An interview with the founder of YPA
Vishal Sumarria has always appreciated and surrounded himself with art. An early indication of this being the fact that, aged 13, he would head from the North West suburbs into central London to visit art exhibitions. This was a solitary pursuit as although his parents enjoyed classical concerts they never visited exhibitions and his peers at school were not interested. The only definite visual art influence was his father’s passion for photography, a medium that Vishal himself would come to explore.
After following the traditional route of GCSE’s, A-Level’s and a Foundation course and due to family circumstances, Vishal found himself at the College of Fine Arts in Sydney, part of the University of New South Wales. Predominantly exploring and learning photography but, due to the schooling system being similar to the USA, he was able to choose further modules including Russian cinema and art history.
Despite these eclectic topics Vishal continued to develop his own brand of street photography. Inspired by photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, Mary Ellen Mark, Annie Leibovitz and Paul Strand, the idea of being able to make a living as a documentary photography was appealing. It is true that with examples such as Life Magazine and even the Sunday Times Magazine in the 90’s offering platforms for social photographic commentary this was a real option. However, with the internet and social media outlets growing rapidly these platforms became few and far between.
Vishal therefore explored alternative avenues. Whilst in Australia he worked in a photography shop and interned in private galleries as well as the not-for-profit space: Art Space, not dissimilar to the UK’s ICA. This was his first real foray behind the scenes of art galleries and how they are managed. Around this time Vishal also concluded that he’d prefer to continue his photographic practice as a hobby.
But how to then make money and build a career? Vishal was keen to develop his new interest in the production side of the art world. He moved back to London as at that point the London Art scene seemed more vibrant and enticing and started working at small galleries and photo agencies. It was during this time that he met Will Lunn, his future business partner. Will had recently graduated from the Courtauld and was soon to be known as the ‘Baby Gallerist’. When paired with Vishal at only a few years older this was probably one of the youngest gallery partnerships to launch in London. They initially co-managed the William Angel Gallery, Peckham before transforming the house of an artist into a venue for exhibitions and pop-up shows. This enabled them to then undertake independent exhibitions, gain further connections within the art world and build their own client base.
A unique step was utilising the trend of working with big developers, including Great Portman Estates, who offered their retail spaces when empty. The most significant step however was exhibiting in the Project Section at the London Art Fair. They were spotted by a member of the Contemporary Art Society which led to a patron offering their garden for a two-month exhibition during the summer months of 2010.
With this success behind them it was inevitable that they wanted their own gallery space in order to capitalise on the connections, collectors, artist and clients they had made. In 2011 they opened Sumarria Lunn, in Mayfair, London. How was this possible? The answer lies with Will who was incredibly entrepreneurial and after a meeting with the manager of the Grays Antique Centre he’d secured a space. Although the rent was rather eye watering Will was confident that it could work so Vishal agreed to try it for a year. Despite, as Vishal himself says, still being green behind the ears they started representing artists from William Angel and the 2010 garden show. This provided a solid base to establish interesting and strong contemporary exhibitions. Additionally they placed non-represented artists into group shows which kept the gallery alive and brought in new audiences. It is worth noting that this untraditional process alongside the risks taken by exhibiting non-selling artworks and unknown artists ensured that the reputation of the gallery rose.
Vishal had found his niche. He enjoyed discovering new artists, attending studio visits as well as managing the press and media campaigns, creatively seeking alternative ways of raising the gallery’s profile and reaching new audiences. This included actively inviting neighbouring businesses to use the space and host events. Vishal has always struggled to understand why other galleries don’t engage with their local communities. It is a vibrant resource that offers new contacts, sales and networking that should be tapped into.
The gallery ran for three years, only closing in 2014 due to the fact the landlord almost doubled the rent. Will moved on to open and direct Copperfield Gallery in Southwark. Vishal himself decided to focus on Young Professionals in the Arts (YPA which had been launched in 2009. He’d spotted a gap in support networks for professionals working in the arts. Meeting people is difficult in London and within the arts it is essential that you network and grow together within the industry, you cannot rely on attending private views alone. Vishal gains satisfaction in connecting likeminded people who are working to move forward creatively and share knowledge.
It also provides a platform for individuals to meet and be represented for who they are rather than the company they work for. This is a level of human interaction that is often lost within bigger brand identities. For example places like Tate, White Cube, or the Serpentine Gallery, project a brand image into society. What you forget is that all who work there are individuals, bringing their own unique angle to develop and support that projection and should be recognised for their individualism. YPA is a perfect platform for this.
As with most successful things YPA started quietly: 5 individuals meeting in a pub. Then the ripple effect began, whenever Vishal met someone within museums, galleries, art agency spaces he would invite them to join. This organic process meant that it rapidly grew, boasting 972 members today in the UK and 50 in the New York arm that opened in 2015. After a year the group began meeting in venues, gallery spaces and generally exploring the art world.
Maria Marro-Perera then came on board to work with Vishal. A great networker who is involved with the Association of Women Art Dealers and who manages the social media accounts for YPA. At this time they removed the age restriction of 35 or under. The group was initially modelled on the New York based Emerging Leaders of Arts which was no longer relevant, so, despite being stuck with the name, it was decided that the group would be open to all. The only criteria is that you cannot be an artist or a student.
Vishal was of the mind-set that he would ask any space or gallery to host their group, they could only say no. Those that did missed out, commercial spaces are reliant on sales and connections and should explore as many events as possible. You never know when that one person will arrive who will purchase art, or is connected to the next ‘big thing’. Vishal does feel that there has to be a change (especially in the face of the referendum) now more than ever it is important to work together in order to maintain a global platform. It is probably too soon to tell but the fear is that the London Art scene will get less international and some of the diversity it is known for will dissipate. This may of course mean a new focus on local artists, however the reach is limited, so creative solutions to networking and building audiences is essential.
One contact that did ‘get it’ was Hauser & Wirth who offered them a private view in their private room. A fantastic opportunity for the group that also showed how accessible Hauser & Wirth are to new audiences. Another prime example of a successful YPA event was the collection visit and in-conversation session with the collector of female artists’ work Valeria Napoleone. As a collector she keeps an eye on the trends within society especially those surrounding women and the arts. This engaging talk blended well with the YPA attendees who brought their own stories to the occasion. Questions were asked from auction house professionals to community arts activists – delivering a rich conversation that was interesting and educational for all. It is this type of success that makes Vishal feel it is all worth it.
Vishal’s next aim is to explore more alternative and ambitious venues for their events: insider access to more artists’ studios, undiscovered spaces, championing smaller galleries or unknown artists. And on a personal note Vishal is looking to engage in more creative projects himself. Exploring, curating, developing arts venues or overseeing a project where he can make a big difference. Continuing to hone his skill in connecting people and utilising his contacts positively. With the legacy so far of Vishal Sumarria it is a pretty dead cert that this new chapter is probably only a page away.