Alice Workman - Hauser & Wirth Somerset

Interview by Phil Simpson | April 2014 | Photographs by Ben Taylor

Alice Workman is the Director of Hauser & Wirth Somerset, the new contemporary gallery and arts centre which includes a restaurant and garden, soon to be opened in Bruton, Somerset. Inspired by her family, Alice now lives and breathes art! She reveals her secret for orchestrating such a grand design, and the carnival of art that will greet the first visitors when the doors finally open in July 2014.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in North Dorset, less than an hour from Bruton, and that’s where my family still live.

What are your memories of childhood?
We lived in a very rural location in the middle of nowhere, and I remember this idyllic world where I was surrounded by farmland, animals and beautiful countryside. So I’m really a country girl at heart.

Tell us about your background and how you got into the art world.
I had always been inspired by members of my family, some of whom were creative; my great grandfather was an actor and photographer, my great grandmother was a writer, my grandfather was an artist and my grandmother was a musician. I was particularly inspired by my grandfather, as every time I visited him, he was either painting in his studio or preparing exhibitions. I remember at the age of 7 wanting to become an artist and paint just like him. He is the family hero. He is now 103 years old and painted until about 10 years ago. He knew the Elmhirst family who founded Dartington College of Arts, and it was one of the reasons why I moved to Devon and studied there. I was also very interested in theatre and music, so I was attracted to Dartington because it enabled me to combine disciplines, and work with different creative practitioners.

Despite being an international company, employing local people and feeding back into the economy of Bruton, is really important to us.
Hauser & Wirth Durslade Farmhouse interior
Durslade Farmhouse interior (photographed by Ben Taylor)

Your grandfather must be very proud of what your doing now, especially with Hauser & Wirth Somerset. Has he had a chance to see the project first hand?
It’s tricky for him to get about these days, but he has been following my career over the past 14 years. He enjoyed visiting the first gallery I worked for about 10 years ago and we still have long conversations about artists he knew or exhibitions he curated.

And what did you do after you graduated from Dartington College of Arts?
After graduating, I started an internship at the New Art Centre near Salisbury, a rural gallery and sculpture park. After the internship came to an end, I was offered a job as a Gallery Assistant. I ended up spending the next 8 years of my life there. Because I was part of a small team, I was able to learn about every aspect of the gallery including the education programme, sales, press and exhibitions, which gave me a fantastic grounding in the art world. I also had the opportunity to work with many artists including Sir Anthony Caro, Edmund de Waal, Richard Long, Michael Craig-Martin and Richard Deacon amongst others.

“It’s about creating a truly inspiring and creative space for as many people as possible to enjoy”
(photographed by Ben Taylor)

Where did you go from there?
Whilst working for the New Art Centre, I decided to pursue a Masters in Museum & Gallery Studies at Winchester School of Art in my spare time. The course had a museum focus and covered collection management, curatorial practice and conservation.

You’re now heading up the Hauser & Wirth Somerset development in Bruton. How did that all come about in terms of your own involvement?
Once I had completed my Masters, I got a job working for Southampton City Council running the exhibition programmes for their art gallery and museums. Whilst there I worked on solo shows of British artists such as Bridget Riley and Howard Hodgkin. I also worked on a major Andy Warhol exhibition that was part of the Artist Rooms programme, an inspirational collection of international contemporary art donated to the nation through the generosity of Anthony d’Offay. Around the same time I heard about Iwan and Manuela Wirth’s plan to open a new gallery in Bruton, and through this connection, amongst others, the job came about. As well as looking for someone who had the right knowledge and experience, they also were keen to find someone who was happy living and working in a rural community. This felt like the perfect job for me based on all my previous experience.

What things do you feel make Bruton so special?
For me it is the people and the great community spirit.

Durslade Farmhouse interior, including Martin Creed, Work No. 1463, 2013 and Pipilotti Rist, Mary Down Up (detail), 2013
Durslade Farmhouse interior, including Martin Creed, Work No. 1463, 2013 and Pipilotti Rist, Mary Down Up (detail), 2013 (photographed by Ben Taylor)

Hauser & Wirth is best known for its commercial galleries in London, Zurich and New York. What was the motivation behind choosing Bruton as a new location?
The Hauser & Wirth gallery already had a close relationship with Somerset, and when Iwan and Manuela Wirth discovered Durslade Farm, they fell in love with it. The farm had been neglected for many years, but had some incredible buildings, which they could see would make a really unique and interesting location for a gallery. Bruton felt like the right place to develop a gallery, as the local community are very creative and receptive to new ideas, plus there is a great educational hub in Bruton with several schools. Furthermore, the uniqueness of Durslade Farm will provide the gallery with an opportunity to create different types of exhibitions, and there will be a slower pace compared to our galleries in London or New York. An artists’ residency programme will offer artists the space and time to experiment with ideas.

In what ways will Hauser & Wirth Somerset serve the Bruton community and town?
For me, Hauser & Wirth Somerset is not just about creating another gallery, but about developing a unique and special place. For the local residents of Bruton and the surrounding area, it will be a place where they can come and discover contemporary art that they might not be so familiar with or not had direct access to before, as well as access to a wonderful garden and a fabulous new restaurant, where things happen and they can feel a part of something.

There will also be a whole programme of activities and events for all audiences. This will include a Kids Club for the very young and a forum for older children. This will enable local children to really engage in the gallery’s activities, meet the artists and staff, work on projects and events, make films and use social media creatively.

We’re also looking to introduce a whole range of art, music, poetry and theatre related events, as well as talks and seminars about topics that are not directly related to the art world like gardening, food and the countryside. We hope to engage many audiences. The artist’s residency programme, will see artists will live in town as part of the community, which I hope will add positive energy to the existing Bruton culture.

