"On a bad day as a police officer I could have lost my life (as some of my former colleagues have) and on a bad day in this business I did not make the sale – big deal! We need to laugh at ourselves a little more, and I think that’s the biggest problem with this industry."
Our interview with founder of BEERS London and author of "100 Painters of Tomorrow" published by Thames & Hudson.
Could you talk about your background? What made you become a gallery owner, is it something you have always wanted to do?
I tend to shy away from talking about myself to be honest; however, to answer your question, I have always had a great passion and affinity for the arts. I was never very artistic (not for lack of trying) but I do have other talents that have proven to lend well in my current capacity as a Director of Beers London. What a lot of people don't appreciate is the wide set of skills it takes to operate a small business like an art gallery; many friends think its all drinking champagne at art-openings, but there are a lot of tasks - both menial and monumental - that make every day a new and exciting challenge.
I don’t think that I would have ever envisioned myself running a commercial art gallery in one of the most exciting art cities the world has to offer, but I suppose like most good things it just sort of happened. My undergraduate degree is in political science and history from Carleton University in Ottawa and then I moved to London to complete my Masters in Communication at City University. I immediately fell in love with London and didn’t want to leave and thought that I would put my skills to the test and put on a number of pop-up shows with artists that I admired around London and did quite well. That led to one thing, which led to the next, and suddenly today we are one of London's eminent young galleries.
Could you talk about the space you have in Old Street (London) and the journey that got you there?
I had a temporary space for a while on Vyner Street and then when I decided to open a full-time gallery I found our current space located at 1 Baldwin Street (right near Old Street roundabout off City Road) and thought that it would be the perfect place for a gallery. It was a new build but not designed as a gallery so we put a good amount of time, money and effort in making the space our own and turning it into a proper gallery. I often refer to it as ‘The Little Engine That Could’. I really wanted to be in East-Central London and I live nearby so the location was perfect and the area has since exploded with new businesses, galleries and shops since we opened in June 2012 – it is a thriving and energetic area very conducive to the arts. Just within walking distance are spaces like Victoria Miro, Arcade, Parasol Unit, and Stuart Shave. It’s a thriving area.
What has been your biggest obstacle and greatest achievement as a gallery owner?
I suppose the biggest obstacle has been getting the gallery off the ground in the first instance. As a green-horned (fairly) young Canadian starting a gallery far from home and without any support but my own it can be a daunting task; I didn't come with previous tutelage, training, or built-in clientele. Its all been done from the start. At the same time, that probably has been my greatest achievement as well. Five years (plus) the lights are still on and I really feel that we’ve found our stride. We've become regarded as an important up-and-coming London gallery, and I have learned a lot and actually contributed in a serious way to a larger narrative in the arts here in London but also internationally which is really rewarding.
In 2014 you authored the book “100 Painters of Tomorrow”, could you talk about the project? It must have been a great way to see so many artist's work, are you planning on publishing any more books?
‘100 Painters of Tomorrow’ was a monumental task and one that really opened my eyes to the breadth and talent we have in international arts, not to mention the amount of work it takes to mount a publishing project. The entire enterprise came about because I felt that there was a gap in the market of art-books for emerging painters; I was always reading about established artists that we all have heard about for years, or survey books on young painters, but there was nothing (to my knowledge) that existed dedicated solely to emerging artists at an international level and – for me – that is what is most exciting.
Thames & Hudson was extremely keen from the start, and lent their full support to the project. ‘100 Painters of Tomorrow’ was a huge, but remarkably enjoyable process. I am pleased to report that due to the success, positive feedback and sales from this book I will soon be embarking on my second book with T&H focusing on sculpture, entitled, ‘100 Sculptors of Tomorrow’ which we will be launching in earnest in 2017. We have a stellar jury lined up, and the process will change slightly, but I hope this marks the beginning of a legacy of books. It’s important to celebrate these emerging artists. A large number of artists included in the first book owe a good part of their early success to the publication: Michael Armitage was picked up by White Cube, just as a quick 'for instance'.
