TS_Ciara Phillips_Workshop (2010 - ongoing)_2013_Install_web TS_Ciara Phillips_Workshop (2010 - ongoing)_2013_J4DW_web Church Street Gazette The Showroom exterior Penfold Boscobel
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Andrea Phillips


— interview with Emily Pethick

Over the last year Dr Andrea Phillips has been working on a research project for How to work together on the ways in which art’s organisational structures shape its politics. Published here are a series of interviews  with Polly Staple (director, Chisenhale Gallery), Emily Pethick (director, The Showroom) and Joe Scotland (director, Studio Voltaire). Read the introductory essay by Andrea Phillips here.

About The Showroom

 

The Showroom occupied its original site in Bethnal Green for over twenty years before reopening in a new space on Penfold Street, close to Church Street Market and Edgware Road in 2009. Emily Pethick was appointed director of The Showroom in 2008.

Through the 1990s and 2000s, the gallery developed a strong focus on commissioning artists to make their first solo shows in London. Since Pethick’s appointment, the programme has emphasised emerging practices and ideas, collaborative approaches, and projects situated in the public realm that build relationships with the gallery’s new neighbourhood.

The Showroom has an annual budget of approximately £330,000 and employs five part-time staff members. The organisation produces between four and five exhibitions per year, as well as regular events and Communal Knowledge, a programme of collaborative projects with local and international artists.
www.theshowroom.org

Andrea Phillips

Let’s start with the organisational structure of The Showroom and how you have changed it since being appointed as Director. Why did you move from the East End of London to the Edgware Road area?

Emily Pethick

I was appointed in 2008, and moved over from the Netherlands where I’d been Director of Casco for three years, but I’m originally from London. When I started, there had already been a decision made by The Showroom’s board to move because the former building was very run down. The Showroom had been one of the first of the independent East End spaces, but in 2008 the area suddenly felt very saturated, and there was less of a strong need for us to be there, especially with two similar organisations close by (Matt’s Gallery and Chisenhale Gallery) plus a whole range of commercial galleries and project spaces.

Andrea

At the point when you joined The Showroom didn’t have an agenda that revolved around the socio-political imperatives of its local community.

Emily

In the former space there was no regular contact and no long-term relationships established with people living in the surrounding neighbourhood. While it was embedded within the art community, it felt a little disconnected from its other surroundings. The opportunity to relocate to Church Street came through a neighbourhood forum, so it was initiated through a desire from those living and working in the area to have a contemporary art space.

Some key local players at that meeting included Nicholas Logsdail (who put forward the idea of The Showroom relocating), Sir Terry Farrell (our landlord) and the Church Street Neighbourhood Management (CSNM), who convened the meeting1. Through these links, we very quickly gained access to knowledge about the Church Street neighbourhood and inroads into it. For example Farrells had compiled a detailed spatial analysis commissioned by CSNM, which was very useful in terms of understanding the area. We did all this groundwork very speculatively, as it took over a year to secure the actual lease.

Church Street is one of the most deprived wards in the country, yet is surrounded by some very wealthy areas, which it is fairly disconnected from because of some major transport routes: the Westway, the Regent’s Canal, and train lines from Paddington and Marylebone. Farrells saw this fragmentation as part of the reason why the area is so economically stagnant.

The CSNM were very helpful in introducing us to the area, in particular their former community engagement officer, John MacDonald – known as the ‘walker talker’ of Church Street, who is now employed by City West Homes – was very active in helping us to build a local network. He continues to regularly bring to The Showroom people who he thinks productive relationships could be forged with, and he also takes artists and other visitors on walks around the neighbourhood to help them understand its makeup and meet key local organisations and players. It has been an incredible opportunity for people we are working with to have this level of insight into the locality.

Andrea

What was the staffing structure at this point?

Emily

When I began there were two full-time posts: director and administrator. Over the last five years this has developed in tandem with the organisation. We currently have a three-day gallery manager and four staff who work four days per week, and we have just initiated a new deputy director post, which began in January 2014.

