What Does It Take to Build a Successful Gallery in London? Two Generations of Emerging Dealers Hash It Out
Vanessa Carlos and Freddie Powell on the trials and tribulations of pulling off an atypical commercial space.
The London gallery scene is not an easy landscape to navigate. High rents and stiff competition combine to make not only the prospect of opening but of staying open feel like a herculean challenge. Yet it is these very constraints that have led some to take alternative and more creative approaches to what a gallery could and should be.
Freddie Powell opened pocket-sized Ginny on Frederick last year in a former sandwich shop that shuttered during lockdown. His program is informed by the kind of temporary and ephemeral exhibitions more commonly seen in artist-run project spaces, and many of the artists who he has exhibited have never shown before in London. It has become known as something of an incubator for new talent, and a place for collectors to get in at the ground level.
The experimental approach of Ginny on Frederick is directly influenced by a generation of ambitious galleries who sprung up a decade ago, including Carlos/Ishikawa. Opened by Vanessa Carlos in 2012 in an industrial yard in Whitechapel, East London, the gallery took on artists who were straight out of art school. In 2016 she launched the gallery-share program Condo, which brought together galleries across London as hosts for colleagues from around the world, a form of exchange and collaboration that has continued to have ripple effects within the scene.
In that same spirit of knowledge-sharing, Carlos and Powell sat down together on a cold afternoon in early spring to reflect upon the challenges of opening their galleries, and what it really means to put the artist first.
Vanessa Carlos: I came over from Brazil to go to art school, and I quickly realized that I couldn’t be an artist. I think artists have an extraordinary level of commitment that’s like: “I don’t care what anyone thinks, I’m going to keep making it, even at the expense of my own stability.” I was full of doubts and I found it paralysing.
During my university holidays as a student, I waitressed to be able to take on unpaid internships at Gagosian and Parasol Unit, and when I graduated I started working the next day at Stuart Shave Modern Art on a maternity cover because I already knew I wasn’t an artist.
Freddie Powell: I studied art in Providence, Rhode Island, and I was also pretty terrible at it. When I came back to London I interned at Union Pacific and a smaller gallery, before running the bookshop at White Cube. That led to an interest in how artists think and how artists see the world. I figured having a gallery would help me to spend more time with them, but also allow other people to spend time with their ideas too.
I found the space on a walk during the pandemic. Seeing the sandwich shop with the white tiles reminded me of the spaces I used to visit in the Lower East Side in New York. I always knew I wanted a tiny space because it was originally only going to be open on the weekends while I kept my job at White Cube. Thankfully I had that job because it allowed me to program in a way that was very artist-led, which was always my ambition.
I am still without heating or toilet, but it is flexible because it’s really affordable, so it’s allowed me to experiment and figure out what I want the gallery to do or be.
VC: The only criteria I had when I was looking for a space was something that would limit the ambitions of the artists as little as possible, within what little I could afford. I had been working at The Approach for six years, and I’d also co-founded a not-for-profit project space called Wallis Gallery with Ed Fornieles, who I went to art school with and now represent, which was very performance focused. I was curating performance events freelance for the Barbican and the Royal Academy on the side.
I never thought of opening my own space; I guess I didn’t have the confidence for it. Then one of my childhood friends needed to put some money into a new business for visa reasons. I was really scared of leaving my job and after a lot of very anguished deliberation, I thought, okay, I’ll do it. And then, within six months, she didn’t want to do it anymore. It was so stressful; I remember calculating how many days I would have to be waitressing on the side to keep the gallery afloat. But then things got going and Oscar Murillo started taking off. Weirdly, the timing worked out perfectly.
That was 11 years ago now, and we still don’t have heating in the gallery space. David Zwirner remembers that when he came to see Oscar’s show, he could see his own breath in the cold. He said, “My underfloor heating is also broken!” The yard that we’re in is like a microcosm of London: you have an accountant, a Nigerian church, a mosque, a tattoo studio, a ghost kitchen, and the drug dealers.
Issy Wood has her studio right next-door in the yard. We’ve all been neighbours pretty much this whole time and it really functions like a community. We’ve got three units now and probably with the combined rent we could just get something in Mayfair, but I don’t want to. The floor always looks terrible but it communicates to the artists: do whatever the hell you want. That’s why I love it still.
FP: How did you shape your program in the beginning?
VC: When I opened here in 2011, the artist scene was still very white and male. Because of my own background, I was always interested in colonial histories and also in different perspectives of class, race, gender. In the West, especially in post-Trump USA, you see a lot of galleries who had zero interest suddenly going, “Oops, I’ve got to fix my program up.” I felt frustrated that the majority of artists being shown were offering the same perspective.
