Meta-morphosis of Art Street


Meta House, a long term player in the transient cultural landscape of Phnom Penh, last weekend held a soft opening for its brand new location on St 178. Founded in January 2007 by German journalist and film maker Nico Mesterharm, this arts institution has gone through many changes, in response to the developments in the scene and the particulars of the successive buildings in which it has been housed.

“When I opened Meta House in 2007, in my private house, there was literally no plan,” says Nico. “We just did what we thought was appropriate. When we started there was almost nothing. The first version was just a rooftop terrace and a gallery downstairs.”

Originally there was a focus on exhibitions and a dense programme of carefully curated film screenings, particularly documentary film. “We tried live music there and the neighbours complained too much.”

In 2010, the operation was moved to larger new premises on Sotheros Boulevard. “We applied the lessons from location one to location two, and we re-designed the programme a little bit, following the possibilities the new space offered, including the chance to have a café upstairs and a gallery downstairs.”

“At the last space, Meta House 2, we tried out many things. Now, after nine years there, we have an understanding of what has worked, what hasn’t worked, what was important for patrons, what was obviously not so important. And we’re looking at the current arts scene, to see what needs more attention, more focus, what needs strengthening.”

Once again, a change of location and a new building creates opportunities to reshape the whole institution. “Over the last 11 years the visual arts sector has developed, which means this doesn’t have to be a main focus anymore. We will continue to do art exhibitions, but we have built a stage for performances, we want to encourage some of the many sectors are underdeveloped – theatre, performing arts, performance art, video art, mixed media, poetry.”

The new location is the site of the long closed Reyum Gallery. “This is where I first saw young contemporary Cambodian art,” says Nico. “I’m going back to a place where I started my journey: in the middle of this arts district, opposite the Museum, opposite the arts school.”

Another change is access to different kinds of patrons. “Before we never had walk-in customers, people had to find us, or come by recommendation. Now we are on what is called Art Street, where already tourists go – and at the same time we have the chance to work with and strengthen the local community, to work more closely with the Ministry of Culture and also the painting shop owners and local artists. Maybe set up an arts festival, maybe do little workshops – again, things that we always did in a way, but now based on the needs of this community.”
“In the beginning there was no scene, then it became kind of an NGO and goodwill-driven scene, where also artists were talking, and westerners spending money – but it’s not an organically grown art market. You have to develop your own market, you have to provide possibilities for people to earn something. But then again, you don’t need to change the trade, but you might want to find ways of producing stuff that appeals to foreign customers in order to generate an income without selling out, without producing postcards with water buffalos in front of ricefields.”

Two significant changes are the techno parties – no longer appropriate in this venue – and the film programme. “Ten years ago the internet was very slow. It was important back then to show many documentaries and make them accessible for free. Over the last few years, it became less and less popular. Now we still will have a room for regular documentary film screenings but a smaller room.”

For the next two months there will be a degree of experimentation with the venue. “After 11 years, we reshuffle, roll the dice, see what happens. In September there will be a real opening with a ceremony, and by then we should know much more. Do we do DJ chillout parties in the restaurant upstairs in the open air? How do we connect the different floors? Can we do something on two floors at the same time? Would people just stay downstairs?”

“I think this is the trick: to continue to do what you do without falling into a routine. Routine kills the fun and kills what draws an audience and makes a location special. That’s what I want to achieve here.”