Andrea

So on the one hand you have developed The Showroom as a network, and established quite deep relationships with local community groups over a short period of time. But on the other hand, you have invested equally deeply in a very clear managerial structure, with a board of directors, now with a development committee. How do those two things work together? Are they receptive to each other?

Emily

The structure of the organisation grew out of the necessity to make it sustainable, and for us to continue to deliver our core mission of producing artwork, as well as to become more locally relevant.

With the move to Penfold Street we doubled in scale, and the overheads rose around six times. This is because the previous space was part of Acme Studios with a subsidised non-commercial rent. The space was half the size of our current one and had low overheads, as there was no running water, a toilet shared with the studios, and no heating. The rent here is nearly four times as high, and we have to pay for increased electricity usage, business rates, heating, and water. To begin with we had to run this on the same level of Arts Council England funding as the former building, so had to grow our income very quickly. Just before we secured the lease the credit crisis took place, which made us extremely nervous about taking it on. However, we felt that this was what made sense in order to keep The Showroom alive and relevant; and more than just relevant to the art world.

We developed our staff structure by first fundraising for a staff member who could develop our local presence, and through this appointed a participatory projects coordinator to run a new programme specifically oriented towards local interaction, which we named Communal Knowledge. This began as a three-day post and recently went up to four days, with a changed job title, collaborative projects curator, to give credit to the current post holder, Louise Shelley, and how she has developed the programme.

We also started to diversify The Showroom’s income, taking us from around 60% dependency on Arts Council to around 40%. We enabled this through developing multiple sources of income, namely from the trusts and foundations supporting Communal Knowledge (such as Paul Hamlyn Foundation and John Lyon’s Charity), a grant from the European Union, venue hire, and a Supporters Scheme. The latter two increasingly brought in additional income, but this necessitated having someone to manage these areas, thus a development role was created, which we later joined with communications. Increased income always has a knock on effect of increased labour, as it’s usually attached to more activity.

Communal Knowledge (CK) is a separate programme that has a specific focus on the neighbourhood, but feeds into other areas of the gallery and events programme in different ways that enrich and strengthen it. Through it, we make three artist commissions each year, and we foreground one or two of these in the gallery programme, usually in the summer. We create feedback between the knowledge and relationships that are generated through CK and other areas of the programme, so it feeds through the organisation as a whole. Artists who are commissioned outside of the programme are often very interested in the area and, as I mentioned previously, we often send artists on a neighbourhood walk when they first visit, to get a sense of our local context.

We make around four or five exhibitions per year, and annually one out of these slots is dedicated to CK. This approach to cross-fertilising areas of the programme helps to make it more sustainable and opens up the range of potential funding sources. We are also part of a strong network of European institutions (such as Casco, Utrecht and Tensta Konsthall, Stockholm) through which we exchange knowledge, relationships and productions and have gained funding from the European Union’s Culture programme and European Cultural Foundation.

 

Andrea

You are currently changing the staffing structure of The Showroom.

Emily

It became clear that we needed to bring in another staff member who could act on a more senior level in relation to some of the development work. A lot of what we’re doing is enabled through building relationships with supporters and collaborators on many levels, and I’m the one who is responsible for a lot of these, so this, combined with the programming and my overall responsibility for managing the organisation, is a lot on one plate.

I have tried to run the organisations that I have directed as unhierarchically as possible. When you’re working very closely together in a small team the work is very collaborative, and the staff members really support each other. There are also moments where you may have to step out and look at the bigger picture and do things in a strategic or objective way, sometimes with the involvement of the board. This does not happen often, but when it does it can have the effect of suddenly pulling out a hierarchy, which can create a sense of unease. So this can be the problem with working with this approach.

A director’s position is located between the board and the staff, so one is often having to take account of the embedded perspective of the team, which I am a part of, and the more objective viewpoint of the board, who are not close the day-to-day issues, but can be very helpful on a strategic level, thinking outside of the box. Sometimes it can be hard to negotiate between these; I’ve learned that it’s best to act with as much transparency as possible.

Andrea

How do you work with your board?