FP: I was very influenced by the generation of galleries who were about five to ten years older than me, which includes Vanessa at Carlos Ishikawa, Leopold and Angelina at Emalin, and Grace and Nigel at Union Pacific, which were the London galleries that I looked up to when I came out of art school. I feel like there was a gap for a new experimental gallery scene to emerge, which I think has happened with Rose Easton off Herald Street and Isaac with South Parade in Deptford, among others.
VC: In London the three queens for me are Cornelia Grassi, Maureen Paley and Sadie Coles. They run such different galleries and they’re almost incomparable, but I think that they’re each authentic and thoughtful in the way they do things. I make decisions within the business in a way that ensures experimentation is as uncompromised as possible. A colleague who has a gallery in New York used to say to me, “I look at your website and I think, how the hell do you stay open?”
Some colleagues who have galleries will say to me, “I really need to take on two painters this year.” I’ve always hated that approach. It is a business, of course, but within that you can work with people genuinely and authentically, you can remain curious and excited, and you can have integrity.
Some of the painters I show have been very successful in their generation, but it’s worked out from a very un-cynical place, and we started collaborating before they had any real interest from the art market. I’ve never been someone that’s like, “Let’s test out a show to see if it sells first.” I’ve always been more like, “Let’s get married in Vegas.”
FP: Ginny is still mainly open only by appointment, which means I can pitch the gallery to every single person who walks in, whether they are a student or a huge collector. I still think the tiled walls and the small space of Ginny enable it to cosplay as a project space, so the collectors I have seem to be more on the braver side.
And, in the same vein as Vanessa, most of the artists who I work with are also friendships of mine because I’m really interested in who they are and what they do. When we have such a close relationship, it can be an encouraging arena for them to make fantastic things, and that ultimately leads to a better experience for everyone.
VC: I have a very close relationship with many of my artists, and some are like family at this point. For some galleries, their client is the collector. My client is my artist. For me, art is an emotional language before being a visual one.
I think of my role as gallerist at times as quite pastoral or maternal, but in a loose definition of maternal, meaning providing a safe and nurturing base. I enjoy accompanying the growth of the artists as people, not just the development in their work and careers. I find this particularly fulfilling because I’ve chosen not to be a mother in the traditional sense and I don’t really come from a family.
This is maybe an overshare but I was diagnosed with cancer when the gallery was only two years old, and the gallery was absolutely vital in getting me through the experience. The gallery is a vehicle for connecting to people and ideas and a set of relationships. For me, it’s like, once you have enough to pay the bills and buy food and feel safe, life is literally too short to be prioritizing anything but intellectual and emotional fulfilment in this strange job we do.
FP: Condo also offered a way for galleries to form new relationships with each other. I think it provided a blueprint for a less competitive scene, which I’m experiencing now. Sadie Coles recently hosted Ginny on Frederick in their shop space for free, and it’s been one of the most generous experiences I’ve had.
VC: When I started Condo, I was frustrated with the art world as a reflection of the neoliberal world at large, where corporations thrive and independents get killed off. It was about asking what a different culture for galleries could be, with collaboration and support, rather than competition.
For me, the idea of galleries being competitive with each other is really absurd as we’re all doing such different things. If we all thrive, we make the whole industry stronger. There’s room and a necessity for all of us within this weird ecosystem. Plus if corporate structured galleries kill off smaller “competitors,” they won’t even have anywhere to cherry pick artists from later.
It was also based on different ways of exchange and in enabling experimentation with fewer financial constraints, because the danger in that existing overly commercial system is that the art itself can become really bad. I think everyone has to take responsibility for what we are co-creating, including artists, not just fairs and auction houses and galleries.
FP: Before we finish, I wanted to ask one more question. If you could have done anything differently, what would that be?
VC: I think to have better boundaries earlier on, it’s taken me some time to learn. One piece of advice that I think is useful for younger galleries is to remember that what you’re offering to artists is not just a space to show in or just a sale. When I started, my production budget per show was, like, £500. You have to learn to get beyond that insecurity that if you say no to something you can’t afford, that the artist will go elsewhere, and I still have those moments all the time.
What we are doing is not just providing a showroom with some walls and making some transactions. A gallery could just do that, I guess some do, but then why didn’t we go and choose some other profession that was much less risky? There is value in what you have to give the artist, and that goes beyond the money.
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