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Curating well-being: Melissa Hardwick, Director of the Free Space Gallery

Welcoming over 25,000 visitors per year is every small gallery’s dream, yet the Free Space Gallery, tucked away in Kentish Town, is very much living it. The gallery occupies spaces of two NHS centres, the Kentish Town Health Centre and the Queens Crescent Practice, reaching out to audiences who might not think themselves culture-vultures and changing the way we think about waiting rooms, doctor’s appointments and medical procedures along the way. Its ethos is located at the intersection of well-being and art; in the last five years, Melissa Hardwick, director of Free Space, has devised a programme of site-specific and health-related exhibitions, a rota of workshops, artist residencies and art therapy classes and even managed to extend the gallery to a garden (hops have grown and home-brew will be available for tasting in September).

Registered patients and gallery guests take note: an exhibition by Nicola Jayne Maskrey, a photographic artist, opens on 17th August, a curious Spirit Shed is awaiting your visit in the garden, and there’s plenty to put in your diaries for the autumn. Before all that of course, our conversation with Melissa.

Run Riot: Hi Mel - can you introduce yourself to our readers? What brought you to Free Space Gallery?

Melissa Hardwick: Hello there. Sure thing. Introduce myself, well I am the Director of the Free Space Gallery and have been since its formation in 2010. I don’t strictly have a background in the arts; I have always created my own work but chose to study Archaeology instead. So my journey to what I do now has not been the straightest route but I believe it has been all the more interesting for it.

Run Riot: What’s the story behind the Free Space Gallery? How did it come to be established and how has it developed since 2010?

Melissa Hardwick: In early 2010 I started working at the Kentish Town Health Centre in which the gallery and arts programme are now based. The centre, which was newly built as a flagship NHS building, had received a grant from the Arts Council to have a series of rolling exhibitions and a residency programme. I saw the importance of embracing having the arts in such a unique and prominent public building and Free Space Gallery was born.

Since then we have managed to gain sustained funding and expand the programme to provide free monthly workshops for patients and the local community, an on-going residency programme, weekly art therapy, dance group for people with Parkinson’s, a choir for people with respiratory conditions, drawing for people with communications difficulties, a garden in which we hold exhibitions and grow our own produce as well as many performances, artists talks and events to get involved in.

Run Riot: Excuse the size of this question: how do you see the connection between art and well-being?

Melissa Hardwick: Art is a form of communication and expression and both of these things are hugely beneficial to an individual’s well-being, feeling that you have a place within a wider setting is at the essence of what it is to be. Having a platform for people to express themselves in a public building is key to people feeling part of their community and having a sense of well-being.

Run Riot: The gallery currently occupies spaces of two NHS practices: how do these very peculiar locations influence the curatorial thinking? What’s your relationship with the practices?

Melissa Hardwick: The NHS settings are at the core of the Free Space Gallery ethos. I work with artists on a long term basis ensuring that they get to know the centre, the patients, staff and the rhythm of the practice. All exhibitions and installations are either site specific or on a health theme (social, physical or mental). The real idea is that the art works on a number of levels, it helps patients as they wait for their appointment, it enhances the environment for staff, it can act to inform and it also exposes people to artwork who would not otherwise be visiting more conventional gallery spaces. The response to the artwork is immediate from patients and users of the centre with doctors noting that patients often mention the themes of the exhibition within their consultations, asking for further information about the health themes.

Run Riot: How is the gallery connected to the local community?

Melissa Hardwick: Because of our setting and the fact that from the two NHS practices we serve over 25,000 patients with approx. 450,000 visitors per year we are hugely connected to the local community. We also work with a number of other local charities and schools, providing programming that answers their needs, as well as opportunities for voluntary experience.

Run Riot: What are the Free Space Gallery plans for the autumn? What exhibitions, events and workshops should we look out for?

Melissa Hardwick: We take a little break from some of our programme over the summer with the art therapy beginning again in the autumn as well as our other regular workshops. We currently have a wonderful young artist called Philly Hunt based in our garden shed. Philly is working with anyone who enters the garden on a series of informal creative workshops throughout the summer in what she has called the Spirit Shed. So do pop along and see our garden.

On 26th September we are opening the garden up for a day of celebration with our Urban Harvest, we will be pressing our apples to make juice, running plant dye making workshops from the plants we have been growing as well as serving beer brewed from our very own hops.

As well as visiting our garden please do pop along to the gallery in which we will be hosting an exhibition by Nicola Jayne Maskrey, a wonderful photographic artist who experiments with a range of equipment and techniques to produce pieces that have a strong narrative structure. Nicola will be exhibiting work that explores the dialogue between inner self and the everyday, which I think provides a great respite from the frenetic city in which we live. Nicola’s exhibition will run from 17th August until 9th October.

But there really is loads going on with artist talks, photographic and drama workshops so please do keep an eye on our events page.

Free Space Gallery