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Enter the House of St Barnabas

A public-minded private members club in London is demolishing stereotypes

Private members clubs are, by virtue, not exactly bastions of civic-minded inclusivity. The House of St Barnabas is aiming to change that. The charity foundation is opening a not-for-profit members’ club in Soho, as a way of training and providing employment opportunities to those affected by homelessness.

And while private members’ clubs are often places that favour conservative artists and decoration, the House intends its exhibition programme, The Collective, to serve in the same spirit of public-mindedness. Artists like Tracey Emin and Jeremy Deller have donated art works for permanent display, while galleries and curators have consigned or loaned pieces of art – and a percentage of the art sold will fund the charity.  

Ahead of the launch of The Collective this Friday, Dazed speaks to Katie Heller, the curator behind this forward-looking art initiative.

DD: Tell me about the art programme you devised for the House of Barnabas.

Katie Heller: I approached all the big artists to donate works and a lot of them said yes, artists like Chris Levine and Rankin. Tracey Emin was very keen. It’s almost easier for the big artists because either they have a team of people that work with them or they can afford to let you have a piece of work. There was a lot of, you know, people that really believed in the course and wanted to help. The rest of the space will be art that changes every three months. So we invite different galleries, different curators – the idea is to keep changing it, to sell the work so a percentage of the sale goes back into the charity and then to create a dialogue amongst members.

DD: What do you make of the club’s ethos, in that it’s a public-minded private members club?

Katie Heller: They should be doing it around the world. Members clubs are notoriously snooty and elitist – you have to be working in a certain industry before you’re even deemed worthy of the Groucho Club. But anyone is allowed to apply to this club – they want social workers, people in the charity sector, scientists… It aims to be inclusive.

We’re lucky in that we can get away with mixing it all up because it’s for charity

DD: It’s also run by a charity, which is unusual for a private members club. 

Katie Heller: And it’s a great model, taking money from the membership and putting it into an academy that will help the homeless. It’s one thing offering homeless people a place to sleep, but it’s another getting them to hold down a job, so this seems like an incredible concept. We’re also working with an incredible organisation called PhotoVoice, which works with marginalised communities on participatory photography projects. We’ll basically give cameras to the people in the academy, and there’ll be workshops on photography and an exhibition. We want to be working on art projects that will specifically help people. 

DD: What kind of galleries and artists have you approached?

 Katie Heller: I mixed it up completely. The ethos of the club is that it’s exclusive – it’s a members club – but it’s also very inclusive. We have Martin Creed in one room, but then we’ll have another artist that you won’t have heard of, that maybe graduated from art college a few years ago. We want a new breed of YBAs.

DD: That seems like a risky strategy – I imagine people who join a members only club haven’t been exposed to much newer contemporary art.

Katie Heller: Some people will like it, some people will hate it. It instigates a dialogue. We’re lucky in that we can get away with mixing it all up because it’s for charity. It’s all about “come and enjoy the arts - don’t take yourself too seriously”.