top of page
  • Writer's picturemaxwell museums

Gibraltar's Fortress House Director Henry Little on the new art museum

Fortress House is a new art museum coming to Gibraltar.


Opening in autumn 2025, it is billed as the first major contemporary art gallery in the British Overseas Territory. Henry Little is the museum's Director and is leading the project.


Little hopes that Fortress House will inspire the ‘Bilbao effect.’


For those unfamiliar, this refers to the economic transformation the Spanish city enjoyed when Bilbao Guggenheim opened in the late 1990s. It was so significant that every mid-size city has since had a go at this playbook. If they build it, they will come etc.


Now nearly 30 years later, what worked for a city on the northern edge of the Iberian Peninsula is being attempted right on the southern tip. Yes, Gibraltar is aiming for a Bilbao-esque boost.

Computer generated rendering of the gallery building with people shown on the forecourt
Rendering of Exterior Main Façade, 2024. Courtesy of Gamma Architects and Fortress House.

Fortress House will be home to an art collection of world-class names in a fully overhauled 18th century building in the heart of the historic old town. There are plans for a hotel and restaurant too.


While the literal scale might be much smaller than in the Basque city, the ambition for the tiny territory is comparable.


Currently just over 32,000 people live in Gibraltar, but the striking new four-storey venue will be a hugely significant cultural hub.


The hope is that visitors across Spain and the rest of Europe and beyond will flock to the new art destination when it opens its doors — and that they will in-turn drive economic prosperity.


— Get the latest exhibition news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our free newsletter


So to get all the details on the just-revealed plans, here I speak to Henry to get the lowdown.


Henry tells me about the mechanics of building a new art collection, how the venue hopes to complement Gibraltar’s grassroots arts scene, and how it will replicate Bilbao’s folklore-like success.


 

Hello Henry. So, what’s your elevator pitch for the Fortress House project?


It’s a new, world-class contemporary art museum that combines the thrill of modern architecture with the rich history of an 18th-century landmark — to put Gibraltar on the global cultural map.


A birds eye view of a curving staircase
Rendering of Interior Stairwell, 2024. Courtesy of Gamma Architects and Fortress House

Tell me a bit about the art collection. How was it amassed?


From the beginning, I’ve been leading the planning and development of the museum's collection — an immense privilege. It currently encompasses over 150 pieces, featuring a diverse range of work that includes paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs, prints, and works on paper.


We had a strong vision for the collection that — coupled with the opportunity to construct a bespoke building to accommodate it — allowed us to acquire numerous monumental works as well as collecting several artists in depth.


The collection includes the entirety of Lindsey Mendick’s joyously detailed presentation Till Death Do us Part (2022) which was shown in the Hayward Gallery’s outstanding Strange Clay exhibition. Comprised of five distinct pieces, it felt important to keep the group together so that the incredible worlds Lindsey creates with her sculptural installations could be experienced by our visitors in their full glory.


In the same vein, we acquired a monumental group of figures from Hew Locke’s outstanding work The Procession, a vast parade of characters which was initially commissioned for the Duveen galleries at Tate Britain. This work was partly responsible for inspiring several design revisions, leading us to propose a dramatic double-height space in one of the galleries with eight-metre-high ceilings.


Kiki Smith is an emblematic artist for the collection, with a powerful body of work addressing sexuality, spirituality, and the human condition. So, we were especially delighted to have acquired important works from across her career including both of her seminal, life-size bronze figures of Virgin Mary (1992) and Mary Magdalene (1994). They are commanding, deeply affecting works which have a powerful impact.


Will you be hoping to acquire more works?


Absolutely. The acquisition programme is ongoing, and the collection will continue to grow.


One of the things we wanted to develop was a thematic approach to exploring the collection, something that would connect us to our audiences and resonate with future generations. So, the collection is built around three core thematic strands: sexual politics, gender, and representation; human frailty and the human condition; and technology, society, and evolution.


The works mainly come from post-1970 because this period marks a crucial shift for feminist artists and art historians, influenced by Linda Nochlin's 1971 landmark essay, "Why have there been no great women artists?"


A blue painting of a naked woman in abstract form
And Everything Was Beautiful, Even me 2022 © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2022. Courtesy of Emin and Fortress House

We intentionally curated the collection to predominantly feature female artists, to counteract the historical gender bias found in traditional museum collections. We have works by artists such as Ida Applebroog, Anne Collier, Sara Cwynar, Tracey Emin, Sylvie Fleury, Clementine Keith-Roach, Ella Kruglyanskaya, Linder, Sarah Lucas, Paula Rego, Cindy Sherman, Rebecca Warren, and Nicole Wermers, among others.