Entrance to the gallery will be free, so people will be able to enjoy its resources 6 days a week. We really want Hauser & Wirth Somerset to be accessible, and enjoyed by as many people as possible.

Durslade Farmhouse interior, including Guillermo Kuitca, Untitled
(detail), 2013 and Roni Horn, Untitled (fox), 2000
Durslade Farmhouse interior, including Guillermo Kuitca, Untitled (detail), 2013 and Roni Horn, Untitled (fox), 2000 (photographed by Ben Taylor)

How do you think the wider pull of Hauser & Wirth Somerset will colour the existing atmosphere of Bruton and the surrounding area?
We really hope that the local people of Bruton will feel they have some ownership of the project, and also feel proud of the fact that it is part of their already very creative and eclectic community. The majority of the hundred plus people who have been involved in the development of the project are local. Despite being an international company, employing local people and feeding back into the economy of Bruton, is really important to us.

And what will entice both national and international visitors to come to Hauser & Wirth Somerset?
We’re planning on holding some incredible exhibitions at the gallery that will certainly attract passionate followers of contemporary art. I think there are many people who enjoy travelling and experiencing new galleries and art venues. Piet Oudolf, who is designing the landscape has a large following and no doubt his garden will entice visitors from further afield.

What has inspired the design and look of the gallery's interiors?
An important part of the project was to restore and conserve the beautiful buildings at Durslade Farm for future generations. When we first set foot on the farm, we adored the rustic charm of the original buildings and didn’t want to change them too much. However, we had to weigh up the requirements and practicalities of the project, and it became a bit of a balancing act in terms of how to utilise the different spaces. Working with the concept architects, Laplace & Co, we played around with ideas until they made sense, and we felt like we had a design which was exciting architecturally, practical and sensitive to the existing buildings and landscape.

Durslade Farm construction.
Durslade Farm construction. (photographed by Ben Taylor)

And what can Hauser & Wirth Somerset visitors expect to find when the doors open in July 2014?
When developing a gallery, it’s really important to consider the visitors’ journey through the spaces and how that impacts their overall experience. Visitors to Hauser & Wirth Somerset will not only experience the artwork in the different gallery spaces, but will also be exposed to the history of Durslade Farm as they enter through the old buildings and transition into the modern architecture of the new gallery spaces. From here, they then discover the garden designed by Piet Oudolf. Throughout the whole development process, Laplace & Co have endeavoured to balance the existing buildings with the new structures, as well as how they sit within the surrounding Somerset landscape.

What excites you most about the future potential of the Hauser & Wirth Somerset project?
There are so many elements to this project, it’s challenging to pinpoint one thing, however for me it’s about creating a truly inspiring and creative space for as many people to enjoy as possible.

It must be a huge project to manage. What has been your secret to making it successful?
Iwan and Manuela Wirth have always had a very clear vision for the gallery, so that certainly helps. It’s all about building good relationships, being a good listener, trying to get the best out of people, and also being able to see the bigger picture and natural flow of when things should happen. It’s been amazing to witness the whole development process, and working with so many talented people from different professions, who I wouldn’t normally have a chance to work with in the art world.

Alice Workman comtemplates Bruton's creativity
(photographed by Ben Taylor)
"There’s a real hunger and energy for art, music and creativity going on in Bruton."

And what has been the biggest challenge so far?
On this project, I’ve had to wear many different hats, and at times learn new skills, as well as shift seamlessly from one discipline to another. So in one day I might find myself talking to an artist about an exhibition, then stepping into a meeting with architects and building contractors and then developing a community project. It is demanding, but extremely fulfilling and rewarding.

What has impressed you most about the local art scene and creativity in Bruton and surrounding area?
Somerset Art Weeks is a huge success and draws a large audience to the area. I’m also a keen follower of what’s going on in Bath and Bristol, and there are some great exhibitions at the Arnolfini, Spike Island and the Holburne. In Bruton, I’ve been really impressed with what Camilla Drinkall is doing with Moorwood Art, which is very enterprising and provides a totally different experience in terms of showing artwork and supporting local artists. The schools in Bruton all have progressive art departments and enthusiastic teachers. There’s a real hunger and energy for the arts in Bruton.

What are you passionate about?
To anyone who knows me, it will be no surprise that my greatest passion is my work.

Hauser & Wirth Somerset - the master plan
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, the master plan. (photographed by Ben Taylor)

Who are you favourite artists and why?
Our first exhibition, when Hauser & Wirth Somerset opens in the summer, is with Phyllida Barlow. I believe that Phyllida is one of the most inspiring British artists working today. She taught at the Slade School of Fine Art for forty years, and nurtured many other artists. She is a real artists’ artist and loved by so many. I had a chance to work with her in 2007, and found that she has this wonderful capacity to make everybody feel totally engaged and inspired. She works with materials such as fabric, wood and plaster and produces amazingly vibrant sculptures. For the opening, we are going to show a whole series of pompoms, a piano and carousel chairs, which will give the exhibition a real celebratory feel. It seems like an appropriate way to open the gallery.

What is relaxation to you?
Spending time with my husband, gardening, going out for a meal or a long walk with the dog, or cooking at home for friends.

What are you best at?
I’ve always been a great organiser!

Tell us a secret about you.
I collect old vinyl and have a collection of over 500 records including 50s Rockabilly, 70s Funk, Elvis, the Beatles and film soundtracks.

What do you value in relationships with people and friends?
I really value people who are prepared to express their ideas, and who are hardworking, committed and passionate about what they do.

Tell us about a time you were really happy?
There are small things that make me happy every day; watching the trees being planted at Durslade, installing new artwork, getting along with colleagues and making things happen, as well as my husband Ed, and my dog Alfred!

Find out more about Hauser & Wirth Somerset