Outsider Investigating co-working: Exchange at Somerset House

My current means of making ends meet sees me sat in front of a laptop, wherever there be a decent internet connection, mobile phone by my side.  For various reasons, I’m looking for a change.  These posts outline my attempts at trying to make that all happen and here I’m finding out about co-working in Somerset House…

I was pretty excited about Somerset House.  A beautiful and historic building on the northern bank of the Thames, off Waterloo Bridge, it is easily admired on three sides.  Most Londoners would likely know Somerset House by sight, and probably name, but its purpose, what exactly goes on there, is – or was for me – vaguely shrouded in mystery, broadly covered by the brushstroke description of an ‘arts and cultural centre’.

I knew Somerset House mostly by the Courtauld Gallery, occupying one corner of the building, and claimed by my dad to have “one of the best collections of impressionist paintings in the world”*.  A few pleasant afternoons have thus been wiled away there and in the accompanying tea room.  I’ve also wandered a couple of the free exhibitions on the river side and glanced at the odd installation in the courtyard.

Today, I’m going to see about the possibility of Somerset House becoming one of my regular work haunts.  Full of arts stuff, history, and in attractive settings, I reckon it could be a tad more inspiring than your average desk-in-a-cubicle, sofa-in-a-cafe or, even, super charged contemporary-tastic specifically designed co-working espaces.

To virtually prove my hunch, on my way to meet with Aniela, the Tenant Liaison Manager in charge of the Exchange co-working space in Somerset House, I get a chance to listen to some free acoustic music in the courtyard as part of their live music programme.  Brilliant – off to a good start!

I was expecting to be mostly explaining, even justifying, what it is little me would be getting up to here.  Not having an arts and culture-related job (yet) makes me superficially seem like an odd fit.  Instead of asking my own set of questions, however, I am surprised to be started off with a little history lesson on the place, followed by the announcement that I was to have a tour (Shit!  Might be late for my next co-working space meeting – Somerset House is bloody huge!).

I think I was already sold on the place before my visit, so I am eager beaver-like, in case this does turn out to be some kind of informal interview, as we walk, talk and marvel at the ‘estate’.  With her comprehensive but succinct chat on all things Somerset House, I realise that Aniela is very proud to be a part, and that is entirely infectious; I want part too!

By the end of our tour of the best part of an hour, my head is stuffed full of facts and figures, past history and future plans and I’ve negotiated a labyrinth of lifts, halls and offices, cafes, corridors and courtyards, staircases and studios, meeting rooms, receptions and restaurants, galleries and foyers.  Without my guide, I shall surely never find my way again!  And all that knowledge imparted will positively, slowly dissolve from my mind…

So, purely from my flimsy memory, here are some things that I learnt about Somerset House:

  • A lot of Somerset House used to be occupied by the Inland Revenue until they were persuaded, after the financial crash, that the space could be better used in tough economic times, and that they should move out.  Hooray for the creatives and small businesses, who could now take over some of the vacated offices, and renovations could take place to create more flexible and interesting spaces that could be dedicated to arts.
  • Somerset House is a charity.  Maybe not a massive surprise but now you know if you didn’t before.
  • Over the course of 2016, Somerset house is going to be used as an exhibition and arts space that any of its community members can have a part in.  Members even include those that hot desk in the co-working spaces (so could be me!) and ideas put forward for installations have every possibility of being realised!

So… I’m excited, convinced, and sure I want to become a member of this community!

For now, though, I’m late – late to get to my next appointment to see another, rather different, co-working space just a short hop, skip and jump away in Bedford Square…

*My dad says all things with authority and conviction, and spent the chief part of his career as a graphic designer after having studied at the London School of Printing back in the seventies. I therefore swallow, hook, line and sinker, everything he has to say on art (to despise everything pre-impressionist) not having enough of my own knowledge to rebut his views!

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