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"REMOVING INVISIBLE BARRIERS IS IMPORTANT": MARIE MCPARTLIN ON DIRECTING SOMERSET HOUSE STUDIOS

Photography courtesy of Sugar Factory PR


In a world where pursuing a career as an artist can feel increasingly elusive, particularly for those from working-class backgrounds, there is a prevailing notion that the arts should remain exclusive to the privileged few. The Somerset House Studios Artists Fair is an annual event featuring a series of talks which seek to cut straight to the heart of some of the most pertinent issues facing artists today, highlighting the systemic barriers to the art world.


This year’s event included a transparent discussion between the writer Juliet Jaques, artist Philomene Pirecki, and the organisation Industria on Side Hustling as a Sustainable Practice. The participants openly shared how they supplemented their artistic practice with various administrative, hospitality or teaching jobs: this is a topic which is often avoided, but particularly relevant in a context where artists will often enter commercial shows in debt, having turned down other paid work, as noted by Philomene Pirecki. Industria members also shared their efforts in uncovering official artist fee figures from leading galleries, which had refused to release the information due to their own commercial interests.


The talk highlighted the importance of an earlier discussion on Parenting, Primary Caregivers, and Artist Practice, featuring current and former Studios artists Hannah Perry, Larry Achiampong, and Imran Perretta, along with Marie McPartlin, Director of the Studios. The panellists discussed how poorly recompensed work becomes worsened by the lack of support structures available for artist-parents and creates considerable setbacks for their careers. The talk was followed by a discussion between Studios resident Alexandrina Hemsley, artist and d/Deaf activist Hannah Wallis, Project Art Works CEO Kate Adams and Curator Maggie Matić which emphasised the need to improve working conditions and sustain inclusivity efforts for artists and audiences with disabilities beyond the accessible exhibitions that deal with the theme as a concept. The day concluded with a timely exploration of the growing censorship that we are seeing within arts institutions hosted by Studios resident Tai Shani, artist and Queer Direct director Gaby Sahhar, who also considered strategies for Navigating Censorship, in particular for artists whose work is politically engaged.


In advance of the Fair, Agnes-Houghton Boyle had the opportunity to speak with McPartlin, director of the Studios, to discuss their work in developing and nurturing artists and making space to create urgent, socially engaged works.


Charles Jeffrey, Somerset House Studios, photography courtesy of Dan Wilton


As the foundational director of Somerset House Studios, could you tell me about the vision behind the creation of the Studios and how it aims to address the challenges faced by artists living in London today?


A significant motivator for creating the Studios was the unaffordability and insecurity of artist studio space, with short-term leases being the norm. Our focus is on supporting artists long-term, so residencies range from one to seven years, with some even longer. It’s also about maintaining a space for creativity, messiness and experimentation in central London, where there’s a strong cultural offer but focused on high-end productions. The Studios is focused on experimentation, things being in progress and making the process visible.


Our basic offer is subsidised space and facilities. Artists pay to be here, but the cost is reduced, and we run artist development programmes, have a recording studio, rehearsal space, lots of fabrication facilities and digital technologies. Makerversity, which is based here, has maker facilities, including a new robotics studio.


I think the main value which distinguishes us from other artist studios is the community you find here. In addition to the free development programmes or assistance writing funding applications, for example, being an artist is such a networked profession that peer support and collaboration are important. Artists need that sort of solidarity and community care and I think the community here is very real. An event like the Artist Fair, then is born of that quite naturally, because people here do really collaborate and lean on each other for support. One of the main feedback points we receive from artists is that our support stands out due to its long-term focus. But ultimately, it’s the sum of all these elements and, most importantly, the people that make the difference.


The Artist’s Fair is just a couple of years old, isn't it?


Yes, we’ve only done it once before, in 2022, and that was a bit of an experiment. The idea came from some of the artists in residence who thought that something like a record fair would be a good way for the community to get to know each other. Initially, it wasn't super well attended but a lot of fun and it was very DIY. When we considered doing it again, we felt it had to offer something else alongside artists selling work to appeal to people not already based in the building. So, we decided to programme various talks throughout the day, which aim to address what we feel are the most pressing contemporary issues for artists right now. The fair provides a context where artists, both resident and external, can gather, connect, and discuss various topics. We’re in a unique position with 60 to 70 resident artists, who we’re commissioning and producing work with, and we’re deeply invested in improving conditions for artists. Our entire team will be listening, taking notes, on what people need and looking at how we can action positive change from it. It’s exciting for us to engage in this dialogue and collaboratively choose the best ways to make a difference.


