"I understand what it’s like to be an artist and what challenges lie therein. I also emphasise the critical as well as the commercial, and don’t consciously follow trends or try to second guess the market. We do what we do, take it or leave it. "
Our interview with the Founder of CHARLIE SMITH LONDON & THE FUTURE CAN WAIT: Zavier Ellis
Could you talk about your background? What made you become a gallery owner, is it something you have always wanted to do?
I did make that call pretty early. I was seduced by art at a very early age, and it’s been a lifelong passion since being a small boy. I was a practicing art student with an interest in the art historical, and made the decision to study History of Modern Art at Manchester University rather than go to art school.
The way I saw it then, I didn’t want to limit myself by taking the practical route, and wanted to learn directly from the masters.
In the background I had also always been motivated to organise things, from our end of school ball to my first curated show at 18, to club nights when I was at Manchester. When it came to the end of my degree I saw two options – art history / criticism or the gallery world – and the latter was the logical and instinctive thing to do. In the meantime, I continued to make work, and took a part time MA in Fine Art at City & Guilds while I was running my first gallery. I guess I’ve always thought like an artist and a curator, and continue to do so.
Could you talk about the space you have in Old Street and the journey that got you there?
I began gallery work by interning for a day a week at a little gallery in Clapham when I was around 24. It got to the point where we needed to step things up and the director asked me if I wanted to go into partnership. We rebranded it entirely, devised a different exhibition programme, and began representing artists. The gallery became very successful and we took a bigger space and continued to evolve. Eventually I became involved with a different set of artists, simultaneous to doing the MA, and decided that I wanted to go it alone. I was in a developmental phase where I wanted to evolve critically and intellectually.
I launched CHARLIE SMITH LONDON as a curatorial project with the view of eventually taking a gallery space again. We participated in a number of art fairs and began to build a new collector base, and after a couple of years I and the artists started feeling the need for a space. In 2009 I launched the gallery in Shoreditch and developed a really strong, consistent exhibition programme. Alongside all of this I also established THE FUTURE CAN WAIT in 2007 with film maker Simon Rumley. That’s a very ambitious, unique, large scale curatorial project that has developed beside the gallery.
How do you feel the art world is changing? Do you think art fairs are becoming the life blood for most galleries?
It always changes and stays the same. Throughout my career gallerists have always discussed whether or not they need a physical space. I think it’s essential to have a full time programme that encourages the artists and gallerist to continue to develop. Art fairs are very important. They provide the environment where we get to meet collectors and build a relationship with them. Its undeniable that most galleries need art fairs, but it can’t be just art fairs. Online platforms appear to be maturing now. Like most things, when online selling platforms began it was probably too early for them. But sites like Artsy seem to be realising the potential.
What has been your biggest obstacle and greatest achievement as a gallery owner?
I love to make deals, big or small, and to take the news to the artists. Placing work with prominent collectors such as Charles Saatchi is always gratifying, as beyond the financial side I know this is going to be beneficial to the artist’s career. We all remember the crash well, and there will be obstacles such as this in anyone’s career. But it also provides a challenge, and one has to be guerrilla to overcome it.
What do you look for in an artist?
I trust my instinct 100% and it always begins with my inherent response. Undoubtedly I look for technique but I also require some kind of emotional or psychological response. I like to be challenged and then to challenge our audience. And personality and trustworthiness are also important to me. Artist and gallerist need to work together towards shared goals, and to be able to trust each other implicitly.
How do you differentiate yourself from other galleries?
I have a distinctive, collaborative and curatorial approach, and a coherent programme and stable of artists. I understand what it’s like to be an artist and what challenges lie therein. I also emphasise the critical as well as the commercial, and don’t consciously follow trends or try to second guess the market. We do what we do, take it or leave it.
What advice can you give to young artists?
Since launching our open call show Anthology I’ve realised that these can be superb vehicles for getting seen and making relationships. An artist friend once said to me, ‘it’s all very well serving up a fine dinner, but you have to have people to eat it’. Be decisive. Work hard. And everything is about context.
What's the future for CHARLIE SMITH LONDON? Any exciting new shows lined up?
I’m looking forward to our post-summer programme. Two artists who have recently joined the stable will have solo shows – Florian Heinke in September and Hugh Mendes in October. Florian’s will be his debut London solo so that’s exciting for all concerned. There are some other things in development. So, I guess watch this space…
Publishing date of this interview: 12/08/16