London's small art galleries thrive

Monday 25th May, 2015

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Independent art galleries are opening around London with great success. They can't compete with big museums but live off their passion and help other artists do the same.

It’s a classic tale of a little guy versus a much larger beast.

Bigger art galleries and museums such as Tate Modern attract tourists and millions in public funding. But for some enthusiasts, creating a small venue has become a business model and a real passion.   

“Unlike the bigger galleries we have decided to defend only emerging artists,” says Marine Tanguy, the artistic director and one of three partners at the Soho Revue Gallery.

The gallery opened in April and was founded by three young professionals, India Rose James, William Pelham and Tanguy.

“We wish to be the new breed of Young British Artists and bring back artistic youth to Soho,” said Tanguy. “We love the idea of discovering talent and hopefully they will be the next major artist.”

Young British Artists is a term that emerged during the 1980s to describe exhibitions by a group of artists that included Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Marc Quinn. They gained media attention in the 1990s for their wild-living and shock tactics.

While they wouldn’t say how much money they are bringing in, Tanguy said they did very well with their first exhibition and are looking forward to their next show “Rubber Soul.”

Viktor Wynd, founder of the Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art and Natural History

The museum and art gallery sector in England is worth £2.6bn according to an Arts Council report released in February. This includes grants, income from investments and earned income.

“As a commercial gallery I felt that we were significantly outcompeted by bigger galleries with bigger budgets,” says Viktor Wynd, an artist and the founder of the Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art and Natural History.

After eight years, Wynd decided to close the commercial gallery and reopen as a museum. The Museum of Curiosities, located in Hackney hosts two exhibitions a year in the upper gallery while the basement is home to natural history items and oddities. The museum now relies on admission fees to finance exhibitions and has to compete with galleries like the Tate and the National Gallery.

The National Gallery received a grant-in-aid of £25.5m from the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) in 2012/13, according to the gallery’s annual report for that year. Similarly, The Tate Gallery received about £24.4m  from DCMS over the same period, according its own report.

“I don’t feel in competition with the bigger galleries. I feel mentored and inspired by them,” Tanguy says. “Being advised and inspired is key in our business.”

But for some galleries it is not just passion for art that drives them, but a desire to see underused space utilised more effectively.

We aren’t trying to be in competition with bigger galleries. We try and be available to everyone

According to Anne Noble-Partridge, director of the Crypt Gallery, the space at St Pancras Parish Church was originally designed in 1822 for coffin burials. The last burial there was in 1855. And so in 2002, in the company of the 557 bodies still buried there, it was opened to artists to use as a gallery.

“It isn’t a huge money making venture,” says Noble-Partridge. “But the money earned goes to St. Pancras Church. It goes to the upkeep of the church."

The Crypt Gallery charges an artist about £600 for two weeks and £35 a day. Last year, the gallery had 27 exhibitions with roughly 150 artists.

“We aren’t really interested in making a lot of money. It’s more important that we have people and that the space is used,” says Noble-Partridge. “We aren’t trying to be in competition with bigger galleries. We try and be available to everyone.”

While some galleries may not be making a lot of money from their work it is clear that there is a love of the lifestyle.  

Viktor Wynd would not comment on how much money he earns annually. “We have two full-time employees and two part-time employees. And one day I’d like to be able to get a new car,” he says.

He doesn’t try and compete with the bigger galleries, though he boasts his cocktails are better. The admission fee for the Museum of Curiosities is £4, which includes a cup of tea or coffee and a biscuit.

He says: “I feel like I am a very small fish in a very large sea. But the difference is I’m quite happy to hang around the reef, enjoy all the pretty colours of the coral within my grasp, without the desire to wander off and grow into a whale.”