James Hedley Harper from The Royal Standard

Stephanie Bell speaks to James Hedley Harper, one of the current directors of Liverpool’s The Royal Standard, about how the organisation works and their current exhibition, DIFFERENT DOMAIN.

Stephanie Bell: You’re an artist led gallery, studios and working space in Liverpool. When and how was The Royal Standard founded?

James Hedley Harper: The Royal Standard was founded in 2006, initially in a former pub in Toxteth. In its current form, The Royal Standard has been based in a large industrial space to the north of the city since 2008 and, earlier this year we expanded by taking over an adjacent building. At the time, back in 2006, there was a need for an organisation that would connect the grass-roots level activities to the larger, more established institutions.

SB: How have you managed to keep going throughout the years?

JHH: The Royal Standard operates with 4-6 directors at any one time, with new directors being appointed on a 2-year rolling basis. This system allows the running of organisation to remain fresh and vibrant while continually offering out opportunities to artists, whether they be new to the region, recent graduates or Liverpool born and bred. By relocating from Toxteth to Vauxhall we were able to offer space to more artists, to make use of a larger gallery space and to generally expand the organisation’s profile nationally and, to a certain extent, internationally. We have a studio membership of over 40 artists and we actively seek out opportunities for those studio members express and promote themselves to a wider audience. We are dedicated to the promotion of exchange, dialogue and experimentation.

SB: Have you struggled through the arts cuts?

JHH: You would struggle to find a single arts organisation in the UK that hasn’t been affected in some way by the arts cuts. However, the way our organisation is set up allows us to adapt and adjust to different climates. We recently became a registered charity, partly as a response to increases in business rates. The Royal Standard hasn’t struggled to the extent of some of our neighbouring organisations have, and at the same time we have been able to continue to meet our own demands of creating dialogue and providing a supportive and critically engaged environment for our studio members to work in.

SB: What do you think are the benefits of working as a group of directors, rather than say one or two curators? Is the dynamic of working with other artists more interesting than working solo?

JHH: The Directorship at the Royal Standard is a voluntary role. While we look to bring in personnel with experience of how a gallery function or curatorial experience, it is to be seen as an opportunity to learn and acquire further experience. Having a team of directors means each individual can learn something from the other directors. Anybody who takes on the directorship will already know that they want to work as a group and within a constantly changing, fast-paced environment, that’s an inevitability of the role’s demands. Is it more interesting? Certainly, without a doubt. The constant exchange of ideas between studio members, directors and visiting artists can only possibly be seen as a positive, not just for those involved internally, but for the city of Liverpool as a whole.

SB: Your new exhibition DIFFERENT DOMAIN challenges arts online presence and its relationship with the gallery. Could you tell me a little bit more about where the concept for the exhibition came from?

JHH: There is a growing contingent of internet-based exhibitions and online only galleries that have spawned an increase in the amount of work that is made for the internet – made specifically to be exhibited online. With DIFFERENT DOMAIN we wanted to challenge the idea of how work ‘should’ be exhibited online, and allow our online exhibition to spill out into the physical gallery environment. This was a theme that the current group of directors had collectively wanted to express

SB: What do you hope viewers gain from it?

JHH: Firstly, having an exhibition based primarily on our website means we don’t have to subject our visitors to the arctic conditions of our galleries during the winter months! Viewers can see great art from the comfort of their own homes, or even on the morning commute. It allows people from further away, perhaps from other countries, to get an idea of the kind of things The Royal Standard is doing.

SB: What’s the new space in the gallery like?

JHH: Our new gallery space is, at present still reminiscent of its former use as an office space – the carpeting and ceiling tiles are still in place. Our last exhibition, The Narrators, was the first to occupy our new gallery space and, as that was almost exclusively video work we blacked out the entire space. That blacking out had remained for our GIFs and Glitter party and the opening of DIFFERENT DOMAIN. As a result we haven’t begun to scratch the surface of its potential but it’s a very adaptable space and we’re excited to start playing around with ways we can alter its environment.

SB: Do you personally embrace or revoke our internet culture? Do you think Instagram, Pinterest and social media have affected how or why art is produced?

JHH: As an organisation we definitely embrace Internet culture. It is an important tool for us to be able to reach out to wider audiences while also being able to remain in close contact with our studio members. Social media platforms are a big part of that. Any artist who uses popular culture as a starting point for their work, or who uses social commentary within their practice, would have great difficulty in avoiding the Internet as a subject matter. The reason why art is produced probably hasn’t changed but the Internet has altered how art is produced and how it is posited within society in many ways.

SB: As well as exhibitions, do you hold any residencies? Is that important to you?

JHH: We currently host an Australian artist residency programme that is funded by the Australian Arts Council and supported by Liverpool Biennial. That allows an artist from Australia to come over to Liverpool for a fully funded three-month residency. This is an area we are looking to expand on in the future as we looking to host our first writing residency in 2014. We are also in the process of setting up a residency exchange with SOMA in Mexico City, Mexico, which would allow us to send artists over to Mexico to undertake a period research, with a Mexico-based artist coming to Liverpool in exchange. These types of initiatives are very important to the survival of The Royal Standard as they allow us to enrich our organisation from the outside while also making ourselves known further afield.

Stephanie Bell is an arts writer, editor and Fine Art graduate based in Lancaster.