Horse Hospital: Interview with Roger K Burton

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London Calling talks to Roger K Burton, the owner of the Horse Hospital, which is now under threat from developers.

Ever since it opened in 1993, the Horse Hospital - based at an unspoilt, purpose-built stable in Bloomsbury dating from 1797 - has been a centre for progressive arts in London. Now its future is threatened, but owner Roger K Burton is fighting hard to keep the venue in existence. London Calling interviewed him for the latest despatch from the front line.

London Calling: What’s happening with the Horse Hospital at the moment that’s threatening its future?

Roger K Burton: Earlier on this year we were successful in getting the building listed as a Community Asset, which we believe put the owners, who were originally looking to sell the building, on the back foot.

Since then they have used various ploys to try getting us out, mainly to do with the terms of the lease and wants of repair which have cost us a huge amount to rectify and went on for months. Then in a sudden about turn they started talking about a new lease, and doubling the rent, which of course we couldn’t afford so we made them a more reasonable counter offer back in April and have heard nothing since, not even had a response.

All of this has led to a great deal of uncertainty about the future, and left us in a state of limbo, with empty coffers and no funding possibilities, just waiting for the next threatening solicitors letter to appear on the doormat.

LC: What was your career prior to setting up the Horse Hospital, and what led you to do so?

RKB: Growing up on a farm I had no formal training in anything specific, but since being a Mod during the 60s I developed a real passion for clothes and when hippy came along I turned to vintage clothes which I used to buy, sell and collect. In the early 70s I turned this passion into a business, and after supplying most of the original Mod outfits for Quadrophenia in 1978, I started a specialist street fashion hire company, and I became a fashion stylist and costume designer for Film and TV. I took on the Horse Hospital as a project in 1993, and initially just wanted an interesting space to exhibit the many rare clothes I had amassed in the collection. But people seemed to also love the building’s unique ambience and this led to the space being used to put on all kinds of other alternative exhibitions and screenings etc.

I began to see that there was a hell of a lot of outsider talent out there and being untrained myself I tended to gravitate towards those like minded artists who wanted to work outside the mainstream, and found it almost impossible for other spaces to show their work, so the Horse Hospital soon became renowned as a space for outsiders and home for those nomadic artists without a home.

LC: The Horse Hospital has an archive. What’s this for, and what’s in it?

RKB: Our vast archive now consists of fabulous examples of flyers, posters, rare films, cd’s, paintings, photos and examples of pretty much everything we have ever done here.

LC: What are your criteria for selecting work to promote there?

RKB: Our main criteria for exhibiting work is recognising a genuine passion by the artist or filmmaker, writer etc who is naturally gifted and driven to produce great work. Sometimes it’s just a gut feeling, but mostly it’s about giving unknown artists a chance, or perhaps exposing work that is historically important but never really got recognition in its day.

LC: What makes the Horse Hospital stand out from other arts venues?

RKB: Being a unique space in itself, the Horse Hospital seems to take on a different look with every new exhibition or event, probably because we work with a lot of outside curators and programmers who bring a different audience each time to the space, also our not for profit policy means that there is no heavy pressure put on the artist to produce works that have to sell.

LC: Do you work with any other arts organisations?

RKB: We work with other similarly run spaces when we can, but in reality with inner cities current redevelopment programs and rising rent costs, small independent spaces such as ourselves are constantly being driven out or forced to closed down, so they are now becoming less and less.

LC: Apart from financial contributions, how can people help keep the Horse Hospital in being?

RKB: Of course financial contributions are always welcome, and we regularly rent the space to private clients or companies who are looking for an unusual venue to impress their guests, but more importantly it is about getting people to support us by making regular visits, and with a diverse rolling program there really is something for everyone. We are currently working on a new fundraising campaign to help towards next year’s ambitious program.

LC: Finally, what do you like about London in general?

RKB: In the past I have been fortunate enough to travel a lot internationally with film and TV work, but I firmly believe that no other city compares with London, there is a unique creative energy and buzz here that is forever changing. It’s so important to retain and encourage the new, the radical, and the rebellious spirit that is the beating heart of this city.

For programme / fighting fund information, see website.