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Demystifying galleries: an art workshop with Art School Africa and Everard Read Gallery

Tuesday evening marked the second in person art workshop hosted by Everard Read Gallery (@everard_read_cape_town_ ) and Art School Africa (@artschoolafrica) where a fascinating dialogue into building and navigating the art scene as a gallery space was discussed.


The panel: Lena Sulik, Mpilo Ngcukana, Emma Vandermerwe and Luca Evans

Director Emma Vandermerwe of Everard Read sat on the panel again and was joined by following curators and gallery representatives: Lena Sulik (99 Loop), Mpilo Ngcukana (16 on Lerotholi), and Luca Evans (Under Projects).


Different types of gallery spaces where invited with one of the commercial gallery spaces being represented by gallerist Mpilo Ngcukana from @16onlerotholi

Gallery 16 on Lerotholi

16 on Lerotholi is a space that uses art as an essential tool to foster understanding, empathy and solidarity within the Langa community, in South Africa at large, within the African continent and beyond. Langa is a township in Cape Town, South Africa. Its name in Xhosa means "sun". The vision of the gallery is to redefine the African Dream by empowering African artists with a platform that is invested in their artistic development and commercialisation. There is a strong emphasis on empowering the children and youth of the area through art.



Gallery 16 on Lerotholi

Another panelist was Lena Sulik who spoke of her experiences with @99loopgallery and Everard Read Gallery giving key insights into the various careers available in the gallery world and working in different capacities like social media marketing, art handling and saving fish.



99 Loop Gallery

Artist ran space @under.projects was represented by co-founder Luca Evans looking at more of an experimental curatorial space. She spoke of the benefits on a non profit space that allows for more freedom and also some of the limitations like being dependant on patronage but how community engagement and personal creative growth and new opportunities high light what such a space can be.



Under Projects

The panel tackled the many questions from their captivate audience well and gave detailed perspectives from their own lived experiences navigating the art world.


They discussed their various backgrounds from finance, art degrees to theatre to STEM.


In contrast to the first workshop that looked at the gallerist perspective of the courtship of cultivating working relationships with galleries, this workshop focused on how galleries on all levels need to court artists and collectors in a similar yet different dance of connection and synergy.


The conversation opened with the topic of starting a gallery which posed the first big question on the night: Why open a gallery?


What is the compelling reason? The panel was honest over how hard an industry the gallery world can be. Beginning a business is always tough and as such it is important to have your personal why.  Finding your vision and then finding people who resonant and share the mission is the key to success.


It was recommended to start with end in mind. What would be your ideal outcome? What kind of space will it be? Which artists do you want to represent? What type of art? What price range?


To balance finding sellable art but also focus on the meaning behind it and how it fits your ethos is a difficult dance. Further identifying your key target audience and interacting with them is something that takes time.


In this day and age beginning a gallery space can begin online which eliminates a lot of barriers that use to exist in creating a new gallery. It allows for a new gallery to grow and find a footing allowing them to grow into larger spaces.


The panel was asked on how they are finding the online change and shifts with galleries going more virtual and online:


It was noted the increased reach and access to bigger audiences are wonderful. Yet that  the experiences of art in person can not be replaced.


The recommendation was at the beginning point to surround yourself and build a team who are passionate and talented people. Rather than outsource services aim to grow and build a team that you can nurture, look after and pay well because that will become an one of the key investments in your business.


Further finding similar existing gallery spaces with similar price points to your vision can be used as a navigational point to reference as you build your gallery.


One key question asked was where to put initial investment or capital into your artistic space.  The answer was it is dependant on each team/space. It is important to look realistically at your existing team even if it is just yourself and see what are your strengths and your respective weaknesses. Through this analysis it was recommended to put that first investment into the areas where you are lacking be it in marketing or building websites or more.


The section came to a closing on the note of how important it is to pay attention to all the details. Mpilo Ngcukana articulated how each element is key in building a cohesive, wholistic experience: from the website to business cards to the lighting of the space to benches to opening hours and more.


There was emphasis placed on building relationships. Be it the relationships with your team, your artists, the PR marketing , the strangers you encounter online and the art collectors you meet in person.


Similar to the outline in the last talk which was focused on artists: it is through networking that you slowly build life long connections which foster and turn into long and personal relationships with collectors. These relationships will empower your business and become the community that will be the ecosystem where your galleries lives.


The section ended on the beautiful humbling note that each gallery was a new space at some point in time. By acknowledging every gallery starts at the beginning and everyone begins by doing everything it reflects how it might take time but it is definitely possible to grow in the gallery world. It is by being involved in artist development and building the community together that growth occurs over the long term. Similar to cultivating a garden and nurturing seedlings before long you see that they will grow.



It was also noted how supportive and open the existing art community is to new spaces and how sad it was for the community as a whole to see small spaces lost due to the difficulties that the lock down and Covid 19. There is space and need for new spaces in the art world even as we are in a difficult time. It is only through rebuilding that the community will continue to grow.


The second topic of the evening was the various careers in the Gallery Space:


It was outlined the various roles that make up an artistic space. From the Everard Read Gallery perspective of having multiple gallery spaces and working internationally with price points worth millions of rands to non profit project spaces like Under Projects who are still in their infancy with the four co-founders tackling all the various roles. These polarising oppositions were grounded by the voices of the two commercial  galleries 99 Loop gallery and 16 on Lerotholi in between.


