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Talking space and time with Marie McPartlin, director of Somerset House Studios

Somerset House Studios. Photo by Luke Walker

What is it about the collective force that drives humans? In a culture where office hours are steadily creeping into flexitime, and working from home is no longer a claim met with raised eyebrows and the suggestion of day time telly, real time collaboration couldn’t be more precious.

Creative spaces and affordable studios might not be the first things that spring to mind when you think of a Grade 1 listed building in central London. But Somerset House Studios are determined to change all of that. The new experimental workspaces are found in the refurbished Inland Revenue building at Somerset House, providing a platform for the development of new creative projects and collaboration.

The Studios will support over 100 resident artists, as well as Makerversity and groups focused on critical design and emerging technologies. All in? The Studios will eventually form a community of over 300 artists and thinkers.

Run Riot spoke to Marie McPartlin, director of Somerset House Studios, earlier in the week, to find out how the Studios came into being and why Somerset House wants to support emerging talent in the UK.

Run Riot: Can you tell Run Riot readers what Somerset House Studios are about?

Marie McPartlin: Somerset House Studios put experimentation and messiness back in the centre of London by creating a space for different art forms to make work side-by-side. We want to support the boldest, most exciting artistic projects, work that feels urgent, work that explores the potential of new technologies. Artists are making in new ways, with less regard for traditional art form boundaries, with more control over how their work is encountered. The Studios are trying to respond to that, we put as much emphasis on building a community as on access to physical space. We’ve also just announced a window for up to 25 new artists to join the Studios. Deadline is 7th December and the selection panel includes Artangel co-Director Michael Morris and Heather Corcoran, who was previously at Rhizome in New York.

Photo by Dan Wilton

RR: How did the idea for the studios come about?

MM: Somerset House is relatively new as a cultural institution and it’s evolving to be place where work is made as well as presented, to be a producer of new work. Putting artists in the building is in some ways a no brainer. It provides artists with a supportive and secure environment to work from, without threat of rent hikes or closure. At the same time, it creates an engine room for the organisation, generating new ideas and projects for us to present - it’s win-win. Rents have become increasingly prohibitive in the city, capital value seems to be the only thing that matters now. Artists are being pushed further out or forgoing space altogether, but they can’t work without a network, it’s not just about space. We want to address this challenge with the bonus of helping those artists get access to a central London audience.

At the launch of Somerset House Studios, L-R, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, Chairman of Somerset House William Sieghart, Director of Somerset House Jonathan Reekie, Deputy Mayor for Culture and the Creative Industries Justine Simmons OBE and Director of Somerset House Studios Marie McPartlin. Photo by Ben Catchpole

RR: The studio spaces look fantastic. How do you see them changing over time, now that they'll be populated with artists instead of Inland Revenue? 

MM: We’re only in the first phase of the project, we’re still fundraising to convert the full space we have for its intended use. We’ll be announcing additional opportunities as we get further along. Next on the list is the first taster of our live programme at the end of November, which will begin to build the Studios as a destination. For the moment, we’re all just really enjoying playing darts and snooker in the newly refurbished Inland Revenue games rooms.

Maker Street at Somerset House Studios. Photo by Luke Walker

RR: The focus on making these spaces affordable will be a welcome change to artists working in London. You’ve worked in some of the city’s best-known cultural institutions. Do you feel like these places have a duty to provide nurturing spaces for the artistic community?

MM: I’ve worked independently for most of my career, but within that, I’ve worked with people like Barbican Music, the Roundhouse, Frieze, the National Trust. And I programmed live music venue The Spitz before the redevelopment of Spitalfields Market forced it to close. Coming from that place, I understand how hard it is to keep on doing what you love as an independent with much less money around, and our non-government funded cultural spaces - clubs especially - are losing out to developers and lack of protection all the time. Cultural institutions should be thinking about how they can play a role in supporting artistic communities, they benefit more than anyone from vibrant scenes driven by individuals willing to take the first risk, it’s where artists cut their teeth. I feel in general there’s a lack of discourse around how independence and the experimental feeds the mainstream. We’re privileged to have this incredible Grade 1 listed building in the centre of the city, we intend to put it to good by supporting a broad range of artistic people, across artforms and across scenes.

The Snooker Rooms. Photo by Luke Walker

RR: Are there any other locations or creative spaces you’ve visited around the world that you have been inspired by for creating these studios? Or even in history!

MM: I haven’t been lucky enough to visit history but I’m hoping someone finally nails that transport system before I die. In which case I’d probably visit the Bauhaus before they were denounced as degenerates and shut down for having too much foreign influence, all a little too close to home these days it feels. I’d steal a few ideas and compliment them on their excellent costumes. In real time, we found the NEW INC model in New York very inspiring as a museum-led cultural incubator, though they don’t offer dedicated studio space per se. On that front no one is doing more exciting work than Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridge. Director Donna Lynas is a total force for good in both art and music, and the residency programmes she’s developed there set a high bar for us all.

Charles Jeffrey's Loverboy performing at the launch of the Studios. Photo by Ben Catchpole

RR: Where do you go in London to be inspired?

MM: Cafe Oto, London Contemporary Music Festival, Arcadia Missa, New River Studios, Auto Italia, Corsica Studios, the Barbican, Walthamstow Marshes, Bishopsgate Library. But we Londoners should be paying more attention to what’s happening outside the city also - Abandon Normal Devices and Islington Mill in Manchester, Lighthouse in Brighton, In Between Time in Bristol, Art Sheffield and Supersonic in Birmingham, all worth a return journey on the Megabus. My own office is generally fairly inspiring because the (small) team really care about what’s going on in the world and believe that we have a responsibility to respond and to build, from working with our artists to help disadvantaged young people improve their employment prospects, to introducing trans-friendly toilets at the Studios.

RR: You’ve worked in London's cultural sector for over ten years- how have you seen it change in that time? What are the aspects you’re most excited by?

MM: The biggest changes are the closure of our spaces and the ever decreasing pot on offer from the government to help anyone get anything done - puts a lot of pressure on everything you do to make money, nothing good ever got made with that as a primary motive. But I’ve also never felt so excited by our cultural output as a city despite of all that. When I was programming The Spitz, venues supporting experimental work felt pretty thin on the ground but now you have Oto, New River Studios, DIY Space for London and most recently, the Silver Road Tank space in Lewisham. We’ve got algoraves and music hacks and maker spaces and Open Source. And we’ve had such strong, intelligently programmed nights out - Clock Strikes 13, Baba Yaga’s Hut, 33 33, Art Assembly, LOVERBOY at Vogue Fabrics. Let’s just hope these nights still have a place to call home in 5 years’ time, even if I am too old to rave in them.

 

Applications are now open to recruit up to 25 new artist residents to join the community at Somerset House Studios. Artists may apply to occupy a studio for a fixed period, with rents capped by Somerset House in order to keep them low. The Studios will also offer residents a growing programme of development, employment and commissioning opportunities, alongside the opportunity to present work within its curated public programme. Click here to find out more.