Emily

There are a number of board members who have been serving for many years and are really at the heart of the organisation. The board is organised in groupings that specialise and consult in different areas, such as finance, communications, strategy, development etc., and also play a mentorship role. Over the last years we’ve strategically developed the board to bring in new members and to widen our skill-set; for example we brought in someone from a management consultancy background, and we’ve brought in more people with knowledge of development. In 2010 we formed a development committee, who have been incredibly active and have brought a lot of new support to the organisation, and have really helped us to develop on all fronts. Given how essential they had become, we brought two of the members onto the board.

When I was appointed, the mission for The Showroom was centered on commissioning new work from artists whose practice is ready to make the transition from grassroots innovation to a more established context. I initially proposed to the board that we slightly shifted this towards a focus on ‘emerging practices and ideas,’ rather than ‘emerging artists,’ so that we could broaden the remit and work with artists whose practices make sense within the programme, who might not necessarily be at the beginning of their careers. For example Ricardo Basbaum is not an emerging artist, but he is working with methods and ideas that make sense to pursue within our Communal Knowledge programme. Sometimes, particularly in the CK programme, it’s about learning from an artist through working with them, and with these projects it can also be about bringing them into contact with younger artists. We rewrote our mission again recently, and we also wrote a list of values, which is not public, but is more for internal use.

Andrea

What other organisations do you admire?

Emily

We relate to the organisations in our various networks, such as Common Practice2 and Cluster3, as our closest peers. I’m also interested in some of the smaller more specialised organisations that work around specific research, such as Bulegoa z/b in Bilbao, which is an office run by four women (including a curator, critic and choreographer), the women’s film distributor Cinenova, The Otolith Collective (the curatorial arm of The Otolith Group), 16 Beaver in New York, Sarai in Delhi, and Mayday Rooms, a new organisation that has been formed as a meeting place and supportive infrastructure for radical histories and communities, particularly those under threat. A number of these organisations have commitments to specific research and politics, and bring people together around these in quite a sustained and intensive way.

The Showroom is able to perform this role to a certain extent; there are ongoing themes that keep resurfacing in the programme and specific kinds of practices and ideas that we have a commitment towards. We have also realised a number of very long term projects that enable a deeper level of engagement with specific research, which have been led by artists or specific researchers, or in collaboration with other groups or organisations, such as the work we did with Petra Bauer and Cinenova.

However, in comparison to some of these smaller, more specialised organisations, some of which are not publicly funded, the fact that we are to a larger extent publicly funded means we have a mandate to serve a broader public. This is something I like, as it means you have to open the work up to different constituencies. This often requires working on different levels and finding ways to vary the intensity and pitch of the programme. For example some of our work is more suitable to smaller, more intensive and specialised groups, which is useful for forming new thinking and ideas; and then we find the right moments to broaden this out to a wider public. Or vice versa, some projects start very open and then we build in moments to reflect upon them in smaller groups, and then open out again.

When we worked with Cinenova, I became aware of how they have a very self-reflexive way of engraining politics within their work, particularly in terms of what it means to be a women-only organisation, to serve a community of filmmakers, and an awareness of their limitations, such as in basing their organisation on voluntary work. Often organisations have a fortress-like nature where they hide their precarity, so I liked the way in which, when it came to our exhibition, Cinenova wore its vulnerabilities on the surface, opening up problems and socialising them, which became a role of the exhibition.

Mayday Rooms are also engraining their politics within their organisational work by structuring their organisation with a hierarchy that is as flat as possible; for example everyone is paid on the same hourly rate. I am curious about how they will manage this without compromising it, whilst working on a limited budget.

Many of these organisations have a specific relevance, maybe even for a period of time, with people coming together over a particular kind of urgency or need. More broadly, there can be a tendency to sustain organisations beyond their lifespan, they can become tired and uninspired, and you start to forget the reason why they existed in the first place.

Andrea

I noticed that The Showroom has a set of values embedded in the business plan.

Emily

It’s something that we introduced when we were reworking the business plan. I felt like we needed to look more closely at what we’re doing in the programme and across the organisation more broadly and draw the values out of that in order to make sure that they’re embedded structurally. The values are both drawn from what we’re doing, but at the same time, they’re about where we want to be.

Andrea

Which is the most important?

Emily

Independence is first on the list, i.e. The Showroom being an independent space.

