Not every business that moves into a new building invites the public in too. But that is precisely what one of London’s most prestigious picture framing firms will do this week. The John Jones Arts Building opens on Thursday, fitted out with light-filled workshops, conservation studios – and a non-selling art gallery with a café.
On a site behind Finsbury Park train station, a busy interchange in a formerly overlooked corner of north London, the new building gives credence to the perhaps unlikely idea – doubtless promoted by interested estate agents – of Finsbury Park as a cultural hub. The Arts Building, which has received support from Islington Council and Arts Council England, certainly seems to be part of a wider transformation. The neighbouring Park Theatre opened last year, backed by Ian McKellen and Alan Rickman. And a development of artists’ studios and accommodation for University of the Arts students is under way.
John Jones began staging ad hoc exhibitions of artists it works with over a decade ago. “We had a little gallery in our last building,” says Kate Jones, daughter-in-law of the company’s founder John, and wife of Matt, its managing director. (John’s other son, Kristian, and daughter, Kelly, also work for the firm.) “I suppose it celebrates the world we work in,” she continues. “Clients enjoyed coming in to get something framed, then discovering new art.” The arrangement was not, therefore, entirely uncommercial even if it wasn’t directly about selling art.
The new building’s 1,000 sq ft gallery – known as the project space – takes things to a new level. For the first time, John Jones has employed a curator, Cassandra Needham, formerly of Nottingham Contemporary and the Whitechapel Gallery, to programme free exhibitions, talks and film screenings.
First up is a solo show by the Dublin-based artist Teresa Gillespie. My visit to John Jones coincides with the first day of the installation. Newly arrived crates are dotted around the room, which is otherwise empty except for a retro-looking television set – the kind favoured by video artists. (A press release later informs me that Gillespie's installation will “approach the sensuous and intrusive space of touch through mixed media”.)
How passers-by will react to such cutting-edge work remains to be seen – but for Kate Jones the important thing is that they will see it. She says she considered having the project space on the top floor, but “putting it at street level, with [floor to ceiling] windows made us realise that we could push this further”. Needham tells me she wants the space to be a “serious player on the contemporary art scene”. Her focus will be artists who haven’t previously had a solo show in London.
The Arts Building also has a studio for an artist in residence, separate from the project space. There is no obligation for this artist to hold an exhibition, but he or she is encouraged to “engage the community in a collaborative way”, such as through live events. Of course, for John Jones, fostering relationships with artists and the kind of art world figures who will be drawn to the new building makes good business sense – even if the benefit is not immediate. “We’re quite lucky,” Kate explains, “we’re second generation as a business. We enjoy so much what we do that when an idea comes in it doesn’t always have to deliver a commercial return.” The company’s current revenues exceed those during the art market’s boom years, before the 2008 crash.
Being a family business has given John Jones freedom and allowed artists to remain at the centre of things. When John Jones started the business in 1968, he employed four people in a basement (today the company employs 110). He became friends with Francis Bacon and David Hockney – exchanging frames for artwork with the latter. The company stretched the canvasses for the Royal Academy’s David Hockney: A Bigger Picture in 2012, and made the frame for Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud”, which became the most expensive artwork sold at auction when it fetched $142.4m last year.
Clients read like a Who’s Who of the past four decades. In the early 1970s, Linda McCartney asked Jones to frame a Magritte overnight as a present for Paul; David Bowie once visited with paintings for a London show; and Eric Clapton is a long-standing client. The firm has also amassed an impressive art collection over the years – including Bacon, Hockney, Irving Penn, Paula Rego and Richard Hamilton – much of which is displayed around the building for staff, clients and now the public to enjoy.