Studio 144, located in Southampton’s Cultural Quarter, will bring two world-class arts organisations – NST Nuffield Southampton Theatres, and the John Hansard Gallery into the heart of the city, together with media and film specialists City Eye.
For three decades Stephen Foster has been inextricably linked with the John Hansard Gallery based on the campus at the University of Southampton.
As the internationally respected gallery prepares to move to a new home within Southampton’s Cultural Quarter, he will be retiring from his post as Director and it is a milestone he admits to facing with mixed feelings.
The inaugural exhibition will be a celebration of the gallery’s development over 30 years and will include some of the sites specific commissioned pieces.
“John Hansard has had an interesting history. It is very much loved and internationally known and yet pretty much unknown to the people of Southampton,” he mused. “The reputation of the gallery is embedded and I hope with the move, the DNA of John Hansard will survive.”
As well as making the gallery geographically more accessible, it is hoped the new home at the heart of the Cultural Quarter will help to break down perceived barriers and bring the gallery closer to the people of Southampton.
“Over the last 30 years the gallery has worked with a lot of artists.
“We got artists to meet academics to collaborate and work together to make art. Thirty years ago that was radical and now it is common practice,” he said.
Our conversation was taking place in Southampton City Art Gallery as it prepared to host one of the most important contemporary art exhibitions in the UK. Stephen was joined by Roger Malbert, Head of Hayward Touring at the Hayward Gallery, who was in the city to catch up on preparations for British Art Show 8.
Mutual respect and the easy intimacy of old friends ensures there is plenty to talk about and Roger was full of praise for the John Hansard Gallery and what it has achieved to date.
British Art Show 8 is a major undertaking. The show has been staged in four cities(Southampton being the final destination) and the exhibition evolves during the tour. Work by 42 artists has been on show in the city on three sites (Southampton City Art Gallery, John Hansard and the Bargate) and the city has enjoyed a packed fringe programme that has allowed local artists to make their mark.
“Logistically this is a difficult show to get together but it is important for it to be seen across the country.
“The show is immersive and hopefully people will enjoy the wild cards as well. One of the dominant trends seems to be with making and manufacturing – there is a move towards hand crafts.
“The public is much more responsive to video art now and young people are completely at home with digital art – the climate has changed,” said Roger.
Southampton City Art Gallery has one of the best twentieth century and contemporary artcollections outside of London and Roger said the city should be proud of the galleries it has.
“Southampton has one of the foremost collections of post war British art in the UK – there are very few cities that have a collection like this.
“The Cultural Quarter will bring definition and create a dynamic space. There are great examples of what cultural life can do for a city.
“You only have to look at Bilbao or the new lottery funded gallery in Margate to see what can be achieved,” he said. 2017 will be an important year for NST Nuffield Southampton Theatres, with the opening of their new city centre venue - NST City, at Studio 144 in the Cultural Quarter.
Building on the success of their current theatre based on the Highfield Campus at the University of Southampton, NST City will be a flexible 450 seat main house theatre, with a 135 seat studio space, workshop rooms and café bar.
Sam Hodges, Director of Nuffield Southampton Theatres, said it felt like all the pieces of a complex puzzle were coming together.
“The city’s universities, the council and cultural industries feel increasingly linked and there has been joined up thinking between all the entities.
“Studio 144 has been in the making for 15 years and it is a great example of cross-party collaboration.
“At a time when budgets are being slashed, this new cultural building is the only venue of this scale opening across the country predominantly funded by local government and Arts Council England. It is very exciting that the council decided to take a long-term view and invest in the growth of the city,” he said.
Since he came to Southampton three years ago, Sam has worked hard to raise the profile of Nuffield Southampton and in 2015 the theatre was named Regional Theatre of the Year at the Stage Awards.
“I made it my focus to really try to grow the artistic profile of the company. Nationally we needed to be recognised as a player for the quality of our work and that has gone well.
“We need to maintain that and be known as the producing theatre company of the city – we want to be open, accessible, and truly a venue for everyone,” he said.
“Our opening production at NST City will be a new play about a Southampton story by an internationally renowned playwright with the community playing a big part in it,” he explained.
Sam is also really keen to work more closely with businesses in the city. Trethowans, a local legal firm, worked with Nuffield Southampton Theatres during their production of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox.
Key clients and staff from Trethowans attended a special performance of Fantastic Mr Fox and met the cast of the show, which embarks on a major tour in 2017 and looks likely to transfer to the West End. In addition to sponsorship and encouraging business to introduce people to theatre, Sam is keen to explore more creative partnerships.
“Creating a city where people want to live and move to is so important and we have a vital role to play in that.
“We would like to have discussions with employers to explore their corporate objectives – we know public engagement is a key area and we are keen to find out how we can directly support that.
“We want to create opportunities for business to be part of the story of Southampton. Our production of A Number was a major success, and transferred to London and we want to create a model for working with business,” he said.
Ultimately Sam’s aim for Nuffield Southampton Theatres is clear.
“We want to be nationally known and locally loved,” said Sam.
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