CHARLIE SMITH london: how commercial galleries find artists

Director of CHARLIE SMITH london, Zavier Ellis shares his experiences on finding and working with artists (2013).

My perspective in running a gallery is very curatorial, but I am also an art dealer. I don’t believe commercial gallerists when they tell me they are not art dealers. Gallerists who sell work are art dealers.

My gallery CHARLIE SMITH london is a commercial gallery space in Old Street that has a permanent programme of revolving exhibitions. These will be either one person shows or curated exhibitions. Each show generally lasts for five weeks.

I am very interested in discovering artists and so, having been doing this for over ten years now, I exhibit artists from the contemporary emerging to mid-career sectors. Having begun to represent artists at various points during this period, it is obvious that we have grown together (every young gallery’s ideal), and that those that would have been considered ‘emerging’ then are working their way towards ‘mid-career’ now.

I see my relationships with artists as similar concentric circles. Gallery artists are core artists, those at the centre of the circle. We work together and communicate constantly, and I am at their service. Then there are others with whom I have a relationship, but do not represent. Some I show regularly. Then there are others that I might work with just once, or infrequently.

I am also an active off-site curator. One of my main projects is The Future Can Wait. This is a large scale exhibition that was launched six years ago that takes place during Frieze week, currently in partnership with ‘Saatchi’s New Sensations’. This exhibition was devised to mount a large scale curated exhibition, thus filling the gap between small scale ‘pop up’ or Frieze orientated shows, to large scale art fairs. This was partly a response to the needs of collectors – to show work in a considered fashion and in a spectacular location; and partly a response to artists – to show work during Frieze week in a high profile, large scale show, but which is not restricted by the limitation of an art fair stand (booth).

I am constantly identifying and working with new artists, and depending on how things develop, an artist from a particular project can often transfer into another project, sometimes even becoming a gallery artist. I have several vehicles then, by which to activate this process. Likewise, my audience might also come over from one project to another. My target audience is primarily collectors but also the art world audience generally. I place work with known collectors including Charles Saatchi, Peter Nobel, Thomas Rusche or Javier Baz, for example, as well as smaller scale domestic collectors. Mainly I am introduced to them by participating at art fairs as well as through my various projects.

In terms of the positioning of my gallery in relation to others, with a cursory glance it might appear that I run a traditional model. As a gallery in itself this is true, but combined with the other projects it can be considered a far more complicated, multiplicitous project that emphasises curation, ambition, hard and dedicated work, lateral thinking and collaboration – and in collaboration I mean with other curators, other galleries, artists, and collectors.

It is also important to me that the main ingredient – the artwork itself – has a relevance to me personally as well as a potential resonance with the audience (collector). Although this said I trust my own instinct rather than attempting to second guess the market.

My mission is to find like-minded artists to pair with like-minded collectors, with like-minded gallerist / curator (me) as the fulcrum. I search for authentic artists that are engaged wholly with their internal critical model. As someone who took the route to being a gallerist / curator by studying history of modern art at degree level and then fine art at masters, I have a profound understanding of what it is to be an artist. And so I am perhaps unusually equipped to relate to the struggle of making work (and in fact still make work myself). I am open to all mediums (but perhaps have the deepest affiliation with painting), and I respond to work with strong content. I am interested in horror and beauty; the sublime; the psychological and psychoanalytical; religion and death; magic and mythology; sexuality – that which is concerned with the big human themes. Just as I look for authenticity in the artist I also look for an authentic, instinctive reaction in myself when attending work, and even if one of my shows looks varied visually, by considering these subjects the sense of cohesion becomes quickly apparent.

And so, the above must be considered the key factor at the beginning point in a relationship with an artist. From there I will look for consistency and professionalism, and there is an element of needing to be able to work together in terms of personality as well. I am not looking for a difficult artist or a lazy artist. I’m looking for an individual that can continue relationships and work in a climate of mutual respect and trust. And these relationships can only be maintained with honesty, integrity and progress. And so there must be drive, ambition and commitment on both sides.

But, how to approach a gallery? There is an inherent irony in that even though galleries might be looking for artists they do not want to receive applications. Likewise with collectors: I have observed that collectors enjoy the hunt and the process of discovery, just as I do. They / we do not want to be told. They / we might respond to a recommendation but they / we would far rather make the discovery independently. And so, artists and galleries need to put themselves in the shop window, but in the right context. Everything is always about context. The gallery needs to go to the right art fairs to meet the right collectors. The artists need to go to the right art schools and do well by being active. Everyone, always must be active.

At the earliest stages of an artist’s career self-motivated shows are a good idea. This helps to learn various processes and make various contacts with the slim possibility that a buzz might start. Court galleries and press but be subtle; don’t be too aggressive; don’t be desperate; don’t be arrogant or presumptuous. An artist should always take time to promote their shows and identify galleries whose programme might fit. Then enquire with the gallery as to how / if they like to be approached. But probably the best way for an artist to be guaranteed a fair appraisal is by applying to prize shows. When I launched my prize show Anthology two years ago I quickly became aware that I had to assess every application fairly. As do the other jury members. By this means then the artist is guaranteed that their work will be seen by important art world professionals who sit on committees, and even if they don’t make the show, other opportunities can arise. And of course if they do make the show then they gain exposure and stand a chance of winning that prize.

Zavier Ellis is the Director of CHARLIE SMITH london. He is also co-founder of the museum scale show for emerging artists The Future Can Wait. Zavier has also curated exhibitions internationally including in Berlin, Helsinki, Klaipeda, London, Los Angeles, Naples and Rome; and has placed work in notable private collections globally including The Saatchi Gallery, Javier Baz, Peter Nobel, Jean Pigozzi, David Roberts and Thomas Rusche. Known as an acute talent spotter Zavier has identified and exhibited a number of important young artists directly from Art College including David Blandy, Oliver Clegg, Tessa Farmer, Sam Jackson, Monica Ursina Jäger, Annie Kevans, Nika Neelova and Douglas White. Zavier also collects and is a practicing artist and has recently exhibited at Paul Stolper Gallery in London and Museum der Moderne in Salzburg.

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