A Space Apart: Interview with SWG3’s Andrew Fleming-Brown and Meryl Gilbert
ANDREW FLEMING-BROWN (AKA MUTLEY), 40, IS DIRECTOR OF GLASGOW’S SWG3. MERYL GILBERT, 32, IS PART OF THE SENIOR MANAGEMENT TEAM. JASON CADDY CAUGHT UP WITH THE TWO OF THEM FOR AN AFTERNOON COFFEE IN A STUNNING LITTLE CUP AND SAUCER AT THE VENUE’S ACID BAR.
Glasgow’s SWG3 is like an octopus. Principally an arts, events and music venue, it has tentacles in a number of pies, like its Acid Bar, now permanent after being born a pop-up. Then there’s its mighty clubbing destination status, as well as providing a space for photographers and artists to practice and exhibit, and let’s not forget the TV studio facility, its burgeoning corporate events hosting business, and a yard for outdoor events and festivals where graffiti artists can create without fear of getting their collars felt. It’s also an arts charity. An octopus can have up to nine brains and two of the brains of the outfit, and there are others too, like Jonathan Dawson and Gaz Mac, are company director Andrew Fleming-Brown (Mutley) and the final senior management team member, Meryl Gilbert. Not to labour this octopus metaphor or anything but SWG3 is also kind of camouflaged in Yorkhill, accessed from the very tip of Kelvinhaugh Street, then by going off the beaten track alongside a row of railway arches that run parallel to the Expressway.
Mutley, Meryl and I all met up in the Acid Bar with a steady trickle of people arriving for lunch in the bright airy space that contrasts the rest of the daylight-deprived SWG3, overlooking the yard and all its eye-popping graffiti. “It’s wonderful having daylight, said Meryl. “The rest of the space is kind of dark and industrial, which is ideal for the club nights, which make up around 70% of the business.” Meryl also kindly oriented me with the rest of the space at the top of our chat. “On the first floor we have the 450-capacity Warehouse, our very first venue, then came the 1000-capacity TV studio. Then we purchased The Galvanisers two years ago. That was a big job. There were to big cranes and acid baths that the cranes would dip the metal into, so a pretty big clean up job ensued, and what an amazing space it’s turned out to be. We reconditioned the cranes so that they both work and the height of the ceiling is great for filming, Yet it gets used for such a range of things, like corporate dinners, weddings, but mainly gigs, clubs and private events.”
The Acid Bar is the newest part of the business and there’s been no marketing behind it so far apart from word of mouth and a subtle social media drive. “We executed some social media video stuff, but there are only 40 covers and we shout about everything else in the building so I guess that this is its own wee hub,” Meryl explained.
She continued, “The bar’s open Monday to Monday serving coffees during the day. In the evenings it hosts Ka Pao which is the Ox and Finch’s brainchild – a south east Asian-influenced food menu. We started with a pop-up once a month where customers bought a ticket for £30 all in. In that last few weeks we have opened up the restaurant Friday night, Saturday all day and evening, and Sunday all day. It’s all going really well.”
Mutley and Meryl’s destinies became intertwined before they began their working relationship proper after which the planets aligned to lock them onto the same destiny-path, to permanently steer the SWG3 ship. Said Mutley, “It was 2009 and Meryl was working for New Moves International on a durational performance in The Warehouse, our first venue space, so ultimately Meryl was part of the first event that took place here. It happened in the space even though it wasn’t even finished. This was March time and we’d started the build in January and it was freezing. We finished it for Easter time for Electric Frog. That’s kind of how it all started.” He continued, “Then Meryl started working for us around 2013, and during that time there was a little bit of development where we did up our venue and did up our artists studios, and artist studio gallery space. It was all a bit sporadic, and then, with quite a significant amount of creative Scotland funding, we developed our creative artists studio, and with Meryl onboard it was then that we started to really develop the events side of the business.”
SWG3 really began seriously amping up the events between 2013 and 2015, growing steadily in terms of profile and in terms of the scale of the events. Then came an event that arguably altered the course of its life – namely the demise of The Arches in Glasgow. Yet this wasn’t a connection that Mutley himself made at the time, or is necessarily all that comfortable making even now. He explained, “We never really considered ourselves as a similar space until The Arches wasn’t there any longer, and even though we still see ourselves as apart from what it offered, there are elements of the businesses where others drew parallels. You could say that of any arts space in the city, though.”
He continued, “We were looking at a ground floor space which at the time was a motor mount breaker and a powder coater and a number of small businesses, and we were either going to develop one creative space for the creative industries or we were going to open it all up and develop a larger events space. Obviously, as that all happened with The Arches the decision was made easier by the business case to develop a 1000-capacity events space, which was the TV studio, and that’s what really started to accelerate our commercial events programme. At the same time we were always retaining an arts programme through gallery space which was a slightly more non-profit project. We’d employ a curator, give them free rein of the space, support them and this was very much about young curatorial development as well as for allowing young artists to exhibit.”
“So all in all the year 2016 got us into a really good place when we ran two entities. One was a commercial events business and the other an arts charity.”
I asked Mutley what business challenges they faced then compared with now. He said, “The challenges back then, well, this was the first kind of large commercial borrowing for us which always comes with an element of risk and a leap of faith. But we knew there was a business case and we knew that there was a void to fill and that there were opportunities.”
He continued, “Now the challenges are more around staffing and any kind of resource. Being strategic is key. There are different challenges as we’ve grown over the years and we’re now far better equipped and much more resilient as an organisation and we’ve managed to nourish a very resilient arts charity now as well. It was quite delicate in terms of where it was financially and what it was doing, bit we got the support of SWG3 and the two of them work really well together. “
Both Mutley and Meryl come from artistic backgrounds themselves, but, they both modestly also admit that they feel their strengths lie in allowing others to shine rather than personally contribute to the arts scene in Scotland by being hands-on. “I come from a performance background. I studied at The RSAMD and it was contemporary theatre practice that I studied and then went into more choreography than theatre,” said Meryl. “But I was always more into music, hence New Moves International, then I went to New York and worked for Warp Records, which was an internship that turned into a job. Then by the time I came back from that I opened The Berkley Suite in Glasgow with Fergus McVicar and did the booking for there. So I guess it’s been a mix of my interests in performing and music, SWG3 was ideal, with the arts programme and the events.”
Said Mutley, “I studied sculpture at Gray’s in Aberdeen and did a little bit of studying in New York , where I was introduced to PS1, which was an arts space working as an invigilator volunteering but it was definitely planted a seed in terms of what an arts space and an arts venue can do. That’s something that I still reference in terms of what we do. Unfortunately we don’t have MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art) here to buy us!
He continued, “I came back to Glasgow in 2003 to do some curating and putting on events and clubs and that’s actually how we found this venue. Back then I did Vacuum at The Riverside Club and Shapes of Things, a fortnightly exhibition, in the old Christies Auction House on Bath Street. There would be exhibitions every two weeks, a fashion show and a gig and I got to meet a lot of young artists and musicians and these early connections were some of the people who started to populate SWG3 for art studios and gig rehearsal spaces in the early years.
“I don’t sculpt any longer though. I quickly realised that everyone else was better than me at making it work, at which point Meryl chimed in with “I also quickly realised I was better at putting it all together. I don’t feel the need to choreograph or get up on a stage and dance!”
And thank goodness for that on one level, otherwise that little lane at the end of Kelvinhaugh Street might’ve ended up being a road to nowhere and the Glasgow arts, music and events scene much poorer.