
CoolTan, in those days known as Pullit, stayed there for a couple of years before eviction in February 1992. They then moved to the huge old Unemployment Benefit Office in Coldharbour Lane in September of that year.
In those days CoolTan Arts were famous for their fundraising parties and all-nighters, featuring top DJs and sound systems, such as Tribal Energy, Astralasia and Evolution. The huge gallery space enabled the collective to curate large scale ambitious 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’.
This period came to an end when CoolTan lost their Grade I listed premises in September 1995, at the end of a ‘Tenancy at Will’ agreement. However, the spirit of CoolTan Arts was not to be defeated. A small group from the squat set about becoming a Company Limited by Guarantee in 1996 and a year later, CoolTan Arts became a Registered Charity with the aim of using the Arts to promote mental well-being.
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. This not only suited the cash-strapped charity but also those who were submitting work on a very low budget. As Julia said at the time, ‘The idea of Mail Art means people without a great deal of money can get involved in creating art’.
In 2002, CoolTan finally found a home in a railway arch at Loughborough Junction in Coldharbour Lane. Compared with their previous premises it was tiny: a single room acting as office, kitchen and workshop space. It was enough, though, for CoolTan to start some exciting projects and a Mind Millennium Award of £1000 allowed them to set up an art group for women who had survived mental distress, sexual assault and trauma. The classes enabled women to share their experiences and develop their creativity in a safe space. To this 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. It was a great move for CoolTan, giving them much more space with separate rooms for different workshops and once again, a dedicated gallery space. The quiet industrial yard provided space for a container garden that never failed to lift visitors’ spirits.
CoolTan Arts addressed a growing need for low cost, non vocational education as local authorities became constrained by the push for accredited courses, isolating many individuals from attending classes for reasons of poverty, ill health, mental health and disability. Over the years the number of creative classes and projects has grown. Workshop participants are referred to CoolTan Arts by NHS professionals and social workers.
This simple nurture with creativity goes a long way in enabling people back to good health. Art enables key skills and re-learning processes without any feelings of excessive pressure. The types of skills are discussion, making choices, language, expression, feeling, intuition, confidence to be in a group, and confidence to speak. Workshops provide a social atmosphere away from a day centre, which will encourage people who do not like to be labelled a place to go, break their isolation and give participants an activity to look forward to.
As well as creative workshops, CoolTan developed projects including ‘CoolTan Arts Largactyl Shuffle’ – a monthly guided cultural walk through Southwark to celebrate mental wellbeing through exercise, creativity and history; and the Self-Advocacy Skills training programme, designed and led by participants, which provides people with the tools and the confidence to stand up for themselves and their rights. By the time CoolTan held their 21st birthday party, they were once again outgrowing their premises.
In March 2013 CoolTan found their next place to stay, just across the road in a modern office building. The move has given them more space, more light, central heating and an indoor toilet! There is also a fully accessible training kitchen, allowing CoolTan to run their exciting new cookery project, The CoolTan Cooking Club – Better Food for Better Mood.
‘It’s a great honour for us to be the group who have carried forward the name of CoolTan Arts from the early days.’
Michelle Baharier, CoolTan’s CEO says. ‘The values we had right back in the beginning are reflected in CoolTan’s values to this day, values which encourage autonomy and respect. We are sensitive towards the economic climate and don’t use workfare or run apprenticeships – we avoid things we think are exploitative and unrealistic.’
CoolTan’s underlying strength is its DIY ethos. People who come to CoolTan for help are also keen to contribute and ensure CoolTan’s future. As Michelle says, ‘For the past eight years, we’ve been running a sponsored walk to raise funds. Participants pay £5 to take part, which is a large percentage of a person’s total weekly income when on benefits, as most of our participants are. The people who use CoolTan Arts really value the support they get. I hope their generosity encourages others who could support us to be as generous with their giving.’
CoolTan Arts has gone from strength to strength over its history. Despite severe funding cuts, CoolTan continues to work with thousands of individuals face-to face and thousands more attend CoolTan events on a yearly basis.