Andrea

What about sponsorship gained through the development committee?

Emily

We’re independent, but at the same time we obviously have various dependencies. We depend on various sources of funding, but also on our network and communities, and all the relationships that we have built around us, including those with our supporters. Collaboration is another value, and related to this is non-hierarchical, horizontal knowledge, and non-bureaucratic relationships. This goes back to us trying to find a way of working that is as non-hierarchical as possible, in terms of how we collaborate and relate to others, as well as internally.

Horizontality is also to do with the way in which we treat knowledge and relationships. What I really liked about Ricardo Basbaum’s project re-projecting (london) was that every contribution to the project had equal status, be that the input from Chris Dercon, director of Tate Modern, in a discussion, or that from Justice for Domestic Workers union, Seymour Arts (a collective of homeless/ex-homeless artists), women from the Marylebone Project (a local women’s refuge) and the various other artists involved. There was no prioritisation of one contribution or form of knowledge over another. The project brought these into contact without forcing a singular over-arching meaning or relation4.  This is similar to how we think of all of the relationships that have been forged, both within our neighbourhood, as well as with artists, collaborators and funders; they are of equal importance and are what make our organisation what it is.

Non-bureaucratic is another value on the list, which is tough to achieve when constantly subjected to the demands of funders such as the European Union, but it is important to be conscious of this as a principle in the way that we organise our work and work with others.

Andrea

Specifically on the point of pay, for instance, if you could find the structure whereby people were paid equally, would your board support you?

Emily

It would be difficult to introduce that system now with an evolved staff structure, however, there is definitely recognition amongst the board that the staff are underpaid, and we often benchmark salaries against other similar organisations, which show the same. It’s not an easy problem to solve in a time of dwindling resources. It’s clear that the arts sector largely operates on an economy of enthusiasm and investedness, and that many organisations survive through having a workforce that are highly committed to what they’re doing. The staff at The Showroom are quite careful about this, they note down their extra hours and take them off as TOIL, but it’s difficult to really operate such a system in such a clear cut way when there is so much to do, especially in my position where the job does not have clear boundaries. At the end of the day, I’m invested in doing a good job, but as with many of my colleagues in similar positions who do more than they are paid for, this can sometimes border on self-exploitation.

Andrea

So you get paid in cultural capital.

Emily

If you do a good job it pays off in the end, not just in terms of financial reward, but also the flexibility works both ways. However, it’s also sometimes like in the film Showgirls: “There’s always someone younger and hungrier coming down the stairs after you”!

Andrea

It’s complex, because on the one hand, you’re doing that for The Showroom, but on the other hand, The Showroom is you.

Emily

You’re doing all this work for the organisation, but people can start to see the organisation as you, which is related to leading a more authored programme, and developing a distinct organisational position, as oppose to the way in which larger institutions often have more neutral institutional faces. I get the feeling that in the larger institutions people prefer the latter approach, however, the museums that I look up to all have charismatic leaders, such as Reina Sofia and van Abbemuseum, where there is a clear institutional position that is authored.

I think that’s an interesting part of looking at the histories of organisations, such as The Showroom. Each director has brought something distinctive that builds upon what the last one has done. I like the way that Binna Choi has approached this at Casco; she often emphasises the work of the former directors, Lisette Smits and I, as embedded within an organisational trajectory, as three waves of distinctive programming by female directors that have built on each other’s work.

With both The Showroom and Casco, and others in our Cluster network, such as Tensta Konsthall and CAC Brétigny, you can see the way that these spaces operate as organisational projects that are in development and being shaped by their directors and staff; but also in very collaborative ways, such as through artists projects and through the involvement of specific communities and groups. That’s why it is interesting to think about organisational politics and to have you doing this research, because the programme, the people and the organisation are not separate. We’re trying to build an approach where the front end and the back end are integrated. It’s difficult to separate the shape of the programme from the organisation that supports it.

Andrea

Do you see these values shared with those other organisations that you have mentioned in your network?

