“I’m sticking my head above the parapet with this venture so I’m trying to give myself the best possible opportunity not to get the bastard thing blown off.”
Interview by: Richard Starbuck
Could you talk about your background? What made you become a gallery owner, is it something you have always wanted to do?
My background is pretty key to this gallery venture in many ways, mostly to do with the fact that it shouldn’t be happening. The fact that it shouldn’t be happening is why I do it. My parents were grafters. My mother still is. My father died towards the end of 2014 on the same day as Linda Bellingham. My mother and father had 5 jobs between them while I was growing up. Factory work. Cleaning. Pest control. Night shifts. My mother often complained that it was all bed and work. My mother was the striver and my father was reticent and fearful. A real worrier. I’m split between my mother and father right down the middle. I want to retreat AND push on with things which is an awkward mix.
I moved to London in 2001 and worked in shops and pubs and did courses and soaked up the London experience pretty comprehensively. I read a lot on buses… The Count of Monte Cristo, The Golden Bough, Mrs Dalloway… and made art in various bedsits or surreptitiously at work. I stayed in London for 12 years and moved to Weymouth in 2013 and because of the relatively cheap rents I was able to afford a decent-sized studio - a third floor commercial unit nestled in between a clock seller and a framer. One side of my space was awash in harsh direct sunlight. I never used it which seemed like a waste of money so I bought eleven 8'x4' 18” MDF sheets and built some solid walls, put a cloth ceiling on and called the 12'x9' space Three Works. It wasn’t something I’d ever envisioned doing but the opportunity presented itself and once I had the thought, I became obsessed by it.
Could you talk about your new space in Scarborough (UK) and the journey that got you there?
Three Works in Weymouth lasted three seasons from May 2015 through to October 2017 with around 8 shows in each season. I closed during the winter months because the space depended on natural light and when the nights started drawing in the space was gloomy even by 2pm on a dull day. The people I shared the commercial premises with were nice enough but it wasn’t the right environment to carry on into a fourth year. There was the sounds of customers and staff, cooking smells and petty arguments over this and that and it was time to move on. I found the space in Scarborough on Right Move and my offer was accepted and the sale went through without a hiccup. I moved to Scarborough on the 25th February 2018 and the next day the builders started work. The gallery opened with a big solo show by Suzy Babington on 7th July 2018.
You are an artist yourself, how do you find juggling running a gallery and being an artist? Has it affected your work?
It has absolutely affected my work for the better because I get to communicate with artists over long periods and I practically live with their work for weeks on end. Young painters like Suzy Babington and James Collins and Rae Hicks I’ve watched closely and learned a lot from. I have total admiration for what they are achieving at such a young age.
Currently, I open the space from 12pm until 4pm from Wednesday until Sunday, and I spend that time listening out for visitors coming in while I’m in my studio at the back of the property working on my stuff. It’s a good set-up. The space has to open at the advertised time and so I have to be there. In that time I manage to get a lot done.
What has been your biggest obstacle and greatest achievement as a gallery owner?
The biggest obstacle was the decision to quit the Weymouth space. That was intense. While the Scarborough sale was pretty straightforward due in part to Mr and Mrs Blades - the couple that sold me the property - there was an earlier sale in Nuneaton that fell through. It was a very lengthy process of high hopes and hopes dashed after I was outbid at the eleventh hour. The estate agent played me like a chess piece off the other client and I lost. That was pretty horrible but while all that was going on I went to see the Scarborough space and my focus shifted. There was competition for the Scarborough property, too, but that’s a battle I won. I think that is still my greatest achievement as a gallery owner, and the knowledge that no one can throw me out is comforting.
The first big obstacle was buying the .org name back in 2014. I had the idea to open a space and buying the .org name meant putting it into action. It cost me a fiver but I was really nervous because it seemed so silly. The nagging question in the back of my mind was... why bother? There were a number of reasons not to bother, like the nagging thought: Who are you going to ask and why would they ever say yes? So I tossed a coin to decide it and the coin said don’t bother. I bought it anyway.