Just to be able to establish their career, artists will often find themselves relocating to London, and distancing themselves from their community networks. Considering the high cost of childcare, I can understand why artists feel that parenting is incompatible with a career as an artist.


This is something that gets discussed a lot, why aren’t there more artist parents? It’s because there aren't the structures in place for people to make it affordable for them to do so. There’s no shared paternity leave being a freelancer, and if you, as the birthing parent, need to take maternity leave, you have to step away from your studio, your assistant or studio manager. When so much about being an artist is momentum, and you have to give all that up and rebuild from scratch, it's so different from just coming back off maternity to a desk job.


I recently read Kate Zambrino's Drifts where she talks about her pregnancy. Like many artists or writers who will be supplementing their income with teaching jobs, she works part-time at an unnamed university in New York City. She learns that she is entitled to zero maternity leave and must scramble to find unpaid cover for those classes she needs to miss due to her symptoms and appointments. She's advised by someone she works with to spend the savings that they assume she has on a nanny so she can continue to write after she's had the baby. The misconception about her financial situation and expectation to rely on assumed savings for childcare highlights another systemic issue that marginalises artists who do not come from privileged backgrounds, reinforcing this idea that pursuing a career in this field is a luxury reserved only for the wealthy.


Maybe having a partner with a steady job might make it slightly easier, but if you have two artist parents, it feels almost impossible. We’ve done some experiments in providing childcare for artists, but they’re one-offs that are hard to replicate. We’re exploring offering specific opportunities for parents to access fresh studio space and support to return to work – as well as thinking about how we can get someone to fund that. When we first started here there was only one artist with kids, and now 12% of the community has children. In terms of accessibility and inclusion, thinking about that is so integral to our work anyway, and why we’re addressing artist parenting. It’s felt like it’s become more relevant to our work. There are loads of things that we've done in that space, like building a budget for access riders, for artists who need childcare if they're doing an event - or providing BSL or ASL interpretation.


An important thing for us is also increasing access for artists who can't afford to pay to be here, which we do via our Jerwood-supported programme for early-career visual artists. I’m particularly excited about the Side Hustling talk. We end up having those conversations with artists all the time about money struggles and the extra things they're doing to be able to pay the rent. People are kind of embarrassed to talk about that stuff, and yet it's probably the minority of artists who make their living from being a full-time artist only making work. So that feels like a good first step, in what I hope will be an ongoing movement towards more of an openness around artists' pay.


The Vaults, Somerset House Studios, photography courtesy of Luke Walker


I'm curious about the class demographics within the Studios. According to the Acme Studios' tenant survey, one-third of participants reported that a lack of funds would force them to leave the city, and nearly half said they could not afford to save money or contribute to a pension plan. Recent statistics reveal that only 7.9% of individuals in the arts come from working-class backgrounds. How does this compare to the demographics in your studios, and how do you address these disparities?


Measuring class demographics can be challenging and there's often debate about the best methods. To make demographic data meaningful, it's crucial to explain its importance on an individual level because people are naturally sceptical about how that data will be used. I come from a working-class background, I'm the first person in my family to attend university, which is also the experience of at least two of the panellists in the Artists Parenting talk.


But when we talk about being inclusive that’s not just about class, and class background is intersectional anyway. Around 69% of the community identify as female, NB or non-gendered, and 41% identify as Black, Asian or Mixed Heritage. Removing invisible barriers is important to our work across all of these areas.


Can you tell me a little bit about the selection process for when you're inviting artists into the space?


We operate quite a mixed model for this: anyone can submit an expression of interest online, and we review all of them, but it's mostly through invitation and active recruitment. One of our main priorities is to maintain a community that reflects the diversity of London, both culturally and in terms of artistic practices. We have a wide range of artists here, including visual artists, electronic musicians, performance artists, filmmakers, and those working with emerging technologies. We're fortunate to have several pioneers in these fields. So when recruiting, we’re always looking to maintain that balance.


In the early days, after the initial invited artists were in place, we operated primarily through open application. But quickly realised that some people just know how to do applications and are in these spaces all the time. For that reason, we maintain a way people can express interest, but we’re also in dialogue with the artists in the building, and the team are all seeing new work too. We only really open formal application processes around funded opportunities, which are usually for short-term residencies.


While there's a notion that open applications ensure fairness, our experience has shown that this isn't always the case. We're particularly interested in supporting artists who may lack confidence in application processes or aren't familiar with them - and in people who wouldn’t necessarily consider having a studio space, we have dancers here for example, so it is a really mixed model.


