Jenni Lomax, director of Camden Arts Centre, recently announced that she’ll be stepping down from her role after 26 years.

During her tenure, Lomax has transformed a local gallery and education centre into a vital venue for contemporary art with a strong education and residency programme.

She organised early career-breaking exhibitions for British artists such Martin Creed, Mark Nelson and Simon Starling, two of whom went on to win the Turner Prize (Creed in 2001; Starling in 2005).

Lomax also introduced new audiences to previously little-known or neglected women artists, including American painters Jo Baer and Mary Heilmann, and the late British artist Shelagh Wakely.

In 2003, Lomax oversaw a major redevelopment of the Grade II listed Victorian building.

Lomax was previously director of education at Whitechapel Gallery, under its then director Nicholas Serota, where she introduced a pioneering programme of art education in the community.

In 2009, she was awarded an OBE for her services to the visual arts.

What are you most proud of during your time as director of Camden Arts Centre?
I am very proud of having created a programme that is valued for its artistic integrity and a place that people feel happy and at home in.

Was it always your plan to focus on living artists? And how do you think this has paid off, not just for the artists, but for visitors?
Working directly with artists has always been important to me. Having artists present and part of the process of thinking and shaping the programme is something I brought with me from my time at Whitechapel art gallery; the vibrant artist community in East London throughout the 1980s was the life blood of all the education and public programme activities I set up there. However, artists who are no longer with us – such as Hilma af Klint, Bas Jan Ader, Kenneth and Mary Martin, Francis Picabia, David Askevold and Shelagh Wakely – continue to have an inspirational role in our pattern of exhibitions. I think that mix is enjoyed by our visitors.

The artist residency programme has nurtured artists who’ve gone on to great success. What do you think is special or unique about the residency at Camden?
We have never set an absolute formula for our residencies and we aim to make the time any artist spends with us chime with what they are thinking about and want to do at the time. While artists are selected for the studio residency because of some conceptual affinity with the artists who are exhibiting in the galleries, they have an open brief as to what they do in the studio and how they want to present that to the public. For example, Sam Belinfante recently occupied the studio while Rose English and Florian Roithmayr were in the galleries. He used the time and space to create a new sound work that was presented in instalments throughout the residency.

Education is also at the heart of Camden Arts Centre. Historically, it’s been a strong part of its remit, but why has it been particularly important to you to carry on that tradition?
That art education was strongly embedded in the institution and that traces of the building’s previous life as a public library lingered in the atmosphere, is the reason why I applied to be the director. I recognised the potential for having learning and discovery underpin the whole programme and wanted to create a model where education was integral and not an off-shoot. Camden Arts Centre is fairly unique in its combination of galleries and workshop spaces, including an amazing ceramics studio; having this scope for looking at, talking about and making art, as well as being amongst artists, makes for rich encounters with contemporary concepts and working processes.

During your time at Camden you’ve managed to introduce some amazing women artists to new audiences. Do you think you’ve got the gender balance right?
We did a recent tally and found that over my 26 years here, 55% of artists we have shown have been female. So yes – I think we have a good balance. But we don’t really programme exhibitions on the attributes of the artists; we work from a premise of connecting ideas across from exhibition to exhibition and making meaningful juxtapositions. This means that there have been plenty of amazing men in the programme too.

The centre is no longer gets funding from the council. What are the challenges you’ve faced ensuring its survival as a vital force for contemporary art?
Camden was one of the first London boroughs to be affected by the austerity cuts brought in by the previous government and it is worrying that we can now see that local councils across the country are faced with having to make cuts to their arts provision. The challenge forced by ever decreasing public funding is to keep finding more ways of raising and earning income in order to sustain a viable future. The uncertain economic future and the added difficulties faced by artists living in London means that we all have to find ways of cutting our coat accordingly while keeping our core purpose and aims properly in focus.

You trained as an artist at Maidstone School of Art in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Why did you give up practicing art, and was that a hard decision to take?
Maidstone at the time I was there was an unusually open and creatively energetic place; no one was pushed into traditional categories. While I left with a good degree, I wasn’t bound by a studio practice and enjoyed a more collaborative and social way of operating. The desire to share my love of art led me to setting up projects with other artists for young people in East London and then on to heading up the community education programme at the Whitechapel.

What’s next for you?
It will take a bit of time to work out my next steps but I will be looking for ways to continue working with artists and I hope to be able to use my years of experience to help shape a sustainable future for visual arts and education.

Any words of advice for the incoming director?
To enjoy it!  Camden Arts Centre is a wonderful building with a fantastic team of people working in it. The organisation has grown considerably over the past 26 years and with it the need to give more of my attention to more areas of the operation and therefore to delegate certain things. What has kept me motivated all this time has been to hold on to what I like doing best and that is forming and shaping the exhibition programme, working with the artists to hang and install their work, and then taking time to be with the exhibitions and the public when they come to visit. A new director will have different strengths and passions – but whatever those are they should keep them in sight.

Joachim Koester: In the Face of Overwhelming Forces, the forthcoming exhibition at Camden Arts Centre, runs from 28 January – 26 March 2017.

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