Black’s, a private member’s club in the heart of Soho that prides itself on being a space for the ‘extraordinarily interesting and interested’. As the antithesis of White’s, Black’s draws a trendier, one could even say, rather more bohemian crowd. The wooden floorboards, gorgeous fireplaces and atmospheric but cramped bar evokes images of a time gone by. Yet there is nothing staid about Black’s. A quick glance at the bespoke interior and stunning photographs of Kate Moss and Kiera Knightly, which loom over the cocktail sipping guests in the ground-floor bar, is sufficient to realise Black’s epitomises elegant sophistication This is a fashionable go-to destination for London’s privileged if not pretentious trendsetters. To put it more simply, this intimate yet decadently decorated little-known town house is a space for burgeoning creativity.
The interior space, distributed between a basement lounge, a ground-floor bar, a restaurant and a top-floor exclusive exhibition area provides the club’s members with ample room to sit back relax and most importantly create. Remaining at the forefront of creative inspiration is essential to Black’s reputation as a hub of artistic originality.
Such originality is arguably achieved through bespoke interior decoration and a constant flow of rolling exhibitions. Indeed, Black’s also has its own artist in residence, the brilliantly talented Alice von Maltzahn, available for commissions on request. Von Maltzahn’s most recent exhibition was nothing short of breath-taking. Intricately crafted paper designs lined the walls, whilst 3-D paper creations cast geometric shadows on the sultry grey walls, seducing the viewer to identify with von Maltzahn’s beautiful imaginary – her artistic journey. Responding to space, mapping territory and constructing or indeed deconstructing metaphorical boundaries are all fundamental to von Maltzahn’s artistic language. Her designs are conceptual yet powerful and speak of space as a medium of creative success.
Theorising about von Maltzahn’s artistic response to space encourages an evaluation of the space outside the frame. Black’s is one of many places in London displaying art in a space accessible to only those deemed worthy of admission. The club’s rather quirky membership application process relegates this beautifully Romantic interior to the realm of the social elite – not any Tom, Dick or Harry can entertain here. The black front door is at once a literal and metaphorical threshold separating those who can afford artistic luxury, the club’s members and those who cannot, the so-called “public” on the street. Black’s, like many other exclusive establishments, is, therefore, a space that raises questions about the contemporary accessibility of art.
With elite establishments such as Black’s peppering the London landscape, it is possible to understand why Art is often perceived as unobtainable, unreachable – the reserved domain of the intellectual. Art remains stigmatised as something understood only by the social elite. Possession of art is traditionally an indicator of what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has termed ‘cultural capital’, in other words, the intangible social influencer that determines our aesthetic ‘tastes’.
While this may be true according to some, I am not in total agreement. I am not advocating that prestigious clubs like Black’s shut their doors, rather I am raising questions about the cultural role they play. While many of our most visited public London museums and famous art fairs such as Frieze have started accessibility and outreach programmes to attract those less familiar with the national and international art scene, it is time smaller more bespoke institutions engage in questions of accessibility too.
While some collections will remain the treasure of a select few, it is our role as spectator to make the most the multitude of public spaces over-brimming with accessible art. Whether you are new to the art world or a veteran collector, cultural heritage is part of any space’s DNA. Step into Black’s if you have the chance to marvel at von Maltzahn’s work, but if that is just not possible, make it your mission to go somewhere a little more open, sooner rather than later.
By Lucy Scovell