Vane, Newcastle: how regional galleries find artists

In this article Paul Stone, Creative Director of Vane, a regional gallery in Newcastle, shares his insights on finding and working with artists.

Having started life as a volunteer-run organisation, Vane was incorporated as a company limited by guarantee in 2001. The gallery 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, both from its physical Newcastle base and through participation in art fairs. As a not-for-profit company, all earned income is directly reinvested back into Vane’s programme. This hybrid model we are developing is one that is intended to build on our provision of support to artists in terms of facilitating access to critical, commercial, and distribution networks. To be able to achieve this on a more concentrated level was one of the driving factors behind Vane’s transition from a project-based organisation to a gallery with a permanent space.

Before opening the gallery, we already had a group of artists we wanted to work with. These ranged from artists – especially more locally based ones – whose work was already known to us and with whom we had a previous working relationship to others – especially a number of overseas artists – whom we approached directly. In building an identity for the gallery, it was important from the beginning that we had a broad geographical mix and we felt that this would benefit the gallery and the artists in terms of the profile it gave to both. We did sit down and think carefully about whom we wanted to represent and, although there has been some inevitable comings and goings in terms of individual artists over the years, the general number and mix has remained roughly the same during the gallery’s lifetime.

In terms of the gallery approaching artists, although there was a conscious decision to represent a mix of types of work, one unifying factor in choosing to work with individual artists is that we have to feel confident we can represent a whole body of work. That is, it’s not just about the work that is in the gallery or a particular show at any one time. It is important that we can feel confident in terms of communicating what it is about to others. This is in contrast to when we are working on a ‘guest’ project, when we work with outside curators on group shows or collaborate with different local festivals, where we do not make this a requirement. It is more straightforward to gain this confidence when you have been ‘following’ an artist for a while. If approaching an artist ‘blind’, or after maybe seeing only one exhibition by them, we would normally undertake at least one studio visit so that both parties felt it was the right thing to do to work together. Consequently, most artists we work with are usually at least a couple of years outside of formal education when we begin to work with them. Having said that, there are no set criteria as such and the age of our artists ranges from mid twenties to late forties.

When it comes to artists approaching the gallery unsolicited, outside of the guest projects by non-represented artists, we do have a couple of long-standing relationships with artists who came to us by this route. However, it does have to be stated that this is very much the exception. This is as much to do with capacity as any other reason: it’s certainly not the case that we think there aren’t plenty of other artists we would we like to work with in an ideal world. We are not really ‘looking’ for other artists most of the time, as we can’t really work with more than we already are if we want to maintain a depth of relationship that is meaningful. So, we would have to see something particularly unique in an artist that we felt added to the mix of those we already work with before we agreed to take them on. As a gallery, we’re not really doing anyone any favours by spreading ourselves too thin. Both gallery directors trained as artists and we are aware that ‘rejection’ is disappointing but it really is the case that an artist shouldn’t take it personally. Also, we receive a lot of unsolicited submissions and it really isn’t possible to reply to all of them, especially if there’s obviously been no real consideration of whether it is appropriate for the gallery concerned.

Talking of which, in terms of approaching a gallery, an artist must really first do their research and ask themselves honestly: ‘Would my work sit well as part of this gallery’s programme?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, a simple email, with a statement and a few select images and PDF of relevant reviews, catalogue texts, etc is quite enough. Never send massive sized, or amounts of, files – that’s not going to help! It is best not to bombard a gallery with correspondence. You can’t really force a ‘yes’ from a gallery through ‘pester power’. What is more useful I think, is to add a gallery to your mailing list for invites to other shows and updates on work. Again, be selective. We don’t need a weekly update on what you are doing! We do look and register who is doing what and, if it is of interest and convenient, make the effort to go and see someone’s work.

Websites are good, but keep the design simple so the focus is on your work (rather than fancy graphics, etc) and make it is easily updatable by yourself so you can keep it relevant. Remember to keep signposting people to it through including the address on invites and email signatures. If you can’t take good photographs of your own work, or at least know your way around a decent image editing software package, get someone else to help – snaps off your phone won’t do the job for you! If you don’t feel you can handle administrating your own website, it’s worthwhile considering registering an online presence with organisations such as Axis or creating a blog on the site of a-n The Artists Information Company (also a great all-round resource, including for exhibition opportunities and artist-gallery contracts). Whilst they can perform a useful function in maintaining a profile as an artist, I’m less convinced with most social networking media as a way of making an initial introduction of your work to someone professionally. It may be seen as old fashioned but a simple business card can still serve a useful purpose in terms of signposting a face-to-face contact to your work, ensuring you get on a gallery’s mailing list, and so on.

