“You can sell anything – you can sell Damien Hirst dots; you can sell a duck; it’s just a matter of finding the right market” so said a chap called Toby or possibly Tony who described himself as the proprietor of the Brick Lane Gallery. He became suddenly shy about giving me his name when he found out I wrote a blog, explaining that he had had so much bad press on the internet. It’s true: google Brick Lane Gallery and you will find tons of indignant artists who point out that Brick Lane charges artists for showing their work. In other words, it is a vanity gallery. I was there because somebody I knew from the University of Brighton had invited me and as I was curious about what sort of place it would turn out to be, I went along for the private view.
Unfortunately, my friend had left by the time I got there but the artists who were still around seemed pretty satisfied with the service they were getting. The Gallery is well situated, the paintings were well displayed and the organisers certainly know how to put on a party as the place was crowded with young people. if. as I suspect, not many of them were buying, that probably goes for lots of private views. There was also a bloke who described himself as an international journalist. Really?
The first thing to say about the art is that it stood up reasonably well: it looked contemporary. Though there was nothing there that I would classify as outstanding, it was above the normal provincial village hall art show, so clearly some sort of selection procedure had been going on. As you might expect, some were decidedly better than others and there were a couple I thought veered towards the awful, but I have seen that in conventional galleries as well. Some of the artists I thought distinctly promising; I particularly liked these paintings by CREO who is only 19.
Toby/Tony reckoned that they rejected about 40% of those who applied. The way it works is that you can either rent the whole gallery at somewhere around £2,500 a week, and he says some artists do so frequently, or apply to pay for some wall space – about £500. The gallery organises exhibitions around themes. This week it was portraits. So is it worth it? When pressed, T/T reckoned that somewhere approaching 40% managed to break even though he claimed that somebody recently had sold £7,000 worth of stuff and that another had been offered three exhibitions as a result. But he was keen to stress that it wasn’t about selling – more about experience.
Incredibly, that is what the artists who were exhibiting there also said. He had clearly done a good job on structuring expectations. What is it about artists that makes them so uninterested in money? I blame it on Van Gogh. I think there might be a false syllogism there: “Van Gogh was a great artist; he didn’t make any money; I don’t make any money, therefore….”
Really, I cannot tell you the number of times that someone over the past couple years has said to me in a vaguely sanctimonious tone, “I’m not interested in selling.” There is even one chap on the MA course, (Hello Cliff) who expounds the view that artists should not charge and art should be free. This is all fine and dandy but artists have to live, and canvas, paint, clay, stone, plaster, tools, transport etc all cost money, often a lot of money. So there are choices: either artists have a day job, or a private income, which subsides their art, or they manage to persuade the Arts Council or similar to pay them a fee and people get to see it for free, or they sell their art just like any other product.
The traditional way is to get galleries to accept your work and they take a commission, but not everybody can find one, Or you can enter competitions – that tends to cost money too – but not everybody will get anywhere with those either, or you can try to sell on line and perhaps get lost in the crowd, or hire a room of some kind and organise your own show. That can be expensive in itself. This is where galleries like Brick Lane offer a real service: they take the hard work of organising an exhibition off your hands. Where I think they can be at fault is in suggesting to people that there is kudos in being selected. That is even worse if it leads artists to get involved in significant shipping costs.
Having an exhibition at the Brick Lane Gallery or any other pay-to-be-in will fail to impress anybody who has any knowledge of the art world. But such galleries are not the same as vanity publishing which gives authors a hard copy of their oeuvre but leaves them to do the selling. The vanity gallery is more like self-publishing on Amazon which for the very, very lucky few can lead to fame and fortune. I visited the exhibition on a day when 50 Shades of Grey, the ultimate rags to riches self-publishing success story, was being advertised on buses..
Meanwhile, the people going up and down Brick Lane, possibly thinking of buying a painting, will have few thoughts of how the gallery makes its money and I would guess are just as likely to buy a painting from there as from anywhere else. Would I buy a painting from Brick Lane? Yes, if I liked it enough, of course I would. The prices were generally very reasonable. I certainly don’t rule out the possibility that you could find something really good there. Would I try to sell there? Well, I might be tempted if I were producing some work which I knew to have public appeal, some ducks perhaps, and I thought I could make a profit. Despite T/T’s views,that would be my sole criterion. But if I were part of a group show there, I probably wouldn’t put it on my CV.