An imposing neoclassical confection set between the Strand and the River Thames, Somerset House is a triumph of simple lines and grand proportions. For most of the last 250 years, it housed government departments. Today it belongs to art in all its glorious messiness. Where Inland Revenue clerks used to pore over tax returns, hundreds of people now draw, sculpt and paint. They are there thanks to a man who intends to reinvent the urban arts centre for the 21st century, and has drafted a blueprint for the purpose.
Jonathan Reekie, the director of Somerset House, is as unassuming as the views from his office overlooking the Thames are showy. He recently unrolled his plans for me. When the last government department finally upped sticks in 2013, it freed up 36,000 square feet (3,345 square metres) in the lower three levels of a building known as the New Wing. The basement was promptly rented out cheaply to a collective of over 200 makers of a whole range of things – from furniture to 3D-printed jewellery. That left two floors, which Reekie converted into studios and let out at a subsidised rate to artists selected in an application process. When Somerset House Studios officially launched last October, there were 25 resident artists, including Christian Marclay, a visual artist, Juliet Jacques, who writes about gender, and Gareth Pugh, a fashion designer. (Reekie’s other artists include those working in music, performance, film, technology, theatre and design.) By the time 75 more join them this year, there will be over 300 artists, makers and thinkers working at Somerset House.
Reekie is, effectively, an estate agent; his employer is as much a property company as an arts centre. Somerset House is the only arts institution of its size in London not to receive any direct funding from the government. The building is its only asset, so it depends on rental income from over 100 tenants, primarily creative organisations like the Courtauld Gallery and the Royal Society of Literature.
Where others saw only the bottom line, though, Reekie saw opportunity. He was hired in 2014 to address the concern that Somerset House lacked a clear identity. The tenants gave him an idea. “Somerset House is probably the biggest concentration of creative industries in London – and that brings a particular kind of energy that makes it different from a traditional arts institution. But there was one thing missing from that: the people at the coal face of creativity, the artists and makers themselves.”
Cheap work-space in central London is rare, and becoming rarer. A third of artists will lose their place of work in the next five years due to rising rents, according to a recent mayoral report. Many are moving to the fringes of the city or abandoning it altogether. “What is difficult about labouring away in a remote studio”, says Eloise Hawser, a sculptor, “is that you don’t feel your actions have that much meaning.”
So Reekie has flung open the doors of this palace to them. And if all goes to plan, he will be the architect of a new kind of artistic community. The digital revolution has fundamentally changed the way artists think and work: before the internet, most worked in just one medium; today it is common to work in several. Reekie hopes Somerset House Studios will be “a space where [the residents] can pursue a cross-disciplinary artistic conversation”. “If I were an artist”, says Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, “I would apply, not just because [Somerset House] offered cheap studio space but because it offered a creative environment that is unusual and ostensibly progressive.”
Reekie’s plans are well under way. There are communal areas in the New Wing to prompt that artistic conversation: every Wednesday afternoon residents gather in the bar for coffee and table tennis. Hawser shares a studio with Caroline Williams, a theatre director. She applied because she wants to mine the “rich layers of people” in the New Wing and the wider Somerset House community. Others work with young people as part of the “learning programme” or put forward ideas for public events. Hawser’s fascination with the Thames riverbed led her to a curator at Somerset House. They have met several times to hone her ideas, and Hawser will stage an exhibition this autumn. Reekie and his team hope that exchanges like this will fuel a blaze of creativity at Somerset House. “We are trying to turn [the studios] into the engine room for the cultural output of the organisation overall,” says Marie McPartlin, their director.
Welcoming artists back into the centre of London: it’s a nice idea. But why doesn’t the government, which owns the building, rent it out for oodles of money and invest the profits into a public service that really needs it, like the NHS? “London likes to think it is the creative capital of the world,” says Reekie. “But if we don’t nurture and celebrate our artists, how can it be?”
This relationship between residents and Somerset House is the cornerstone of his plan. Its “bottom-up” approach to curation amounts to a new model for the 21st-century arts centre. It’s not wholly original: you can see in it traces of residency programmes like the one at the NARS Foundation in Brooklyn and cross-disciplinary artist-collectives like teamLab in Tokyo. But there has never been a programme of Somerset House Studios’ size and location, nor one that promotes vertical integration of the arts. “[Somerset House] is a place where art and culture is researched, developed and made as well as presented,” says Reekie. “The traditional arts centre is a shop window for culture. This is the R&D lab, the factory and the shop window rolled into one.”