Emily

With the Cluster network we have discussed a number of values and ways of working that we share. Many of us are working with very long-term trajectories, producing work that is slow with a commitment to following a process and seeing it through, which could be an artist’s process, or ongoing research. Many of us are working fairly intuitively in terms of timescales, looking for where the potential lies, and seeing where that takes you. We often build relationships and dialogues with artists that can continue beyond the timeframe of an exhibition or particular project, and artists also connect with one another through the spaces. So in this sense, a community starts to build around the spaces, particularly amongst the artists themselves. There’s a receptiveness to change, which is about listening, following, observing, and then figuring out where to go next, and you can see that very much in the work we do with the neighbourhood.

One of the differences in how we work as organisations, in comparison to more traditional institutional approaches, is that there’s more of a long-term commitment towards and investment in certain kinds of practices, ideas and relationships, rather than just bringing things in, showing them and moving on.

Andrea

So these are not product-oriented values.

Emily

I think one of the challenges with this way of working is that it’s sometimes difficult to see what we do. It’s very open-ended, sometimes there’s no end product or point of resolution.

Andrea

How do you negotiate that?

Emily

We have managed to build a strong following for the programme and a fairly clear understanding of what we do. The programme is very ideas-driven and often takes a critical approach, but we always try to make this accessible on many levels. The work can have politics, intellectual ideas and theories embedded within it, but our approach often combines forms of action and critical thinking, with a kind of playfulness, friendliness and warmth. For example, we often involve diverse kinds of collaboration in projects to really open up the scope of the work.

Andrea

How do you see your role at The Showroom?

Emily

I’m quite conscious that what I do more broadly is a form of organisation-building. As I mentioned before, one could see the organisation as a kind of project, in the sense that it is continually in development and in process. It is an enabler. We really try and allow artists time, for example, some of the projects have had two or three-year lead-ins. This is something that has remained a core focus of The Showroom since the early days, the principle of giving time and space to artists. This is difficult to sustain, and sometimes you feel like a buffer zone, absorbing a lot of pressures to protect this free space. However, we rarely have to compromise projects, and certainly never in relation to content.

Andrea

Can you say more about the buffer zone? You’re facing the funders in one way and at the same time you’re protecting artists, collaborators, your curatorial or ideological ethos. Is there sometimes misunderstanding between the two sides of the operation?

Emily

Again it’s about communication. I sometimes feel like I’m constantly switching registers and moving between different stakeholders; it’s a multitasking role, which I think many people in my position are doing. There are also moments when I’ve been awash with fundraising and not had any chance to look at what’s going on in the actual space.

Andrea

Another of your values is running a feminist organisation.

Emily

Yes, I do relate what we do to a feminist way of working. Not only do we programme a lot of women artists, work with a number of women’s groups and actively raise women’s issues through the programme but on a more philosophical level we embody feminist values — and this relates to other values that I mentioned previously such as trying to work in as open a way as possible without strong divisions or hierarchies, through horizontality and collaborative work, blurring authorship, challenging stable structures and categories of knowledge and standardised norms and values.

Andrea

What about your audience?

Emily

When we moved, it took a while to reestablish our audience, but it is continually growing. In particular we get a strong turnout for events, which is where you get to know and find a dynamic with the audience. When you’re running a space it’s important to have a pulse running through it, so we’re not passively sitting there waiting for people to come, but that there’s an active relationship. We tend to attract an audience of people who want to engage, who have come because they want to be involved, and we often end up furthering relationships with regular audience members who identify with the programme and begin to propose other projects or events, which we are sometimes able to take up. In this sense some visitors become part of an active community around the space and feel like they have a stake in it. Even if there are only a few people having a discussion, it’s being recorded and something is being produced. No one seems to measure the quality of an audience, in terms of depth of engagement, just the quantity.

Andrea

Another of your values is ‘being of relevance’.

Emily

The term ‘relevance’ came out of a discussion between the staff and the board on The Showroom’s distinctive qualities, and it relates to what I just described, in the sense of the organisation having a pulse and people feeding into that. Often you have to go back to the question of what is needed to make sure you are serving a clear purpose. There’s a danger that spaces lose their relevance, and begin sustaining themselves just because they are there and have the funding and are just churning out culture without questioning it.

Andrea

Do you feel that The Showroom has autonomy?

