Lucy Day: approaching galleries

The key to successfully approaching galleries, or as is more often and accurately the case, gradually building a relationship with them, is having an insight and understanding into their priorities and how they operate. In this section curator Lucy Day introduces articles by three very different curator/gallerists which give an insight into how they select and work with artists.

Galleries, much like any other creative business, have their own unique approach and identity. They can be roughly broken down into categories, although the fluidity between these negates easy division and is the organic nature of the UK art scene that makes it so dynamic. It has to be stressed undertaking research that is tailored to you and your practice is the only way to identify the galler(ies) that might be interested in what you do.

To give an idea of how a gallerist works Artquest have commissioned three articles from the three very different spaces to unpick their approaches to working with artists and how this might inform your research and how you approach similar spaces.  We have chosen to focus on: a London based commercial gallerist (Zavier Ellis from Charlie Smith), a regional space, Vane in Newcastle, “that operates on a mixture of public funding, grants from a variety of trusts and foundations, sponsorship and donations, as well as income generated through sales of artwork” and a large publicly funded space, Ikon, in Birmingham. As a point of interest both the directors of Vane and Charlie Smith are or have been practicing artists but neither would describe themselves as artist –led/initiated spaces.

All of the gallerists speak of the need for trust in their relationships with artists. Trust that both sides will behave professionally and with integrity. Art practice is at the forefront, as it should be, but in the case of the commercial gallerists it is also key that they engender mutual respect with their clients as well. It is important to remember that gallerists are agents, they act as the conduit between the artist, a buyer or commissioner. Likewise with a publicly funded space the gallery and curator must keep their audience, be it arts or otherwise, in mind at all times. It also has the pressure of complying with funders’ (usually a mix of local authority, Arts Council, grants trusts, foundations and sponsors) ambitions and expectations.

The matrix of the art gallery system can be further broken down to those who champion ‘challenging contemporary art’ (as defined in the report Taste Buds: how to cultivate the art market by Morris, Hargreaves, Mcintyre 2004 Arts Council),  and the ‘domestic market’. There is a discreet system of endorsement in play as an artist’s career moves upwards and sideways: from artist-led spaces and projects, commercial sales, public galleries, group and solo shows, residencies, awards and prizes – one begetting another. The ‘domestic market’ on the other hand sites itself more firmly at the direct sales end of the spectrum, for those artists for whom ‘endorsement’ is not an aspiration and who are happy to sell to domestic buyers through, for example, retail outlets, online and directly from their studios.  This can be seen most obviously through the variety of art fairs that happen throughout the year – all looking to attract different audiences, buyers, collectors and artists.

The key factor underpinning the gallery sector is that each is utterly unique. Whether selecting work with a key buyer or diverse audience in mind the strength of the gallery is in its individual identity. It may be a team construct or a single person but however the gallery operates you can be sure that its artists are selected carefully with a great deal of forethought. As smaller galleries start to lose the economic battle, and larger ones pull up the drawbridges  it is likely that new models will emerge and evolve so it would be wise to keep an eye on those that are looking for new ways of supporting and championing artists and enabling the UK art scene, its artists in particular, to develop new ideas and practices.

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