United we stand: how galleries are working together

From the Renaissance bottega to the art factories of Hirst and Koons, artists have long recognised that they get by better with a little help from their friends. Institutions have been slower to catch on. As public funding dwindles, the scramble for sponsorship gets ever more rivalrous as museums vie to woo patrons with the glossiest gala dinner and most highbrow curatorial outing.

In this climate, the danger is that more diminutive organisations, which cannot muster such temptations, will go under. Now many are fighting back by banding together in a bid to resist eclipse by their mightier brethren.

One of the pioneers of organisational collaboration is the Triangle Network. Started in London in 1982 by the late Sir Anthony Caro and Robert Loder, it originally aimed to bring together artists from the US, Canada and the UK for two-week workshops. Thirty years later, it has mushroomed into a web of 30 organisations across the world which participate in regional networks of residencies, exhibitions, workshops and events. “Triangle makes us feel connected,” explains Bangladeshi artist Tayeba Begum Lipi, a founder member of Britto Arts Trust, an artists’ association in Dhaka which, together with three similar organisations – VASL in Pakistan, Khoj International in India and Theerta International Artists’ Collective in Sri Lanka – make up Triangle’s South Asian axis. Lipi also sees the network as a “little protest against the existing situation” of tension between the participating countries. “When we are talking together, travelling back and forth, and sharing ideas, we feel a collective energy.”

Even in less politically charged regions, pulling together reaps rewards. In London, nine small-scale institutions have come together into an entity called Common Practice. “It’s a forum to discuss issues and opportunities and focus on the importance of small-scale galleries on the UK art scene,” explains Joe Scotland, director of Clapham-based space Studio Voltaire, which is a member.

Scotland admits that at times Common Practice meetings feel like “a group counselling session”, but that may be their strength. Before joining Common Practice, Polly Staple, director of Chisenhale Gallery in east London, remembers feeling “quite isolated. [It was a huge relief to have a space] where you could discuss issues of staffing, funding and resources.”

Now Common Practice has inspired a branch in New York whose members include the venerable not-for-profits White Columns – which was co-founded by Gordon Matta-Clark and Jeffrey Lew – and The Kitchen, where artists such as Vito Acconci and Cindy Sherman had early shows. There are also moves to set up a branch in Los Angeles.

Collaboration can have economic benefits. During a recent round of funding from Arts Council England (ACE), three Common Practice London members – Studio Voltaire, the Chisenhale Gallery and The Showroom in north-west London – decided to make a joint application. The ACE grant, entitled Catalyst, promised a sum of money on condition that the recipients were able to match it through funds they managed to raise independently.

“We knew that applications for Catalyst would be very competitive,” explains Scotland. “We thought presenting a joint argument for the Arts Council would be more effective because suddenly we weren’t just one more small organisation.”

We are standing in Studio Voltaire’s exhibition space, a vaulted hall just off Clapham Common in south London, whose wooden ceiling and dainty windows testify to its history as a Victorian Methodist chapel. Right now, it’s chilly because the heating is off and the gallery empty save for two rugs whose zany patterns were designed by the German artist Thomas Bayrle. “You might recognise those,” says Scotland.

It turns out they are off-cuts of the carpet that covered the floor of the Frieze London art fair in 2012. “Frieze very kindly donated them to us,” he continues, explaining that they will now be sold through House of Voltaire, a pop-up shop-cum-gallery through which the organisation raises funds every Christmas. As we repair to the warmer environs of a coffee-shop, I reflect that the birth of such enterprises is indicative of the challenges an organisation like Studio Voltaire now faces.

Ostensibly, Studio Voltaire, Chisenhale and The Showroom occupy similar territory. Their success is not measured in visitor numbers, which are paltry in comparison with bigger institutions. Rather, they are recognised as incubators of new talent, hosting some of today’s biggest names – Rachel Whiteread at Chisenhale, Mona Hatoum at the Showroom, Marvin Gaye Chetwynd at Studio Voltaire – at significant moments in their early careers.

In this climate, an organisation’s longevity depends as much on its powers of persuasion as its brilliant exhibitions. But such skills, which involve in Staple’s words “laborious and time-consuming” funding applications, require dedicated staff. In spaces where just a handful of people are employed, such luxuries are a pipe dream.

The core, then, of their proposal was a request for a development manager to concentrate on fund-raising.

Already, such a collaboration set their bid apart. However, explains Emily Pethick, director of The Showroom, they felt that it wasn’t enough. “We needed an [artistic] programme that would make it exciting.”

The result was How To Work Together, a three-year project that will see nine artists – three in each space – create work that responds to the question posed in the title. The programme kicks off at Studio Voltaire on April 11, when Latvian-born painter Ella Kruglyanskaya unveils her pictures of women in the workplace. On April 30 at The Showroom, the Australian artist Gerry Bibby will open an exhibition that explores the relationship between an artist and the organisation that hosts them. On May 2, Chisenhale Gallery presents a project by Céline Condorelli on work and friendship.

Equally pertinent is an online think-tank where the theme is already being addressed by a variety of artists and writers.

To ACE, How To Work Together appealed instantly. “It was one of only two applications that were collaborative, and the only one in visual arts,” observes Peter Heslip, ACE’s visual arts director. Particularly impressive was the trio’s history of co-operation through Common Practice. “We had feelers out for collaborations that were just a marriage of convenience. To collaborate well, organisations must be strong, confident and ready, and very honest about their self-interest.”

Although the organisations had experience of co-operation, How To Work Together, which demanded that both imaginative and commercial secrets be shared, demanded a new level of trust. “We have been very open that this has been a challenging process,” admits Staple. “It took us six months just to come up with a Memorandum of Understanding.”

The key, she says, has been honesty. “We are very direct with one another. We have a face-to-face meeting once a month and we really try to honour that.”

Their approach seems to have paid off. Thanks to the efforts of their new development manager, Elisa Kay, the trio have actually exceeded their match-funding target for this year thanks to donations from contemporary art fund Outset, Bloomberg and the Jerwood Charitable Foundation.

It looks as if collaboration is a watchword for the future. One of the reasons How to Work Together attracted ACE was that its ethos would appeal to potential donors in the technology sector. The latter are always seeking new ways to improve their networking skills and information flow. “The tech industry sees R&D from a very wide perspective and artists are crucibles of new ideas,” points out Heslip, who thinks the swirl of creativity in the online think-tank in particular could prove of interest to companies such as Google and Samsung.

In fact, he is so impressed by the trio’s strategy, he has borrowed it. As a result, the last round of Catalyst funding required that applicants join up into consortia in order to make their bid. “How To Work Together got us thinking,” explains Heslip. “Their method made perfect sense as a way of sharing the limited resources that we have.”


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