There is a rather interesting shift in the support and encouragement of contemporary artists within London at the moment. Commercial Galleries and Auction houses are still forefront in managing the art market however artists, collaborative groups and non-commercial galleries are beginning to carve their own paths out with increasing success.
The 2015 Turner Prize win by the art group ‘Assemble’ was indicative of this shift. Whether you agree with them winning this fine art prize or not it is a nod to the historical art groups such as the Bloomsbury Set, The Situation Group (featured in Sylvia Sleighs 1961 painting on display in the National Portrait Gallery) and The London Group, founded in 1913 in opposition to the conservatism of the Royal Academy.
It is very easy to track the economic reasons as to why there is a shift back to ‘doing things for ourselves’ and if you are interested in those specific trends then recommended reading is the comprehensive Rethinking artists: the role of artists in the 21st Century by Susan Jones.
So let’s take it as read that the economy and art funding streams have had an impact on how artists work. This also means that with certain funding being controlled many collectives or groups wishing to collaborate have been placed in a ‘community art’ bracket. Funding applications having to be tailored and only accepted if a ‘community’ or borough aspect is adhered to. Specific deliverables dictated to ensure tick boxes are… well… ticked! But who does that ultimately benefit? The adaptation of an idea or body of work to fit someone else’s boundaries will inevitably reduce the quality or expression of the initial inspiration.
Some artists work well with definite deadlines and boundaries to work too. For example it is well known that artists are notoriously bad at self-promotion and marketing so often welcome guidance within these fields. However, professional support or funding opportunities for artists to share their work should come without a compromise to artistic exploration and development.
A new Gallery and Project Space in London has dedicated itself to ensure artistic development is not curtailed. It sits alongside the established art market comfortably yet offers an alternative support network and opportunity for contemporary artists.
Introducing the Art Bermondsey Project Space in association with OLYMPUS. Founded in 2015 this unique space, three galleries, three floors, three thousand square feet, is based in the creative zone that is Bermondsey Street, London. The programme of exhibitions, events and out-reach educational projects combines the power of the forward thinking OLYMPUS brand with the UK-wide reach of STATE/f22, a rather interesting UK art magazine.
To understand how this space came about you need to know the story behind it. And that starts with the publisher and longtime art supporter Mike von Joel who kindly contributed his thoughts to this article.
An Art School graduate with a business background in publishing he has created and produced various titles that all embody the same attitude and concept: that of being non-profit with costs covered by traditional advertising and sponsorship revenues. This started with New Style in 1976, then, amongst others, ArtLine, an art newspaper that ran for 16 years, PhotoIcon Magazine and most recently STATE/f22 in collaboration with Olympus. This partnership of art and photography was a natural match and started the relationship that would result in the Art Bermondsey Project Space.
The story is that after supporting pop up exhibitions and photography competitions and events internationally, Olympus’ natural next step was to develop an arts hub in London to celebrate the fusion of art, creativity and photography. They initially sourced a venue in Shoreditch, London which didn’t work out, so the next step was an approach to Mike for guidance on potential venues. A share holder of STATE was associated with the art project space in its previous guise and it was introduced to the team at Olympus as a blank canvas for their hub.
It suited their needs perfectly, could be run as a non-commercial venture and had the added bonus of being able to house the publishing arm of the magazine. This also enables catalogues and print documentation to be easily created in support of the gallery programme. Interestingly the one thing that Olympus did not want was for this creative space to purely be a photographic gallery. Instead insisting on an independent creative programme that is supportive of all art mediums. This endorses the fact that this Project Space is part of a visionary engagement of Olympus with the fine arts. Spearheaded by Olympus' executives Mark Thackara (Europe) and David Ivens (UK), the Art Bermondsey Project Space also has outreach partners in Amsterdam, Berlin and Hamburg.
Mike has total creative license for the exhibition programme. He is determined to showcase overlooked artists, collaborate with neighbours (for example the local St. Saviour’s and St. Olave’s Secondary Girls School, is embarking on a photography exhibition: My School – My House – My Street, with workshops and tutorials from leading photographers) and work with other arts institutions and collectives in order to provide an alternative exhibiting platform to the normal commercial galleries.
Olympus are of course getting recognition for this despite wanting to remain behind the scenes. Mike insisted on a small inclusion of the logo on the branding for the space. Their support means that this new Project Space is run in much the same way as a Commercial Gallery but without the sometimes all-encompassing need to make money. For every exhibition there are beautiful catalogues and the private views are already an entirely different affair to the norm. As no sales are needed, there is no-one descending on you with red dots at their fingertips. Mike feels he is the luckiest person in London for being given the job of organising the programme and managing the space. It is, he says, ‘a dream’.
As a business model for supporting the arts this has huge longevity in a rapidly changing art world. Many galleries are chasing a diminishing group of collectors. The pressure is on to expand the mailing list or they must advertise in some shape or form. Many galleries in London are struggling as higher rates begin to impact finances. The growth of social media has often unrealistically been relied on for reaching new audiences. However social media is definitely not ‘business media’, and therefore very rarely has commercial value. There needed to be a change, not just for the artists but also for the businesses within the art world.
Having a sponsor on board is the historical equivalent of having a Patron. It provides freedom for artists and businesses enabling them to develop and explore new ways of celebrating what they do. Artists are exceedingly happy to put in overtime, hang exhibitions themselves, network, approach media contacts and basically be the jack of all trades to deliver a project or exhibition if they know that there is security of creativity and finances. There is no doubt that you are able to create and deliver some amazing projects if you have a space handed to you on a plate as it were – however making it a success and ensuring longevity of reputation is key and is still a formidable task. Surprisingly some artists don’t want to exhibit in a ‘free’ gallery space. They are not happy about exhibiting their work and it not being for sale. This seems a little blinkered, especially with a central London gallery in a vibrant art neighbourhood that lists the White Cube as a neighbour. However some artists, like some galleries, are only in it for the commercial gain and that part of society will always be there.
Mike though is adamant that he will very happily introduce any artist he exhibits to any interested patron or buyer. This way any artist can meet potential purchasers and develop relationships independently of the gallery. This is unique in the current art business and harks back to the Salon exhibitions of Paris where art supporters and buyers were able to meet artists in private residencies and directly support them in their creativity.
This also offers buyers who are shy of approaching the commercial galleries a safe and generous platform to purchase art that is credible and authentic. In light of the recent Knoerdler case there is a need to look after potential buyers and reassure them that they are not buying a ‘look a like’. Perhaps buyers with an element of disposable cash can revert to building a collection of works from living artists, safe in the knowledge of having a direct link of authentication. In this way they will also create interesting changes in the contemporary art market. As Mike says it is purely a matter of deciding whether you are part of the Art World or the Art Business. The key is to remember the distinction and it is time to more generously embrace the Art World.
So let’s hope that the forward thinking brand that is OLYMPUS is leading the way for other brands to step up and embrace this style of philanthropic support. It is an area that needs monetary support to thrive and the rewards are tangible and vibrant. The 21st Century’s definition of an artist's Patron!
Carlos Puente (Spain)
Piers Secunda (UK)
The Circling Skies
unique prints using crude oil
Alan Rankle (UK)
Suse Stoisser (Austria)
Now You See It
Stephen Newton (UK)
For more information:
Art Bermondsey PROJECT SPACE
183 -185 Bermondsey Street
London SE1 3UW