The story of Brighton Beach House’s art collection by curator Gemma Rolls-Bentley

The story of Brighton Beach House’s art collection by curator Gemma Rolls-Bentley | Soho House

Incorporating both established and emerging local creatives, the activist and co-chair of Queercircle shares how she’s represented the city’s LGBTQIA+ community

Friday 3 June 2022.  By Anastasiia Fedorova

Art has always been an integral part of Soho House and the stories each location tells. But in Brighton Beach House, which opened last Friday on the south coast of England, the story is particularly special. Curated by Gemma Rolls-Bentley, the collection focuses on the works of LGBTQIA+ artists from Brighton and beyond, emphasising the prominent role the city plays in the history of the queer community. 
Rolls-Bentley is chief curator at Avant Arte and co-chairs the board of trustees for Queercircle, a new charity that aims to support the health and wellbeing of the LGBTQIA+ community through arts and culture. A curator and activist championing LGBTQIA+ talent in arts for over a decade, Rolls-Bentley called it The Brighton Beacon collection – after a symbol of hope, safety and new horizons for the queer people who gravitated towards it.
Working with the city’s local creative community and historical archives, the collection features masters such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Catherine Opie, Isaac Julien and Sunil Gupta, and the hottest emerging talents, like Gray Wielebinski and Sin Wai Kin. But most importantly, it reflects the multifaceted nature of queer life: the beauty and the rage, the loss and the lust, the love, longing, family and relentless drive for survival, and the urge to create a new future. 
Below, Rolls-Bentley gives us an insight into how she curated the collection and her journey in supporting LGBTQIA+ artists.

The story of Brighton Beach House’s art collection by curator Gemma Rolls-Bentley | Soho House

Could you tell me a little bit about the process of curating the collection? And how did you feel working in Brighton? 

‘I was invited to curate something for Brighton Beach House by Kate Bryan, Soho House’s Global Art Director, because one of the main themes I explore in my curatorial practice is queer identity. In Brighton there’s such a large LGBTQIA+ population, Kate felt it was really important that it was reflected in the art collection.
‘I have a strong relationship with Brighton, as most British queer people do. I’ve travelled to Brighton Pride most summers… I’ve spent a lot of time here, and it holds a special place for me as a community with a lot of visibly queer people. Brighton feels very welcoming, safe, and celebratory.’
You called it The Brighton Beacon collection – how did this image emerge? 

‘The beacon is like a lighthouse that calls people to it, a reflection on the role Brighton plays as a town that draws LGBTQIA+ people to it with the feeling of safety. Part of my history with the city is that I have a really close 89-year-old friend called Miles who moved there almost 70 years ago. Even back then, he knew that Brighton was more welcoming to queer people than other places in the UK. Looking back even further into its history, I found that the historical records of LGBTQIA+ people in Brighton date back as far as the Napoleonic Wars. 
‘And through my friendship with Miles, I’ve seen what the community really means here. He’s a very elderly man living alone, but he has a lot of help locally from younger gay and queer people who, like me, feel a responsibility to support their gay elders. So, this image of the beacon came from everyone flocking to Brighton for Pride, but also people like Miles making the city their home. When selecting artworks for the collection, I was thinking about the part that Brighton, and other queer hubs around the world, play in the LGBTQIA+ community.’

The story of Brighton Beach House’s art collection by curator Gemma Rolls-Bentley | Soho House

Where does your interest in LGBTQIA+ representation in art come from? 

‘I’m a queer person and I’ve spent a large part of my life as an activist, and I’ve been very involved in the queer community. I believe that art is a powerful tool for sharing ideas and having interesting debates and dialogue. And it’s also a platform for education, empathy, and understanding. I became a curator because I believe in the power of art. I’ve been working in the art world for almost 20 years and have done a lot of work around diversity, especially in terms of gender and queer identities. We know from the data that people who identify as LGBTQIA+ tend to face bigger challenges in their lives, and often greater professional hurdles, and they don’t get the same opportunities. It’s really important that those people are supported within the arts.’

you talk a little bit about the works and artists in the collection? 

lsquo;All the artists are making really relevant pieces about queer identity, space, and community – for example, Catherine Opie, who produced a lot of work about San Francisco and the part it plays as a queer hub in the 1990s. Wolfgang Tillmans gave a poster from his archive that he designed for the gay games in Amsterdam in 1993. I also wanted to make sure I’ve got good local representation of queer creatives who are based in Brighton, or have lived or studied there, like local artists Fox Fisher and Helen Cammock. Bones Tan Jones has produced lots of their film work in Brighton, too. The one we have in the collection is a mystical embellished piece of latex – Bones and I made a trip together to Brighton beach to find some wood to install it on and we actually found a fragment of the old pier.’ 

The story of Brighton Beach House’s art collection by curator Gemma Rolls-Bentley | Soho House
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The collection combines a lot of established artists and more emerging names. What was it like looking into works from across a whole era – and do you think the themes that artists explore today are very different from the past? 

‘To be honest, this was something I was interested in exploring myself. I’ve really enjoyed looking at historical works of art. And when I say historical, sometimes I just mean works from the early 1990s, because so much has changed for the queer community in that time. There are museum-level artists in the collection such as Christina Quarles, Catherine Opie, Isaac Julien, and Wolfgang Tillmans. In my experience, seeing the work of these artists, who create pieces that explicitly explore the queer experience in well-established and respected museums and galleries is very powerful. For example, I remember seeing Catherine Opie’s works in the Stephen Friedman Gallery when I had just moved to London: photographs of leather lesbians and dykes on bikes, which felt like a celebration, an honouring – and I think seeing this kind of work increased my confidence to live my best lesbian life.    
‘I enjoy looking at some of these works and thinking of the powerful position that they’ve inhabited. But I also love looking at artists who are making work now and thinking about the topics they’re exploring and how these might be different, how they reflect the current socio-political climate. The Catherine Opie work in the collection is a portrait of her friend Pigpen, and I’ve deliberately hung a photograph by young London-based photographer Rene Matić close to it. It’s an image of two people kissing, one of whom has the word ‘Dyke’ tattooed on their arm. I’m interested in how these two pieces speak to each other; to me, Matić’s image feels like a continuation of Opie’s legacy, a conversation around lesbian and dyke visibility, but also a reflection on the ways in which gender and sexuality are discussed and presented today versus 30 years ago.
‘Other works in the collection that reflect these changing attitudes are by Sin Wai Kin, who is nominated for this year’s Turner Prize, or Gray Wielebinski who explores his gender identity using cowboy culture. All of the artists included in the collection are examining important themes around LGBTQIA+ identity, and many of their works continue conversations that some of the older artists in the collection started many years ago.’