It was a chance encounter that changed Debbi Clark’s life. The photographer and philanthropist (and confessed kingpin of London’s party scene) was looking for a new studio space when she came across an available gallery in Camden’s Queens Crescent. Upon visiting it, she was suddenly struck by the scale of the poverty children face in the area.
“It was like stepping into a parallel universe,” she says. “I didn’t believe how much poverty there really was until I saw it for myself. It changed my destiny.”
So began Sir Herbert Von Herkomer Arts Foundation (HVH Arts). Named after a musician who believed that every child should have access to arts and music, the charity provides over 400 underprivileged children with free access to skilled arts, with courses including photography, film making and music production.
“We support children from 5–21 who face no access to privileged art schools,” says Debbi. “It’s not like arts and crafts; everything we deliver is highly skilled. Through our patrons and ambassadors, we have access to people who come and deliver courses at a high level.”
Its patrons include Damian Lewis, Jude Law and the late Helen McCrory – who lent her name to the McCrory Award, which provides funding for talented students to pursue further arts education after HVH Arts. (It works; one student has just secured a place at Camberwell Arts College).
Debbi herself is no stranger to the benefits of an arts education. Despite her Central St Martins College education and impressive photography portfolio, her life wasn’t handed to her on a silver platter.
“I grew up on a working-class estate, so I understand our kids more than they think I understand them,” she says. “I went to St Martins quite late as my Mum and Dad didn’t have the funds, and I didn’t go to sixth form or anything like that.” She pauses. “I don’t say this to many people, but I have been there.”
This passion and belief that everyone should have access to skilled arts inspires her work with HVH Arts. We sat down with her to chat about the benefits of an arts education, the barriers that prevent children from accessing the arts, and what inspires her to keep going.
Who are the children accessing your classes, and what do you offer at HVH arts?
We support children in and around the Camden area. Many of our kids are at risk for gang grooming, and they don’t have access to healthy meals; kids who were coming hadn’t had breakfast and were asking for a pound to go and get some chips. So, food is a big part of what we do; we feed them every day. Using funds from The Childhood Trust, we rented a dance studio and a photography studio and have our original pop-up space in Camden. We teach them music production, poetry, writing – [Ian] Rankin came in to do something once – illustration, photography, film, sculpture… We have an exhibition at the end of the program where we show everyone’s work.
What barriers prevent children from accessing the arts?
The number one barrier is money. You can’t get access to the skilled arts that we support without it. Free access is such an essential part of the journey for these kids because they wouldn’t be able to do any of this stuff unless it was free. There’s also a misconception that these kinds of skilled arts are not for everyone, especially not poorer families. In the beginning, I had parents who couldn’t believe that we were doing this for free, and it’s a mindset that feeds through to kids. So, when kids come to us, I break that down immediately. I tell them that they are entitled to the opportunities same as everybody else, and they are worth the same as everybody else, no matter where they come from.
In today’s society, STEM subjects are often lauded above the arts. What do you think the benefits are of an arts-based education?
I personally grew up without access to the arts, and I felt quite suppressed. So, my feeling is art gives you freedom and allows your mind to explore. It’s not ‘this is right, and this is wrong’; it’s subjective – and that feeds into academics as well. It supports mental health. And it’s crucial to freedom – if you don’t have access to art, you can get stuck on a hamster wheel. Skilled arts will provide children with a career and give them the aspiration to believe that they can do something better.
Most of your classes are based in real-life studios. How did you adapt to this over the pandemic?
Zoom! Olympus sponsor us, so we had about 20 cameras that we sent to families, and we made a short movie and a documentary project book. We also run a music mentoring project, so we also ran that online with big producers at Sony and KMI records, and we were making beats and teaching kids how to produce. People really helped us out by sending laptops, and we made use of them – although we’re always in need of more MacBooks.
Who or what inspires you?
I’ve always just been a photographer; I’ve never been a CEO. Photography is my world. It takes me away from the pain of reality. When I got started in the 80s, my friends and I hung out in Soho, and I bought an FM2 camera. I created my first images of the homeless boys we used to hang out with, and that work was how I got into St Martins. When we started HVH Arts, it took me a while to settle into the role as CEO – I remember thinking, ‘this is arduous work, but it’s so necessary’. The money that people donate really does save children’s lives, and seeing the impact of each donation inspires me. To give that access to kids is a gift in itself.
To become involved, please contact Quintessentially Foundation.