As Kings Place prepares for its fourth festival, its founder reflects on the highs and lows of the launching a new arts space
Property developer Peter Millican is the founder and Chief Executive of London’s Kings Place, which brings together commercial office space, art galleries, restaurants and two concert halls featuring artist-curated music series.
When I bought the land in 1999, my idea was to create a building which was part office, part arts and it was also to have a different take on the arts and music. Admittedly, I probably didn’t think hard enough about it! But I felt that if we did it well enough we would get it to work in a fashion that we were comfortable with, so we went to a lot of trouble to get the acoustics right and make the public spaces enjoyable.
The brief for the architects was broad: to create a building which worked for the office tenants, but also worked for the community round about. As office buildings become bigger and bigger, as they are in the City of London, I think there’s a real risk that if you don’t allow people into them, you’re closing off large areas of the city which are becoming private zones. That’s not an attractive thing to do in a city.
This area was fairly fringe when we first opened, but we came here fundamentally because of transport. This is the most well connected place in London, so it was obvious to me that it was going to become a real hub, and it’s developing very quickly. Central St Martins art college are opening across the road in September so there will be 5000 students plus their staff, the French bank BNP Paribas have bought a big site across the road, and in the smaller streets hereabout the shops are changing. I always knew it would take 10 to 15 years for the site to be built out fully, and the recession has probably put that back a couple of years, but recently it’s started to gather momentum again and it’s gone from a high percentage of sex shops to interesting book shops, nice small cafés.
I think people were sceptical from an office development point of view because it’s a very generous amount of space we’ve given to the arts and not many developers would have done that. In The Music Base, where we have a shared office scheme for people in the arts, it’s pretty much full. There’s been a steady turnover during the recession because people are either growing or shrinking, but it’s been very successful. It’s a community, and creating a community is the greatest thing you can do.
There was also scepticism about whether it really was possible to get the artistic programme to fly, but the concept of having curators pull together what interests them has worked well for us, and on our part there’s been surprisingly little intervention in programming.
When we started, we were looking very hard to find people who’d like to come but now we get people who bring ideas to us, which is great. You’ve got to make the choice of who you invite, and then we pretty much leave it to them because these artists know their subject incredibly well, and I think that’s how you get the best out of them. Some programmes sell better than others, as is the case everywhere, and of course the riskier you are or the more “interesting”, the smaller the audience and the more critical reviews we get, but it was never the aim to put on something that was “vanilla” and we’ve had very few poor reviews in terms of quality.
As a result, we’re building a really great audience who come often, but it’s taken slightly longer to build than I’d hoped. I underestimated it, really. What you’re trying to create is a sense of place, I think, especially when you’re starting from scratch. Once you’ve got it, that sense of place will stick for a long time but it does take some travelling to get that to work. If you look at all of the established concert halls in London, the youngest is the Barbican and the rest have been going for a very long time, but they would all have taken a long time, too, so looking at it rationally we’re doing incredibly well. We’re getting steady growth, we’re getting audiences who like coming, we’re getting good reviews, we’re getting a good mix of programming.
At the Kings Place Festival, which is coming up in September, you can have an amazing day sampling poetry, comedy, classical music, jazz so in that sense it’s both a celebration and a showcase. It’s served us very well in terms of making more people aware of what we’re doing, and hopefully people who find us through the festival come back for other things.
Anecdotally, when we opened I think there were some concerns that we might trespass onto other people’s patches, but we provide something different from the other venues, and people value us for that. Whether it’s trains or airplanes, people will try to get the cheapest ticket they can for that journey or that experience, but once they’ve had it maybe they’re more likely to come back again. We have a range of prices for different things and the earlier people book the more certain they are to get a cheaper ticket.
Of course, you can lose money at any size, but the chances are you’ll lose less on a small hall than a big hall and that was one of the determining factors in choosing hall size at Kings Place. But also this was the sort of programme that interested me, and it fitted well into a building this size. It feels perfect to me.
The Kings Place Festival runs September 8-11, 2011