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Barbara Steveni: should ‘the most important artist nobody’s heard of’ get a Southwark blue plaque?

Barbara Steveni, who lived in Peckham for more than thirty years, has been called ?the most important artist nobody?s heard of? – who ?expanded the possibilities of what art could be?.

Barbara, who died in February 2020, co-founded and ran the Artist Placement Group (APG) from the 1960s, an organisation that placed artists inside big businesses and government agencies to try and bridge the gap. It?s normal now for companies and local councils to commission art as part of their community engagement, but this wasn?t always the case.

According to archivist Victoria Lane, who interviewed Barbara, she ?helped change perceptions of the role of the artist and was a precursor to the public art programmes and artist-in-residence schemes we know now?.

Barbara later ran a similar project in Southwark schools. Between 1989 and 1995 she placed fifteen artists in schools in the borough and carried out other performances in Southwark, including at Tate Modern.

Barbara was born in 1928 in Iran, where her father worked for the Foreign Office. She went to school in Devon before getting a place at the Chelsea College of Art. There she met the artist John Latham, whom she would later marry.

They lived in Notting Hill from the 1960s and began exploring conceptual art – including taking part in a series of events called the Destruction in Art Symposium with artists like Yoko Ono, which aimed ?to focus attention on the element of destruction? in art and society.

Barbara?s own work shifted from more traditional painting and drawing to events and ?assemblages? – putting together objects that she found.

Perhaps her most important contribution to art was to come from this world. She told British Library interviewer Melanie Roberts in 1998 that in the mid-1960s several artist friends were staying with her and wanted scrap metal for an exhibition.

?I took them to an industrial site just outside London and collected some scrap for them? as stuff for their show,? she said. Later she got lost on an industrial estate at about 10pm.

?There was this huge, enormous industrial complex, humming away. There was a Mars factory and a clock factory? I thought to myself ?instead of picking up buckets of plastic and material, why aren?t we actually associated with this world that we don?t seem to be touching?

?I came back with this idea in my head that? artists needed to be in this whole other area.?

The APG was founded in 1966 with help from Sir Robert Adeane, a businessman and former trustee of the Tate, who helped set her up with contacts in some of the biggest companies operating in the UK. Once an artist was placed in a business or government organisation, they had three months to come up with a proposal for their work with the group, in a placement that would last at least a year. The work of the APG was coordinated by Barbara, her husband John and others in a committee called the Think Tank.

Among the projects that artists placed with the APG took part in was a ?reminiscence aid? programme produced by the Department of Health to help the health and mental state of elderly people and people losing their memories by playing them recordings of sounds from their youth. Dementia charities run similar ?reminiscence? projects today.

APG held an exhibition in 1971 at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank called Art + Economics. According to the Tate, which bought APG?s archive in 2004, the exhibition contained a selection of documentation from the APG?s industrial placements, displayed as works of art, and ?interviews [were] set up between industrialists and artists to question the new role of the artist in society.?

Barbara split up with John in the 1980s and they both moved to Peckham, living in separate houses. Their daughter Xenia Latham told the News that they were still ?very much working together every day? they were doing their own things but cared about each other still.?

Barbara had an unusual way of working out whether a person coming to the door of her Peckham home was someone she might like to see, according to an article on her website written by Gareth Bell-Jones.

?When arriving at Barbara?s home, a close friend would know not to knock but rather tug a rope hanging by the doorframe,? writes Mr Bell-Jones, who curates John?s former Peckham home, now a museum.

?Once pulled, it rattled a collection of oyster shells and Barbara would know she had a friendly guest.?

Barbara and the other members of the APG renamed the group Organisation + Imagination (O+I) in 1989 after a disagreement with the Arts Council. According to Ms Lane, ?the Arts Council had taken the idea of artists? placements without the rigorous conceptual basis of the APG?s own approach?.

It came seventeen years after the Arts Council withdrew funding from the APG, believing that its activities were ?more concerned with social engineering than straight art?, according to a letter sent to Barbara.

O+I eventually closed down in 2008 but its work lives on through the near-constant presence of art as a method of community engagement. An offshoot was set up in 2016 by artists including Barbara and Mr Bell-Jones.

Barbara continued working and carried on living in Anstey Road in Peckham for the rest of her life. She became a mainstay of the local community. ?The neighbours were all very fond of her and she was always out and about seeing people,? Xenia said.

?She loved Peckham Pulse, Peckhamplex. She really liked Dulwich Village, she very much enjoyed going there to the park.?

To vote for Barbara or any of the other candidates for a Southwark Blue Plaque, please email kit@southwarknews.co.uk or admin@southwark.org.uk

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