“In those days you would come to this area and it was like the end of the world. It reminded me of those Edward Hopper paintings, those totally desolate places.” This is how Ziba Ardalan describes the post-industrial part of east London where she set up her non-profit art gallery, Parasol Unit, 10 years ago.
On a quiet street between the bars of Shoreditch and the restaurants of Islington, Parasol is still somewhere one is unlikely to happen upon. Yet the area has changed since Ardalan first visited in 2000. We meet round the corner from the gallery at celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s restaurant, Jamie’s Fifteen.
Parasol is housed in a Victorian furniture factory Ardalan bought in 2004 from the art dealer Victoria Miro, whose gallery is next door. Parasol’s series of spacious, minimalist rooms designed by architect Claudio Silvestrin makes it hard to imagine its former state. “When I came to see the space, it was dilapidated,” says Ardalan, who is immaculately dressed and has a poised, thoughtful manner.
Born to an “old, established family” in Iran, educated in Geneva in the 1970s and having lived in New York and Zurich, Ardalan arrived in London in 2000 knowing very few people – particularly art world types.
“When you come from the outside and you start doing something like this, you just have time to think and work. You don’t have time to network,” she says.
Ardalan was initially reluctant to seek funding “because it was important to establish myself”. But an exhibition of the British artist Darren Almond she curated at Parasol in 2008 caught the eye of the Arts Council, which has supported the gallery, on a project basis, since then.
Although new to London, Ardalan was not new to the ways of the art world; she had co-founded and run the Swiss Institute in New York from 1986 to 1989. Her career path had been unusual: she gained a PhD in physical chemistry from the University of Geneva before moving to New York with her young family and studying history of art at Columbia University. While there, she applied to become an intern at the Whitney Museum of American Art and, in 1984, she guest-curated a Whitney exhibition of the American painter Winslow Homer.
Running the Swiss Institute, Ardalan was able to use her expertise – pairing Swiss with American artists to widen the audience for exhibitions – but she craved more control over programming. She had long followed the Indian and Chinese contemporary art scenes and was one of the first curators living in the west to visit Ai Weiwei, some 15 years ago.
At Parasol, she has introduced often little-known artists to a London audience. The Scottish artist Charles Avery had staged smaller exhibitions in Edinburgh and London and represented Scotland at the Venice Biennale before his solo show at Parasol in 2008. It was the first time The Islanders project – Avery’s document of a fantastical island populated by natives and colonials, beasts and gods, realised in pen and ink, woodcut and taxidermy – was shown in its entirety.
“I’d never done a show on that scale before,” Avery tells me. “It was a risk on Ziba’s part.” The exhibition was a critical success and travelled to Edinburgh’s Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam.
I ask Avery if it’s possible to characterise the kind of artists shown at Parasol and he replies, after some thought: “Artists who are slightly outside the mainstream.”
Ardalan says that she established Parasol along the lines of the Swiss Kuntshalles – non-commercial institutions with no permanent collection that stage temporary exhibitions of new work, allowing them to “react to the art of their time”.
With this in mind, Parasol has provided a platform for recent graduates through its Exposure programme, selecting three artists to exhibit in the gallery each summer since 2009. These shows have launched the careers of several young artists including the Royal College of Art sculpture graduate Leah Capaldi, who since being at Parasol in 2010 has exhibited at the Zabludowicz Collection and the Serpentine Galleries. She describes Ardalan as her “fairy godmother”, telling me “[Exposure] was the prize to win – not only because you got a show at Parasol Unit but because of all the support you got, and the opportunity to see how a really professional gallery is run.”
Ardalan works closely with all the artists she shows, and prefers visiting artists’ studios to art fairs. She is critical of today’s “star curators” jetting around the world, and argues that the old distinction between American and European curators – the former spending a good portion of their time fundraising; the latter, assured of state funding, largely untroubled by such concerns – is changing.
“Most museums would like to double their footprint and that means fundraising. The art world has become international, so curators are sent everywhere, almost like missionaries. But we have to be honest: the more you travel the less time you have to think about art.”
Ardalan made a one-time donation to Parasol when it was established, which currently covers around 60 per cent of running costs. She believes the gallery deserves the public money it receives – its education programme, for instance, is oversubscribed, with some 35 families on the waiting list for workshops.
But she wouldn’t want Parasol to be entirely state-funded as that would limit her freedom: “I say ‘I want to show that artist’ regardless of receiving funding and regardless of whether that artist already has a lot of followers. Often the shows that receive the least visitors are the most successful.”
This is not the sort of thing the art world normally says on record – and Ardalan freely admits Parasol’s relative financial independence puts it in a “fortunate position”.
But like any fast-growing non-profit organisation, Parasol needs to raise money. To mark its 10th anniversary, it is gearing up for two auctions this autumn – at Sotheby’s and the online platform Paddle8. Funds will go towards expanding the gallery’s education programme and, more practically, its storage facilities. Artists who have donated work include Avery, Almond, Antony Gormley, Yinka Shonibare and Bharti Kher.
I ask Ardalan if she ever considered building an art collection rather than opening a gallery. She looks surprised. “Collecting is so different from what I do. Before I bought a piece of art, I curated shows.” She stops to think for a moment. “I guess I’m not a gatherer. I don’t go to a gallery and think, ‘I want that.’ I am at peace with myself: I have seen so much art. This is very satisfying.”
Paddle8 online auction opens on September 16; the Sotheby’s auction is on October 18