It didn’t have to come to this.
Back in the early 1990s, when Roger Burton, then a young, self-taught expert in fashion and costume history, was working as a stylist and production designer on high-profile commercials for various brands, he stumbled upon an old, red-brick building on the corner of Herbrand Street and Colonnade in the Bloomsbury neighborhood of London’s West End. Tucked away but still easily accessible at the end of an active mews, the odd-looking structure — both outside and inside — had been abandoned for several years.
Burton learned that the empty building dated back to 1797 and that it had been occupied by a printing company, which had left behind floors caked with gooey, sole-gripping ink. He also found out that the building’s peculiarities — a cobbled, concrete floor; molded-concrete ramps; cast-iron support columns; and leftover tethering rings — were vestiges of its original function as a veterinary facility for horses.
Today, Burton muses over whether or not the architectural relic he went on to rent 27 years ago and transform into the Horse Hospital, an innovative, alternative-space arts center, fatefully found him, but once he figured out what he wanted to do with it, there was no turning back.
Recently, by e-mail, Burton recalled that he and his collaborators “decided that the Horse Hospital would make an ideal venue for showcasing marginalized artists.” It would also house the Contemporary Wardrobe Collection, Burton’s holdings of some 20,000 garments and fashion accessories made from 1945 to the present, which he rents out to film and television producers and other clients.
Now, though, for all its sometimes notorious success as a platform for cultural upstarts, the Horse Hospital is fighting to survive, even as few alternative arts venues can be found elsewhere in central London.
Last year, Evannance Investment Co. Ltd., a company based in Wales that owns the Horse Hospital building, informed Burton that it would raise his rent by 333 %, from 30,000 to 130,000 British pounds per year (or from roughly $37,000 to $160,000). That heart-stopping increase was scheduled to go into effect at the beginning of this year. However, as soon as Burton and his associates absorbed the wallop of the supersized-rent news, they began organizing a campaign to combat the proposal and save the arts center.
As Burton said, “This is, of course, untenable, so we’re fighting them through arbitration and the courts, which is going to be very expensive.” So far, he added, “we’ve been granted various extensions, because negotiations had been taking place, and then along came COVID-19, so we now have until August 31 before they can evict us, and even then it would have to be for a very good reason, like not paying the rent, which we have been doing [at the old rate].”
In 2001, Burton managed to win historic-landmark status for the Horse Hospital from English Heritage (now Historic England), a government-related body that classifies notable architectural structures, monuments, and other sites to help protect them from harmful physical alterations or demolition.
Last summer, as news of the Horse Hospital’s plight began surfacing, some British media outlets picked up the story. Last July, for example, the Westminster Extra cited an Evannance Investment Co. Ltd. spokesman, who told the London-based newspaper that the company did not “have any other plans” for the old building and that it was seeking “to agree to a new lease at a fair rent so that Mr. Burton can stay.” The company’s representative noted, “The current lease was agreed [to] in 1991, and the rent has not increased since 2001.” (By press time, Evannance had not responded to Hyperallergic’s own request for a comment.)
Remarkably, Burton has managed to keep the Horse Hospital running for almost three decades, producing an astonishingly diverse and ambitious range of programming on an annual budget that, in a good year, has totaled only around $74,000. As experienced arts administrators would quickly point out, that modest amount is just about enough to buy a serving of tea and crumpets. (It should be noted that the Horse Hospital is not a non-profit organization per se; its funds come from sales of admission tickets and merchandise, space rentals, and donations.)
To date, the Horse Hospital’s programming has included a range of presentations that even such well-funded institutions as London’s Royal Academy of Arts, Institute of Contemporary Arts, or Tate Modern probably never would have tried to pull off. Among them: an exhibition of obsessively detailed portraits by the American painter Joe Coleman, a Melville-with-a-brush whose complex compositions are packed with offbeat biographical vignettes; a show of the punk graphics master Jamie Reid’s politically themed posters and other works; and a self-styled “Tolstoy-meets-music-hall,” avant-garde revue dubbed “Cabaret Mélancolique,” featuring musicians, brush swallowers, and silent ventriloquists.
When the Horse Hospital opened in 1993, Burton recalled, its inaugural exhibition, Vive Le Punk, surveyed the “rare, original punk clothing designed in the 1970s by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, which was culled from the Contemporary Wardrobe Collection.” He noted that it was “the first-ever serious retrospective of their work and a huge gamble for us, but it drew a lot of press, and people flocked to see it. It put the building on the map. It also established our punk DIY ethos, which would become an underlying theme from then on. Later that year, I took a version of this show to Tokyo, where it received huge acclaim.”
The London-based artist Cathy Ward, who, as a girl, attended a convent school run by bald-headed nuns and once painted tavern signs for a living, has shown her work at the Horse Hospital and become one of Burton’s close collaborators. Liberty Realm, a book about her scratchboard abstractions inspired by the textures of human hair, has just been published by Strange Attractor Press.
Ward told me, “I first heard about this mysterious building at the time of the punk-clothing exhibition. Then I vividly remember Joe Coleman’s show in 1998. I had never seen an exhibition hung like that before — stark, brutal, and heavy with a dark theatrically. The Horse Hospital’s lofty interior dripped with atmosphere and was dimly lit by naked light bulbs dangling in front of Coleman’s insane works, some made from prisoners’ shirts. It was a turning point in my life. Once lost in the wilderness, at last I had found a place where I felt I belonged.” (Comments from Ward and other sources were received by e-mail.)
Ken Hollings, a British writer, cultural theorist, and broadcaster, whose most recent book is Inferno: The Trash Project, Volume 1 (Strange Attractor Press, 2020), recalled that, at the Coleman opening, “they had stationed [the artist] in an old chair that had been liberated from the Houses of Parliament; it was a wild, exciting night.” Hollings noted, “They also ran an amazing program of movie screenings to support the exhibition, which seemed really innovative at the time. What [Burton and his team] were doing seemed to be very precise in terms of underground, experimental, or fringe culture, but also very free and open with regard to what they were prepared to show — and how.”
Cathi Unsworth, an author and former editor of the magazine Bizarre, is also closely associated with the venue, having presented her own book launches and hosted literary-themed events there over many years. She observed, “It is the last remaining, truly independent arts space in London; it has stayed true to Roger’s core punk ethic and nurtured generations of artists, writers, filmmakers, fashionistas, musicians, photographers, independent publishers, and freethinkers in general. Every night I have ever had there was magical. You could think of it as our Addams Family mansion.”
Iain Aitch, another writer and Horse Hospital regular, told me that he regards the dilemma it is confronting as part of a “threat that London is facing” as its “grimy heart is being torn out, as venues shift eastward” (to such trendy East London districts as Shoreditch). The arts center, he noted, is “surrounded by bohemian London history that is being stripped out and sanitized. It’s an essential part of the London art world, even though the art world may never see that. It has always provided hope and a haven for those on the edge of culture.”
For now, Burton and his supporters are raising funds and petitioning the building’s owners to reconsider their rent-increase demand. David Knight, a guitarist and electronics whiz who, with Stephen Thrower, form the experimental duo UnicaZürn, said, “It’s a sad indictment of a world city like London that it cannot nurture and treasure such an important and unique organization.”
As Unsworth noted, “I don’t know if the coronavirus will change the outcome of all this but what I do know is that if the Horse Hospital goes, London will lose a major, irreplaceable part of its soul.”