Are there any particular qualities that you look for in artists when you’re recruiting?


We’re particularly interested in artists who are politically and socially engaged. It’s not a prerequisite for everyone, but I think it’s true to say there are a lot of people here, who are interested not just in themselves as an artist but using their platform to elevate those around them. Many are generous and supportive of others in terms of offering mentorship and using their success to provide opportunities.


We do an annual event called AGM during Frieze, which always sells out. The loose idea around it is that there's one night where people can come in and see the studios, which aren’t usually open to the public. It's a bit different from a typical open studios event because lots of the artists are performing, DJing or doing guest curation.


Everyone wants to work with great artists and work that they love, and we do that for sure, but we're just also interested in people who bring something to the community. A few years ago we invited Larry Achiampong, Jesse Darling, Klein and Beatrice Dillon, the composer, to select an artist that they were most excited about, to make something new for the event, that they would then curate for. It was one of the best events we've done. We just took ourselves out of the mix as to what it was going to be.


Still from Finding Fanon Part Two by former Studios resident Larry Achiampong


How do you support artists in developing their careers?


[For the] AGM show, Jesse Darling put forward the artist Tyreis Holder, who was still a student at the time, or at least recently graduated. We had received funding from some patrons at the time to support early-career artists, so we were able to offer them a free studio residency after the event. Tyreis has now been here for 4 years and is really starting to blow up.


With anyone we invite to do a residency, the hope is that we’ll work together on something, which can range in scale. The artist Imran Perretta, for example, has been with us for nearly seven years. During that time, he’s curated an event where he held discussions with three different artists about their musical influences, he’s mentored other artists. Now we're commissioning him to create his biggest installation work to date, set to open in September. We aim to work with one resident every year on something which supports them to try something in a new discipline. For Imran, who's primarily a filmmaker, we’ve commissioned him to write his first score and develop another aspect of his practice, which is exciting.


Another example is Libby Heaney, who applied to join the Studios in 2016. She’s certainly the only artist we know of who’s also a quantum physicist, then as now to be honest. That was a bit tricky to get your head around at the time, what an artist like that might need, and what people experiencing the art might need to know about quantum in order to fully appreciate it. There’s been a real explosion since then in people from the art world thinking about quantum. Libby finished her residency in May after seven years, and it culminated with her first-ever VR work. The work, Heartbreak and Magic, was one of the best examples I've seen of how VR can be integral to the concept. It's amazing to see someone grow over seven years and produce something as accomplished as that.


Your own background is quite interdisciplinary, is it not?


Really interdisciplinary. I didn't really know anyone who went to art school until I was in my late 20s, but I probably primarily work with artists who come from that kind of background now. I started out in music and worked with writers, comic book artists and performance artists. I was commissioning new work quite early in my career, often projects that were quite site-specific. I guess when I was appointed they were specifically looking for someone who kind of knew a bit about a lot of different worlds and was interested in artists trying new things and new forms. I suppose that is a kind of specialism, to be able to bring different worlds together and hold them - but not everyone can do that.


How do you feel the Studios have shaped Somerset House as an organisation?


Somerset House has changed a lot in the time since I started, and the Studios have been integral to that. What we do is distinctive in that we have a group of really critical, challenging people in the building. No one else does that to the same extent. Artists are very opinionated, and we're all working together every day. Mostly, that's a beautiful privilege. However, there have been times, particularly in the early days, when people have been critical of the institution, as they are of all institutions. The thinking behind the Studios was to be an agent for change for the rest of the organisation. Back then, and it’s still really common elsewhere, many artists were expected to work for free just for exposure. We never do that here. Early on, we realised we needed an artist rate system because the volume of artists here made it very complicated to work any other way, and if we’re charging artists rent we need to work with transparency on fees. We can see how much it was costing them to create work because we provide their studio.


Somerset House entrance. Photography courtesy of Somerset House


The impact of the artists here and the people we bring in is increasingly recognised throughout the wider organisation. We have a show by Charles Jeffery opening next Friday. He's been a studio artist for seven years and is now doing a big solo show around his Loverboy fashion brand. A few years ago, we did something with Anna Meredith in the courtyard where she programmed 18 pieces of music for 18 bumper cars. The audience drove the bumper cars, and every crash changed the direction of the composition. We have a major project opening in the Courtyard next summer which will be our biggest project here today, but I can’t share details on that at this point.


 

Agnès Houghton-Boyle is a critic and programmer based in London. Her writing features in Talking Shorts Magazine and Fetch London.



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