"Peckham has a thriving, creative community and it felt like the right time to open a gallery here."
Our interview with founder and Director of Bo.Lee Gallery: Jemma Hickman
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
I’m originally from Devon and spent my childhood climbing trees, hunting for slow worms and collecting dead insects - memories that often inspire my exhibitions. I moved to Bath to study Fine Art and starting working for a commercial art gallery while studying.
The art market has always fascinated me and my final year of university was spent delving into the psychology of buying and looking at art as a commodity.
I found myself more interested in other people’s work than making work of my own and quickly realised that curating and gallery management was the direction I wanted to head in.
After working for two galleries in Bath, I decided that I wanted to pursue my own vision and embarked on launching bo.lee in 2009 at the age of 25. My decision to set up the gallery at such a young age (and without financial backing) was met with a great deal of scepticism and I faced many challenges early on. This only drove me further, and following 5 successful (although at times difficult) years in my Bath gallery, I moved to London in 2013 to take bo.lee to the next level.
After years of running the gallery from your own home in Dulwich, you decided to open your first permanent gallery in Peckham, London. How did this come about and why Peckham?
Since leaving my gallery space in Bath it had always been a dream to open a space in London but rent, rates and a busy schedule meant that the journey to opening a space took a little longer than I had planned,
When I moved to London I rented a townhouse in Islington before buying a house with my husband in East Dulwich which doubled up as a viewing room for the gallery. I initially wanted to know the market before committing to a space, which I felt could be restricting, but I discovered that my clients liked viewing work in a more domestic environment and so having a viewing space in the house was a perfect stepping-stone and forced me to think more creatively. It also allowed me time to travel to international art fairs, and to spend more time on artist studio visits.
Having explored multiple areas of London and several pop-up spaces, I found myself drawn to the area that was right on my doorstep. Peckham has a thriving, creative community and it felt like the right time to open a gallery here. When this space came on the market I saw the opportunity and went for it. I’ve always gone with a gut feeling, and this just felt right.
How do you differentiate yourself from other galleries?
I try not to compare myself too much with other galleries as it can be distracting, and I think although from the outside we look different, we are all still trying to do the same thing and on a similar journey.
I’d like to place myself somewhere in between a project space and a quality commercial gallery. I choose work that I love, and I try not to get too caught up with fashion or choosing work for its commercial appeal. My ritual has always been to stay true to myself and if I like the work surely other people will!? I pride myself on getting to know my artists, the gallery is as much about them as it is about the space. To really understand their work and to be able to communicate their passion to collectors I need to know what makes them tick. I never want to feel like a production line, I want each work of art that comes through the gallery to be special and unique.
Why bo.lee? Is there a story/meaning behind the name?
Bo is my nickname and Lee Anne is my middle name. It often surprises people when they first meet me, in fact when I first started I had an 8 page feature in China Contemporary Magazine!
What do you look for in an artist?
This is always such a hard question for me to answer. I don’t always know what attracts me to an artist, and often people will introduce me to work expecting me to like it, but I don’t.
I guess it needs to speak to me in some way and to make me think. Even if it makes me feel sad I need to feel it is doing its job. I particularly like work where I can see the craft, skill and some depth but sometimes work that I don’t typically show can strike a chord but I don’t always know why, or at least not initially. I am often surprised by the subconscious reaction that people have towards a work, and I try to follow my instinct when selecting work and choosing to work with an artist. Consequently I very rarely take work by submission as it is as much about getting to know the artist as it is about appreciating the work.
An artist/gallery relationship is very important and I work hard to establish trust and loyalty. If we are both committed to building something together, it can be a very fruitful and exciting journey.
What has been your biggest obstacle and greatest achievement as a gallery so far?
Moving to London from Bath felt like I was starting all over again. I had a great network of loyal artists, collectors and visitors, and I have worked hard at trying to keep these relationships while making new contacts in London.
Moving to London opened up the doors to so many more opportunities such as working with exciting artists, travelling to overseas fairs and now opening my first London gallery. After seeing so many galleries close their doors over the last few years I never take what I have managed to achieve for granted, and it certainly hasn’t been short of obstacles along the way!
The gallery world is full of smoke and mirrors, it is extremely competitive and my challenge has always been to not get sucked into the politics and focus on my artists and the reasons I started the business in the first place. First and foremost It is a business, and I have had to work hard get the right balance between the commercial side and my passion.
How do you feel the art world is changing? Do you think art fairs are becoming the lifeblood for most galleries?
Art fairs are very important, but there is a very high risk attached to them and identifying the ‘best ones’ that suit your work can be challenging. Art fairs are the gateway to a wider audience, but artists want gallery shows, and collectors/buyers still like to visit galleries and experience the work in the flesh without distractions.
Social media and buying online is increasingly important and it can work well however there is no substitution for seeing work in a gallery setting.
The best advice I was given when I first opened bo.lee was to find my recipe, and ultimately for me it is a combination of good art fairs, a slick social media presence AND an attractive gallery programme which has taken me a number of years to develop and will continue to evolve.
What advice can you give to young artists?
Make work that you love, don’t follow anything, or expect fame and fortune. A true artist doesn’t create work just out of choice, it is an inert feeling, something to nourish and build on.
Take time to really work out what drives you, what inspires you and stick to it. Dig deep and stay true to yourself.
On a practical level, really think about your material, the quality of your canvases, brushes and how you want your work to be displayed. Don’t get knocked back too much by a bad response from a gallery. The right gallery/dealer/curator is out there, you just need to find them.
What's the future for bo.lee Gallery? Any exciting new shows lined up?
In the short term we have an exciting exhibitions programme which includes two mixed shows, Mindscapes and As The Crow Flies. Both will include gallery artists alongside some more well known ‘ names’ such as David Hockney, David Mach and Cornelia Parker.
We are also working on developing bo.lee projects, which launched in Bath in 2013 as a platform for working outside of the gallery setting. Previous shows have included exhibitions in churches and historical buildings, and I have my eye on a number of sites in South London for a large sculpture show.
A big space and busy schedule means that the bo.lee team is growing too, and we are also looking forward to working with guest curators who will add a different vision to the gallery programme.
In the long term, my aim is for bo.lee to become a destination for good quality well curated exhibitions. I look forward to building on the relationships I already have with my gallery artists, giving them the opportunity to flourish with solo shows, and also getting to know new artists that I have wanted to work with for some time but not had the space to develop these relationships.
We celebrate ten years in January 2019, which is an amazing achievement that I am very proud of, and no doubt there will be a very big party to toast the next ten!
All images courtesy of bo.lee Gallery
Interview publish date: 15/02/2018