top of page


Sam Thorne, Artistic Director, Tate St Ives speaks to “The St Ives Times and Echo” on his new role as Artistic Director which will oversee Tate St Ives Phase 2 and a doubling of gallery size in 2017 

Sam Thorne, Artistic Director Tate St Ives. Photo © Tate

Sam Thorne, Artistic Director of Tate St Ives was appointed to the role in December 2013 taking over from Martin Clark now at Bergen Kunstall. He has been in position since March 2014. 

Having studied English Literature at Cambridge University and worked as the Associate Editor at frieze magazine, his vision and experience is well placed to artistically direct modern and contemporary art, the future direction of Tate St Ives, which will double its gallery capacity by 2017.

As a visiting tutor on the Royal College of Art's Critical Writing in Art & Design MA Programme, still retaining his role as a contributing editor at frieze magazine, he has lectured and written widely on art history, exhibition histories, activism, education and art criticism at Oxford, York, the Architectural Association and UCL. 

In 2012, in response to spiralling tuition fees, he co-founded Open School East, a free-to-attend art school at the Rose Lipman Building, a former public library in De Beauvoir Estate in Hackney in East London, which provides free studios and tuition to thirteen associate artists (whose guest tutors have included) Guest tutors have included Ed Atkins, Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, T.J. Demos, Mark Fisher, Maria Lind, Sally Tallant and Ahmet Ogut.

In addition to contributing to various publications as Bidoun, Kaleidoscope and Picpus, he has written catalogue essays on artists including Wolfgang Tillmans, Rivane Neuenschwander and Tal R. and organised international symposia, lectures and music programmes, including Frieze Talks in New York and London (2013), chaired progressive intellectual debates on education as “Schools on the Move”, and talks at the Tate Modern, the ICA and the Serpentine. 

The challenges of the role

I was appointed to the role in December 2013. I started in March, the 21st birthday year of Tate St Ives, so it was a moment of reflection. I was aware of Martin Clark’s exhibitions, he was a good friend and I had grown up visiting St Ives, so I knew the geography and opportunities.

The 21st birthday was a point that we could look back at the programme and think forward.

In 2017 we will be doubling our space in terms of gallery, learning and back of house, so it is an exciting moment. It is a particularly complex site, on a hill side, sandwiched between a museum and a graveyard. The challenges are to oversee a major addition to the building.

From my former experience as associate editor of frieze and teaching at the Royal College of Art, one of my concerns is what is the function of the artist and what potential is there, given the economic climate, for effecting change.

New models of interpretation, exhibitions, critiques and new ways forward

When I was working at Frieze, as one of the editors, we produced a series of lectures in New York and London and a series of concerts – so we had moved from publishing to a public programming, so it gave me good experience for working in the museum world.

At the Tate we have a unique team where learning curators work with exhibition curators, which is something quite new. In the past, the exhibition has come first and public programming was developed around it. At Tate St Ives, we are trying to break that mould – so ideas come from the learning curators and curators and both work in parallel.

We also have unique geographic and locational sites of learning – the Barbara Hepworth, the sculpture garden, the Leach Pottery is close by, the artist studios, the beach and an artist residency scheme, so our potential base for implementing a diverse and ongoing educational programme is unique and diverse.

Many of these ideas will be experimented with dialogues with other organisations on a partnership level over the next year, for example, co-hosting resident artists and working with other organisations in and around the south west of England.

Expanding the art critical discourse on St Ives history and modernism – beyond pottery, painting and sculpture

In the context of St Ives, an artist’s colony, I think it is important to recognise that art in St Ives was not only limited to painters, sculptors, but also writers such as D.H. Lawrence, who lived nearby for two years and Virginia Woolf, whose family holidays were spent at Tallead House, not to mention Dylan Thomas and W.S. Graham, as well as various musicians and composers.

Internationalism of St Ives development and the legacy of St Ives modernism 

The Tate’s ambition is global in interpreting how its collection should be represented. Tate Modern, recently had a retrospective of the Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair (2013), the Sudanese artist, Ibrahim El-Salahi, (2013), and Meschac Gaba.

Modernism didn’t only happen in the west. Modernisms were happening globally and we are reflecting this in “International Exchanges : Modern Art and St Ives 1915 - 1965”, which tours to Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, 24 October 2014 - 25 January 2015, which re-situates St Ives artists in a global context. In fact the title of the original show was “Relocating St Ives” which emphasizes that the St Ives artists associated with British modernism - Hepworth, Nicholson, Gabo, etc, were intimately involved in international debates and dialogues.