What do you look for in an artist?
Talent, confidence, a can-do attitude, ambition, reliability and focus. I have to deal with a lot of artists at any given time and, like it or not, it’s just not going to work if any of this is missing. Artists not answering emails frustrates me and it is rude, but I can live with rude so long as the show we’re trying to put together is tight. Thankfully, most of the people I work with are a pleasure to work with.
What advice can you give to young artists?
Things started to improve for me when I began to really apply myself and stopped moping about listening to the Smiths with all that silliness about curling up and dying. You have to have drive and cheek and spirit and determination if you want to stay in this business. You have to read and soak up knowledge and join the dots so that things start making sense. Have a back-up career. Be a plumber or an electrician because art rarely pays and you’re probably not going to be a star. Get real and get real quickly. That’s what I’d tell the younger me. You don’t need much. Just aim for some sort of grip on reality in the way it is presented to you. If you want to change that reality then you do it incrementally.
How do you differentiate yourself from other galleries?
I think discipline is a big part of it. I ask artists to work within a framework and it’s important they work within those bounds if the project is to stay on track and have shape. Obviously, a too-rigid approach will crush it but giving in too easily to those artists that are a bit fast and loose with the rules is not good either. I’m very hands-on and I ask artists to come under the umbrella of the gallery for the time they’re showing with me. I ask them to work with its history and enjoy going with it. I think most people like the fact there aren’t endless possibilities. It gives them something to bounce off. I build the website and photograph the show and edit the photos… because I’ve no bloody money! I’m the gallery technician and the admin person dealing with emails, proposals, enquiries.
I’m the invigilator. This means the structure, the premise - the whole ‘three works’ rule - has to be respected otherwise it could become a sprawling mess with no direction of travel. In a world as chaotic as ours, we have to navigate carefully and with purpose and vision. We have to be good editors of ourselves and our products in order to be seen in the best light. I’m sticking my head above the parapet with this venture so I’m trying to give myself the best possible opportunity not to get the bastard thing blown off. So, there are no exhibition titles, for instance. Some artists do ask if they can have an exhibition title and it’s tempting to say yes because it’s a bit awkward to say no to grown up people, but no it has to be because some of the titles I see are really daft. You can't treat people differently, either. Everybody is equal. There is no bending of the rules to suit any one individual. We're a team.
What's the future for Three Works? Any exciting new shows lined up?
The 2019 programme is pretty settled and I’m approaching artists to show in 2020. In November, the third show in Scarborough (26th in total) focuses on the centenary of the end of World War One. I’ve commissioned nine artists (three in each room) to respond to this anniversary in black medium only on large, taped-together sheets of newsprint. It’s not an easy task I’ve set. The paper is extremely fragile and tears easily but I think this is what will hopefully give the project a certain poignancy. I do all the taping together myself (my mother gave me a hand with some of them) and the artists receive the paper through the post in a tube. I’ve received four back so far, in the same tubes. They’re all great so far. Other than that, all I know of the future is that it comes bounding up. It’s running at us and it’s an uncomfortable feeling for me.
My fear of it makes me knuckle down. I don’t dismiss it as tomorrow or next week because in the blink of an eye it’s here. It’s the thought of having regrets that drives me on. I saw regret in my father’s eyes just before he died of cancer - all the things he should have done and said were in the look he gave me – and it was tragic and a wake-up call.
I still have this idea to do a travelling Three Works. Something that roams and turns up like the Tardis Police Box in Doctor Who. I think it would be really fun and would have to look the part. But I can see it turning up in Tesco and Strangeways and in some Olympic Village and in St Paul’s and in Wigan’s main high street and for one day only on the Zebra Crossing the Beatles walked across on the Abbey Road cover.
The why bother? thinking has now become why not?
Publish date: 02/10/2018
All Images are courtesy of the artist