Whilst it’s fine to approach more than one gallery at a time, do make an effort to show you’ve considered a specific space for its particular qualities. If a submission reads like junk mail, then that’s the folder it will end up in. If you address something ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ that just shows you haven’t really bothered to look on a gallery’s website to check whether the person you should be contacting is a man or a woman, which is usually easy enough to establish when it’s a small-to-medium sized gallery. We once received an email from two artists addressed to ‘Dear Vane’ and with a proposal specific to the architecture of our space; another nearby gallery received the same proposal, ‘Dear Vane’ and all, and promptly forwarded it to us – needless to say neither of us took that one any further!

One area where Vane is able to be more open to approaches is with guest projects and we are usually working with at least one artist on such a project at any one point in time. Quite often this involves the artist trying to realise a project – whether group or solo – for which they are trying to raise funding, often from sources we would not be able to approach ourselves, whether that is for production of work, a catalogue, or whatever. What makes a project attractive to the gallery might also be the fact that it adds something – often a more ‘specialist’ angle we don’t possess ‘in house’ – to the overall balance of the programme that we feel might be interesting for ourselves and our audiences. This is something which lies behind some our ongoing collaborations with festival partners with a focus on, say, a particular art form, cross disciplinary, participatory or engaged work, such as past collaborations with AV Festival, International Print Biennale, and Wunderbar Festival. The potential for such projects has been in part facilitated by Vane’s move into larger premises in 2011, ones that provided a number of more flexible spaces – as opposed to the single room space the gallery first occupied – which provides the opportunity for the presentation of a more varied programme.

Within our current building (one floor in an open plan former office block that we divided up into gallery, studio, storage and office space) we also are looking to develop the possibility of artist residencies. We trialled this earlier in 2012 when we hosted artist, Hannah Campion, for over six months, which culminated in a solo exhibition of largely installation-based work in the gallery, much of it made in situ whilst the gallery was closed to the public for a month over the summer. At the time, Campion was locally based (before moving to London to study for an MA), so the residency was fairly ‘light touch’, but we have ambitions to try and create opportunities for international artists as well. In this instance, the relationship between the artist and gallery was that Campion had curated a pop-up group show several years previously and had approached Vane to include work by some of the artists we represented, alongside her own work. Therefore, there was quite a long dialogue, and a level of trust built, before we worked together. From our own roster of artists, we are also beginning to work more with them beyond showing only their own work through supporting the development of group shows curated by the artists themselves. This requires relinquishing a significant degree of control over the end product but is all part of what we believe keeps the programme interesting and adds to the aim to create a wider critical context for those artists’ work.

In fact, one of the best ways to capture a gallery’s interest is to organise your own show. Even if someone from your target gallery can’t make the show itself, it’s still a very worthwhile exercise in that it provides a context for your work and shows a gallery what the work looks like outside of the studio. Plus, just as is the case with Vane, many artists you will work with will move on to working in galleries, so additional opportunities may appear even years further down the line. Any exhibition is also an opportunity to get your work in front of other artists, some of whom may already be working with galleries, and to generate word-of-mouth recommendations for you and your work, which can be more effective than a blind approach, as well as providing the potential to get press coverage to add to your portfolio.

The most important element of the relationship between gallery and artist is trust. This is essential if the two parties are going to progress over time. This covers everything from making sure both meet promised responsibilities when putting on an exhibition, to mutually honouring the fact that both are making an investment in the work, the return from which might not be immediately tangible. For example, to promote a represented artist with confidence to a potential collector, a gallery has to be secure in the knowledge that the buyer isn’t going to be able to go to another gallery or online and find a similar work by that same artist available at a completely different price – whether lower or higher – as that would undermine the whole process, as well as the integrity of both the artist and the gallery. Any legally binding contractual agreement that may exist between the two is usually relatively short-term in nature, and if either side feels aggrieved with the other then, ultimately, the relationship isn’t a good one and shouldn’t continue. It is important to maintain a dialogue throughout, be realistic about expectations and air any concerns sooner rather than later.

Vane has been operating as a gallery since 2005. The gallery’s primary mission is to provide curatorial and development opportunities for emerging and mid-career artists and to enable critically engaged dialogue around their work. Vane promotes the work of a roster of around twenty artists, from both its immediate locality of Newcastle upon Tyne and the North East of England as well as from across the UK and internationally. The gallery also shows the work of guest artists in collaboration with other galleries and organisations, as well as participating in a number of international art fairs. Prior to operating as a gallery, Vane was a project-based organisation between 1997-2004, and presented a wide-ranging number of projects, largely in temporary venues. The directors of Vane are Paul Stone and Christopher Yeats.

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