How do you feel the art world is changing? Do you think art fairs are becoming the lifeblood for most galleries?
The art world is changing rapidly now more than ever. Globalization, technology, and social media have irrevocably changed this terrain, so we have to be flexible enough to respond to these seismic changes. It has allowed smaller galleries, like myself, to break into what was once a very hierarchical system.
Art fairs have become a very important facet of my business and a great way to introduce our artists, gallery and brand to collectors from around the world. I still believe that a gallery needs the bricks and mortar of a gallery space to enable its artists to have exhibitions 'the old fashioned way'; however, art fairs really are an amazing way to expose oneself to persons who can (and often do) become patrons of the gallery for years. This may sound self-serving but ultimately I want to celebrate and share the art I believe in. This has always been something of a commercial venture. I often say that the art gallery business is unique in that we are not like McDonald’s or Starbucks or any business that relies on flow of traffic through their doors – I can sell artwork to a collector who supports our programme from across the world without them ever having to set foot into the gallery. This mostly happens when the collector is familiar with the work of the artist they are acquiring and has already met me face to face - an art fair is irreplaceable at creating that bond of trust.
How do you differentiate yourself from other galleries?
I don’t mindfully differentiate myself – I am myself and hopefully people who work with me understand that about me. I am hardworking, honest, happy and most of all I don’t take myself and/or the art world too seriously. Perhaps that is the most differing quality I may possess from many of my other art gallery colleagues. We are selling art – it is an important job and one that I really love but often – too often – people in this business become unnecessarily protective, hateful and hurtful towards others for their own gain and I will not play that game. I used to be a Royal Canadian Mounted Police Officer in Canada and I would go to work on some days and see and witness things that were horrifying, that destroyed lives in seconds and caused immediate heartbreak. For me, doing that job allowed me to put things in prospective moving forward and I feel that that experience has made me a much stronger person and also much more appreciative. On a bad day as a police officer I could have lost my life (as some of my former colleagues have) and on a bad day in this business I did not make the sale – big deal! We need to laugh at ourselves a little more, and I think that’s the biggest problem with this industry.
What advice can you give to young artists?
My advice to artists is always that no two paths are the same. Just because someone became successful and/or did well in a certain way does not mean that the same will apply to them. There is no blueprint for artists or guaranteed recipe for success. Every path is different. I tell artists who do have the talent to work hard, worry less and good things will come. On a more parental note, I would caution artists from approaching galleries or gallerists at art fairs as that is not the time and I would also caution against bringing portfolios into the gallery unannounced.
What do you look for in an artist?
I look for good art and talent, period. That said, I also look for an artist that I feel that I can really work well with and that we view the objectives and challenges similarly and that at all times we are rowing together in the same direction to make good things happen. Certainly, some times you lose but with this in mind most often good things come about as a result.
What's the future for BEERS London? Any exciting new shows lined up?
I hope that the future for Beers is a bright one. We feel really positively that we are on our strongest footing that we’ve ever been on since we started. We have truly exciting things planned beginning this fall, starting with introducing a new Brooklyn artist Ruth Freeman to the gallery with her first UK solo opening on 29 September, and then the acclaimed Andrew Salgado’s 3rd solo exhibition, opening on 11 November, which promises to be a show like no other – both in terms of the work on show and the plans he has to transform our gallery space.
We are really excited to be participating in the very well respected Artissima art fair in Turin, Italy, the first week of November with Peter Matthews, and then we will be off to Miami Beach to exhibit at PULSE for our third time with Canadian artist Thrush Holmes. In 2017 we have an incredible year with solos by Adam Lee, Sverre Bjertnes, and Dale Adcock. I am very excited by what awaits!
All images courtesy of BEERS London, photography by Damian Griffiths and Oskar Proctor.
Interview published: 30/09/16