Emily

We do in the sense that we are not answerable to any one singular authority or source of funding. When working with a small team it’s important to get their input and make decisions together. The same with the board, they’re often a good, objective soundboard for things, and bring different perspectives. Our work is highly collaborative, most of our work is realised through partnerships, which reduces autonomy, however, this also makes what we do more interesting, bringing in outside knowledge and ideas, and ways of doing things. The negotiations that these collaborations often entail often work to challenge one’s thinking and ways of doing things.

Andrea

I admire such a collaborative position in the context of so much cultural competition.

Emily

Well we still have to compete, particularly over dwindling pots of funding, which entails working in a very strategic way at times. Autonomy in terms of financial independence is not as big an issue to us as it used to be as we’ve been careful to diversify our funding – including from trusts and foundations, project funding, hires, private supporters, and European Union funding. This has put us in a good position in that we’re not overly reliant on one source, besides our Arts Council England funding. If one of those sources goes, we’d still be in trouble and would have to find other sources to replace it, so we need to keep them all buoyant. However, we’ve created a situation where we don’t currently have to make a lot of compromises in terms of the programme, and we’ve grown the structure to support this.

Andrea

What would you change, if you could?

Emily

On a structural level, I wouldn’t change the scale or the location, but there is always the issue of funding and becoming more sustainable. If we could have a programme budget, it would relieve quite a lot of strains. It’s not about having a huge budget, but I think something that allows you to have a basis to start projects. I felt that we had a lot more freedom at Casco in the Netherlands, where we had a much larger percentage of core funding from public sources. We could start projects there that were more speculative and risk-taking, that could then build momentum from having a starting block; so an artist’s fee, and certain basic things were in place at the beginning of a project. Whereas at the moment here, we are usually just starting from nothing. This does affect what you can make happen; a core budget of around £5,000 per show would give us the confidence to do some more risky projects that I don’t think we could do now.

With Ricardo Basbaum we talked a lot about the difference between the terms ‘institution’ and ‘organisation’. I am interested in the tension between these terms. I always see The Showroom as an organisation, but sometimes I catch myself, or others, referring to it as an institution. An institution is something that’s more rigid and hierarchical, a gatekeeper. It can be something to resist, and productive tensions can be produced through this. Ricardo linked organisation to ‘organism’, something that is more organic and can be shaped and molded, which I like as a term in the sense that it’s living and changing.

 


1  A micro regeneration initiative by Paddington Development Trust.

2  Common Practice, London, founded in 2009, is an advocacy group working for the recognition and fostering of the small-scale contemporary visual arts sector in London. The group aims to promote the value of the sector and its activities, act as a knowledge base and resource for members and affiliated organisations, and develop a dialogue with other visual art organisations on a local, national and international level. The group’s founding members are AfterallChisenhale GalleryElectraGasworksLUXMatt’s GalleryMute PublishingThe Showroom, and Studio Voltaire – together representing a diverse range of activities including commissioning, production, publishing, research, exhibitions, residencies and artists’ studios.

 

3  Cluster is a network of eight visual arts organisations that are each located in residential areas on the peripheries of major cities, all within Europe (with the exception of Holon). Each of these organisations are actively involved in their local contexts, fostering their embeddedness within their surroundings. The members of Cluster are: CAC Brétigny, Brétigny s/Orge, France; CA2M Centro Dos De Mayo, Madrid, Spain; Casco, office for art design and theory, Utrecht, The Netherlands; Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, Aubervilliers, France; Tensta Konsthall, Stockholm, Sweden; The Israeli Center for Digital Art, Holon, Israel; The Showroom, London, UK; Zavod P.A.R.A.S.I.T.E., Ljubljana, Slovenia.

4  re-projecting (london), was a new commission by Brazilian artist Ricardo Basbaum. During the month of July 2013 Basbaum was based at The Showroom for a programme of nine new projects organised in collaboration with Louise Shelley, who leads The Showroom’s Communal Knowledge programme. Each project connected to one of nine locations that were determined through the application of an abstract shape onto the map of the Church Street area. See: http://www.theshowroom.org/participation.html?id=1679,1681

 

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