The lunch club at JVA (All photos by author unless noted)

BRIGHTON, UK — Under normal circumstances, art doesn’t come with a manual. But at a new show in Southwark, London, visitors soon find circumstances are not so normal. On the front desk are piled a stack of instructions with IKEA-style graphics. It shows the exhibits to be either participatory events (a lunch club, life tutorials) or public services (a print studio, a library, a craft shop). And on the far wall of the dining area there is a full exhibition budget on the wall. All this is costing £17,900 ($28,500), for the record.

JVA at Jerwood Space must have known they would get something off-the-wall when they approached artist Marcus Coates as part of their Jerwood Encounters program. Fostered by a number of shamanic performances in an animal headdress, Coates maybe has a reputation for eccentricity. But in person he is completely down to earth, as his long association with the ongoing curatorial project Grizedale Arts would suggest. These co-curators for his current show are a pragmatic arts organization from the North of England, more likely to be renovating adult learning centers than making expensive gewgaws for rich international collectors.

Lunch club sign at JVA

Together they have put together a working community center which JVA hopes will attract interest from the Southwark locals. Failing that, the gallery hopes to attract other users of its five story building. And, even failing that, the whole exercise will raise questions about the use-value of art for the benefit of the art world. Grizedale director Adam Sutherland tells me: “I see it a little bit as a propaganda project. If more young artists become interested in this way of working, as well as the volunteers on the project, that’s, from our point of view, good.”

“This is a symbolic project. It’s in a gallery. It’s a bit like being in a car salesroom,” he adds, whereas much of the recent work by Grizedale has been in a former mechanics institute in the Cumbria village they call home. Sutherland is more commonly to be found overseeing the relocation of a library, the setting up of an ‘honest’ shop, the putting in place of health clinics, and no doubt plenty of building maintenance and DIY craftsmanship through his curatorial endeavors. A white cube in the capital, such as this, should be anathema.

For this reason Sutherland is already looking ahead to the possibility of elements from Coates’s exhibition, called Now I Gotta Reason, having an afterlife beyond JVA. “We’re always looking at the long game,” says the personable director, sitting at a 20-foot dining table built for eating lunch each day at 1 pm. “The idea of putting on a show and just packing it away seems absurd. So all these boards will be reused. We’ll take them apart and take them up to the Lake District and build a pottery workshop out of them, so then they won’t be wasted.”

Visitor Maxine writes on the skill swap board

One week later I find myself back at the dining table on a mission to identify this project’s evolving clientele. But the proverbial Joe Public is nowhere to be seen. And as we tuck into our pasta, there are artists or arts-related folk on all sides. After running several background checks, things look up with an introduction to a visitor named Harry. Harry works for the fire brigade, but he turns out to be an artist too. Would other firefighters come down to see this show? “Yes, a few of the lads,” Harry claims. “They’re artists too.”

The least artsy person at lunch is a drama student called Daniel. He had not been to JVA before, but found it “really exciting to discover a new space.” Outside the building I meet three actors who are rehearsing for a musical upstairs. But Jay, Adam, and John are only in London to work, and show no interest in the contents of the gallery. Back inside I meet a pair of semi-retired tourists from Colorado. They aren’t exactly local, but the show appears to have the desired effect on them all the same. “It’s really different; you don’t expect to find this,” says Carol. “We need to have mind-expanding notions of these terms,” says Paul of the definition of “art.”

Richard Hughes’s “Community Centre” at Tramway Gallery (Image courtesy Tramway)

However, the fact may be that the art world is growing used to notions of community and public service. Just last year, Swiss artist Christoph Büchel turned West End gallery Hauser and Wirth into a social hub that lampooned village halls up and down the land. This year, Jeremy Deller built his Hayward Gallery retrospective around a replica of a convivial Northern snack bar called Valerie’s. And, currently, Richard Hughes has wedged a full-size community center building into Glasgow’s cavernous Tramway gallery. So-called ordinary people may not be very interested in art, but art is very interested in them.

But the irony of all these projects is that a conventional roomful of paintings would be an easier get for the audiences they flirt with. Surely, it takes a previous interest in art to fully appreciate reconstructed social spaces and relational artwork. Perhaps it even requires a dislike of paintings and sculpture to really get excited by a show like this one. And the most compelling thing about Now I Gotta Reason is the tension between its gallery setting and its straightforward utility. “You’re dealing with the hand of art,” says Sutherland, “and the notion that, if it’s in this space, it’s blessed by the hand of art. So it skews the value of things hugely.” Not even a budget on the wall can change that.

The print studio by An Endless Supply at JVA’s “Now I Gotta Reason”

But there can be little doubt that with all the seating, signage, and services, this show is very conducive to social interaction. Teresa has just spent half an hour in the padded “life tutorial” booth with Coates. The consultation, she reveals, has made her realize she needs to make a life decision. She is on the verge of leaving a decent gallery job to work full time in her Mexican bakery. In other words she is leaving the art world to join public life. This is surely the best possible outcome for Coates, Sutherland, and all involved with this landmark show. On her way out she stops by the print studio to discuss fliers for her new business. If that were not a reason to visit JVA right now, what is?

Now I Gotta Reason is on view at JVA at Jerwood Space (171 Union Street, London), through December 9. Booking is essential for Lunch Club and Life Tutorials by emailing or calling +44 20 7654 0179.

Mark Sheerin is an art writer from the UK. He also contributes to Culture24 and Frame & Reference, together with his own blog Criticismism. In 2012 he appeared in Nature, a volume in the series Documents...