Do it yourself: pop-up galleries
Even with a limited budget, it’s remarkably easy to set up your own space
By . From Frieze daily edition
Published online: 17 October 2009
What resources do you need to start up a contemporary art gallery in London? You must have inexhaustible reserves of energy, a large helping of missionary zeal, and a healthy dose of chutzpah. A network of friends willing to help out on a voluntary basis probably helps. Surprisingly, though, you don’t need much money.
These are the consistent responses from a disparate group of young gallerists and emerging dealers currently active in London. All have benefited in one way or another from a decline in property values, which has meant that some spectacular venues have been available that would normally have been redeveloped or occupied by commercial operators.
The minimum budget required to put on a show, according to curator and organiser Katie Guggenheim, is zero—provided you can beg, steal or borrow a space. Guggenheim—a former art student who changed her name by deed-poll as an on-going work of art—has two shows on during Frieze week, both in artist-run spaces she has for free: “Guided Tours”, which launches at Auto-Italia South East in Peckham on 17 October and will be an ongoing project; and “Melrose Place”, inspired by the 1990s television show, at the James Taylor Gallery in Hackney (14 October-1 November).
For “Guided Tours”, she invited three curators to write fictional tours of the space that will be photocopied, so very little budget was needed. “Melrose Place”, however, required the construction of an ambitious loft-style apartment stage set, most of which she hoped to source via sponsorship in kind.
Guggenheim operates at the opposite end of the financial scale from her namesake museums, eschewing questions of finance altogether: she neither pays for the art she shows, nor sells it. This may sound like idealism, but Guggenheim sees it as a practical solution to the problem of arts funding: “It depresses me when people spend their day writing funding applications. They won’t do anything unless they have a big budget, so they’re always waiting for money. It’s much more interesting to just get on with things.”
Aspiring art dealer James Tregaskes turned to the salon model to solve the problem of premises, transforming his small Chelsea flat into an occasional gallery, First Floor Projects, to exhibit work by artists yet to have a London show. Total costs for the April start-up, he says, were pretty close to zero: “I may have spent £500 on booze, printed cards and framing, but I designed and set up the website myself with a bit of help.” A friend with an arts PR background, Hannah Magor, joined as associate director, which keeps publicity expenses to a minimum.
Tregaskes, 26, has worked for some big names in contemporary art, including White Cube, Timothy Taylor and Corvi-Mora, and is manning the VIP desk at Frieze. Starting his own gallery at the height of the recession, “the idea of another white space in the east or West End seemed wrong—even if I could have afforded it,” he says. Instead, he wanted to show work in a domestic setting, often the destination of any work he sells.
His first show, artist Lucy Barlow, was already selling her drawings, so Tregaskes had a price guide: “I want to sell at approachable prices, with respect to the work and the artists. I don’t want the artists to lose out—although I don’t mind if I lose a bit.”
Tregaskes is determined not to be confined to “safe” paintings or works on paper, and plans a show of video art next year. His long-term ambition is to live in a large house in Bloomsbury with the ground floor set up as a permanent exhibition space.
Henry Little founded HRL Contemporary last year, while still an MA student of art history at London’s Courtauld Institute. He is a fast-talking 23-year-old with the drive to have organised a show in Frieze week within walking distance of the Regent’s Park tent—“Corpus”, in The Old Chapel until 19 October.
“At Frieze last year there was so much art that was simply badly made,” he says. “What I want to do is promote artists for whom skill and craft are still important as a vehicle for much deeper meaning.”
Six months ago, Little noticed an empty Victorian chapel opposite a pub in St John’s Wood. Formerly used as a television studio, it had been unoccupied for some years and was now owned by a property developer known to support Jewish causes. Little wrote to him saying that he wanted to put on a show featuring a talented young Jewish artist; apparently tickled by his boldness, the owner gave him the go-ahead.
Once inside the large-scale building, Little realised he had to “think massive” and set about finding 200 works from 17 artists. His initial budget was £6,000 from the proceeds of a previous show, a bank loan and his job as an art consultant at the London School of Economics. But the cost of re-wiring the building to meet safety standards doubled the bill, which he could only meet through the fortuitous advance sale of a painting for £12,000.
HRL Contemporary operates on a standard 50-50 split with the artists, and prices at the “Corpus” show range from £500 to £12,000, with preparatory drawings on sale from £50. “I’ve set prices by trial and error, not too much error I hope,” he says. “I use the sales I have already made as a benchmark, and work everything out from that. We’re being reasonably realistic, but we’re not going to be underselling anything.”
Although Hannah Barry started her eponymous gallery in 2006, at the height of the art boom, she has set the standard for young gallerists, going from strength to strength through the recession. In three years she has established Peckham on the art map, moving from her initial headquarters into a warehouse space and running a summer outdoor sculpture park on the top floor of a multi-storey car park. This year she has hosted curators from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, ran the “Peckham Pavilion” in Venice during the biennale, and taken on a New York-based associate, Jason Marquis, to give her international reach.
All this has been achieved by Barry and her business partner Sven Mündner with a single, long-term loan of £1,000 from a friend; the rest has been organic growth of sales. “It’s difficult at first with unknown artists because you can’t charge very much for the work, so you have to sell a lot of it,” she says. The rest she puts down to hard work and a conviction that the artists she represents have important things to say. She is equally certain that it is her responsibility to make sure they reach their public.
“As far back as I can remember I wanted to hang up pictures,” Barry says. Now 26, she has a degree in art history and spent three years working for Erica Bolton, the doyenne of London’s arts PRs. There’s an utter seriousness about Barry. “Everything I do is about work,” she says. “We’re not here to have fun.”
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