They travelled widely and experienced an exchange of art critical dialogues and ideas. The artists worked in an international context and Mark Rothko and Clement Greenberg visited St Ives. The exhibition is the first of a trio of exhibitions that will be looking at the phenomenon and development of international modernism, related to St Ives and development of modern art and post-modern theory.

Future displays will include semi-permanent displays of work by St Ives modernists. At present we change exhibitions three times a year. From 2017, that will be three exhibitions and displays on show at any one time: a semi-permanent display of the St Ives Modernists; an annual collection display; and three temporary shows per year. 

A vision of an art school that goes beyond education, what we can learn from to grass-roots organisations and devise a plan that fits well in to the current modern art museum environment, need for new internationalist models of learning, away from pedagogical centres and translating experience in to curatorial and educational practice 

Last year as the Associate Editor of frieze I chaired as part of Frieze Foundation Talk, “Schools on the Move”, that proposed that a crisis in art education as that of distribution.

The invited panel which included Sally Tallant (Director of Liverpool Bienniale), Pablo Helguera (the Mexican Artist, who is based in New York), Wael Shansky (Artist, who started a new school Alexandria), explored new models of education away from the traditional western Europe and north American pedagogical centres, the limitation of conventional models in education and the need for educators to look wider a field for other models to revise find new educational structures that can facilitate education and alternative modes of learning.

In the last few years, museums have been looking to art schools. Last year the Hayward Gallery had an exhibition in 2012 where they turned the gallery in to an art school. In New York at PS1 in 2013 they had a project called “School”. Art schools are under pressure with funding and students who are paying more and higher fees, so the drive is where and what other alternative spaces and educational centres and modes of learning can we create.  

What can artists bring to education is vitally important 

In my capacity as a co-founder and trustee of Open School East in London, formed with colleagues in 2012 in response to spiralling tuition fees, one of its aims was to nurture artists to develop their work and possibly root their work in a social context in the immediate community. We offer a cohort for a free programme of learning for one year to thirteen associate artists (selected from 300 applications), over a one year teaching programme that offers two days of teaching a week, as an alternative to post-graduate education. Besides providing free education and studio space for one year, it also offers on-going mentoring and education by leading artists as Matthew Darbyshire, a former tutor at the Slade who now advises Open School East and we aim to attract ongoing professional arts funding.

Art and activism 

The overlaps between art and activism does inflect and influence my approach and given that we do have an integrated team of learning and exhibition, it is important how we document art and activism and its connections. With regard to artists’ practices, there is questioning by artists as to what kind of art should I make in their art practice, which poses a potential interesting moment of flux.

Re-writing art history of St Ives and its cultural legacy

Tate’s focus is global. A number of art historians are currently bringing in new angles to the stories of St Ives, some of which were manifest in the seminar “Materials, Movements and Encounters” (May 2013). The thrust of that event was that those dialogues positioning St Ives in a global context and international exchanges and that is something we will be looking at with international partners and other museums. Here at St Ives, art historians like Ian Massey (and others) are focusing on neglected figures, while younger researchers such as my colleague Jeanie Sinclair are doing important work around collecting oral histories.

It is our responsibility to show the legacy of St Ives to be as broad, international and exciting as it was and resituate artists working in St Ives in a global context and international debates. Contemporary angles of exploration include the relationship between art and craft, the history of artists’ colonies, the meaning of residence and isolation.

The next exhibition will be “The Modern Lens International Photography and the Tate Collection of Photography” (14 October 2014 – 10 May 2015), co-curated by Simon Baker, the Tate gallery's first ever Curator of Photography and International Art. Laura Smith, Exhibitions and Displays Curator Sara Matson Curator.

We recently hosted patrons from the Laguna Art Museum as Laguna Beach was formerly twined with St Ives and they have formed an artist colony in Laguna Beach that went back to the early 1900’s – not well known in Europe but very important in California, so we are constantly forging new cultural alliances.

We also have three artists in residences that will be joining us in two weeks. Many of our future and past residents - such as Nicolas Deshayes, Marie Toseland and Lucy Stein – have been and are vitally important to our future thinking and we will be talking about a multi-disciplined approach of having that residency programme open to musicians and writers.

During the 90’s there was a feeling that biennials were the most important thing, but for me the tables have turned and museums are doing the most exciting things right now.

We can’t wait to get the new spaces open.


Interviewer: Monday 15 September, Tate Britain, 4.30 pm.

Pippa Jane Wielgos

M: 07957 319 056.

T: 020 7487 3486

Central London/Regent’s Park

bottom of page