Why the 18th-century former residence for the Governor of Gibraltar? And how ambitious is the architectural work?


It’s hugely ambitious. The chance to reinvent, reimagine and transform a heritage building into a 21st-century museum is an extraordinary opportunity.


Still, we’re acutely aware of our responsibility given that we’re working with a precious piece of Gibraltar’s history. The existing building has given us our name and will provide a dramatic contrast with the new building which will be sensitively wrapped around and behind it. It’s important to understand how rare this is. Gibraltar is densely built, and Fortress House is remarkable not only for its history, but also its size and central location.


There are so many complexities associated with adapting older buildings. We are lucky to work with the very talented team at Gamma Architects who have been central to this project from the outset. They have developed a compelling solution in careful consultation with Gibraltar’s heritage authorities which retains the delicate fabric of the original building, as well as many heritage features such as tiles and fireplaces.


The building will be completed by a rooftop sculpture terrace offering dramatic views across the city. This marks a first for Gibraltar, nothing of this kind has been attempted before.


How is the project funded — and how will the day-to-day operations be paid for?


It’s an entirely private venture so we’re in a different position to publicly funded institutions, but we’ve still had to consider revenue generation as it will be central to our future sustainability. Like so many other museums we want to offer more facilities to the public beyond our core cultural activities so there will be cafe and a restaurant which we hope will become destinations in their own right.


Fortress Studio will occupy several thousand square feet of the ground floor — it will be a place for children to make art as part of a structured programme of themed, instructor-led workshops.


Exhibitions and displays will be free to all Gibraltarians, but some of the Fortress Studio programmes will be fee paying and there are other revenue streams in development.


How many jobs will the project create?


Initially we expect the museum to create upward of twenty jobs across curatorial, art handling, front of house, marketing, administration, security, and hospitality. We are building a type of organisation that does not yet exist on this scale in Gibraltar, which presents a new and unique resourcing challenge.


We know that culture can support economic growth, driving footfall and the visitor economy, and attracting clusters of creative businesses. And our location is a major advantage that we hope will add spark to the region’s cultural and tourism offer.


The Skyline of Gibraltar with the rock of Gibraltar in the background
Gibraltar, 2022. Photo by Sky Tech. Courtesy of Gamma Architects and Fortress House

What's the wider Gibraltar arts scene like?


There is an exciting, enthusiastic, and committed grassroots art scene in Gibraltar including studio providers, private and public exhibition spaces, and several historic collections. We’re excited to join that community.


In time, we might attract other non-profit or artist-led spaces or even well-known commercial galleries to open in the region. It would be wonderful for us to be catalysing force energising a new era in Gibraltar’s cultural scene.


Our ambition is to have a comprehensive programme of engagement with our communities and our educational offer is as ambitious as our building plans. A head of education and interpretation will run the programme in Fortress Studio, as well as the free-to-access educational outreach efforts. This will comprise talks, tours, symposiums, and partnerships with local schools. Our aim is to bring the world-leading artists in our collection to Gibraltar to share their insights and stories behind their work, as there’s a huge appetite for this.  


We have looked closely at the impact of Museo Picasso and Centre Pompidou in Málaga which now comprise the city’s cultural centre of gravity, drawing visitors locally, regionally, and internationally. Historically, the Guggenheim Bilbao offers a striking example of how a museum can define a place. We want travellers to hear the word Gibraltar and immediately associate it with Fortress House. 


Henry Little looking at the camera wearing a blazer and glasses
Portrait of Henry Little , 2024. Courtesy of Fortress House. Photo by Alastair Levy

Thinking to autumn 2026, what will success look like a year after opening?


For me, success would be becoming a key player in the cultural landscape of Gibraltar and having a positive impact on its visitors and wider community. This kind of transformation doesn't happen overnight.


A natural milestone to aim for would be 100,000 visitors but I count weaving Fortress House into the fabric of Gibraltar's daily life, making it a place where locals and tourists alike naturally gravitate as a success.


Finally, what do you anticipate will give you the most sleepless nights over the next 18 months?


I’m mindful of the intricate dance involved in nailing down the opening date as there is so much work ahead of us over the next 18 months. But there's an undeniable buzz of excitement among the team.


We're not just building a museum; it’s a destination that will inspire and educate for years to come. The anticipation of seeing our vision come to life, of opening our doors to the public and sharing what we've created — that drives us forward. 


Fortress House will open in Gibraltar in autumn 2025

Comments


bottom of page