Everard Read Gallery, Cape Town

The outline of the careers mentioned could be a full article on its own but in simplified terms broke down in tiers as follows:


Founders

Directors

Curatorial team

Front of house team

Marketing team

Registrar

Administration team

VAT team

Accounting team

Logistics team

Stock team

Store room team

Front line team

Portfolio and documentation team

Cleaning staff


The large scale of teams for each of these roles reflect the size and legacy of Everard Read Gallery that was established back in 1913.



Everard Read Gallery, Johannesburg

Smaller galleries navigate each tier with a small dedicated team that tackle various roles or if in the very beginning are tackled by the founders as there is no staff yet.


Luca gave a great tip for if you’d like to grow your experience and learn from being in an artistic space. Established artists often require assistants and this role is a great way to gain hands on insight and knowledge.


This section was concluded that as virtual spaces grow and develop roles may change and be reformed but the core business roles and key notes of managerial, finance and administration will always be needed for a functional business model.


It was noted that museums are a different creature completely with different roles and that there are many more roles in the art world beyond this discussion. This was just a starting point.


The workshop hosted at Everard Read Cape Town

The third portion of the workshop was dedicated to discussion. The audience could ask questions getting the comparative feedback from the various gallery spaces. A rare and empowering opportunity for young gallerists.


Notes on how to navigating meaning and commercial sales was discussed with the key suggestion to not demystify the experience too much and work with the potential clients needs. Let the client engage with the art on their terms and focus on building the connections. Respect each potential client who walks into your space and keep in touch. Build a database of emails for your newsletter and future shows.


Queries into how not to burn out in such a fast paced and constantly shifting field was questioned. The question led to some chuckles and a faint flicker of tiredness in the panelists’ eyes. It was agreed that this field is tough and that not enough attention is given to personal care. The best way to navigate it is to have strong boundaries, build a strong team, plan for the long term and that delegation is key.


To survive you need to have a strong work ethic and passion like many creative fields. This is a demanding and relentless industry but the panel agreed that it was a blessing to be in a position to work with art they manifest ideas into realities and be integral vessels for art to be showcased and sold.


The cliche note of its wonderful to work in a field that feed the soul was noted and how important it is to remember to look at the art. Because that is what drives this all.


There was a question over how to support artists and where knowledge can be given to people who wish to support artists and want to be a part of the infrastructure of the creative sphere of South Africa.


Art Africa aims to formalise how you can help and actively be in those different roles as supporters. They aim to build more workshops and opportunities to understand and support the arts and art careers in South Africa. There is also VANSA the Visual Art Network of South Africa. These are two key online platforms where creatives can go to look for careers, opportunities and more in the art world with a South African and African context.




An interesting dialogue of how Luca balances being an artist and working in a curatorial role occurred. She noted how most practising artists aren’t alone in studio anymore but it’s by encountering and engaging with the world that artistic practise grows and develops outside of what could be achieved in isolation. She recommended curating your resume depending on the role you are applying for and that often you need to build the space you envision you want to be in.


Lena offered the idea of a curator being a type of an artist and a type of creative that uses the completed artworks to create an experience through a space and by building collections cultivate moments for viewers to enjoy.


The nature of this field is a balance of strategic and hard work. The flow of markets and what collectors are looking for can be unpredictable and success is a relative term for each gallery.


You need to balance curatorial and conceptual visions with sales and bottom lines. Curatorial practise grows over time and with more experience you can build up a role you want that plays to your strengths and interests.


There was more discussed like notes on art insurance with how to build the safeguards to protect art in transit and how to handle instances where artworks are damaged.


Then how key art handling is and the key importance of paperwork and how documentation and condition reporting at each step is needed. Documenting the work from idea to process to completion and filming the process is becoming more and more key in the growing online world. The difference of what high quality photos and content can make is staggering.


There was a note of how difficult shipping has been over last two years and specifically the last six months. This has been in part to the complications of Covid back in 2020 and how many companies closed and changed but also due to the fluctuations in the strength of the rand in international markets were shipping can be so high that sales are lost as a result.


Unfortunately there are no short cuts with shipping and the underlying thought was it is difficult but key to gallery sales.


One of the last key questions asked was how to cultivate an audience and a collection client base:


It was broken down that you should check up and check in on existing clients. Create a database and build your email list and once you have that monthly give updates through newsletters. Give prospective clients the option if they want to view the full portfolio.


It really is a courtship and romance that galleries navigate. One between potential clients and another one between the artists they represent. A galleries needs to balance these and act as a channel between the two.


Art School Africa founder: Julia Buchanan

These workshops highlighted a beautiful example of fostering and building the art community in Cape Town. It was a rare opportunity to be able to ask questions and gain insight into what happens behind the curtain.


The quality and vast amount of knowledge that was fit into a three hour workshop was priceless. It was mentioned that the workshops will be made available on the Art School Africa platform as they were filmed. So if you did miss out you can still watch them and if you want more information in the meantime on artists navigating galleries my previous article outlines the first workshop.



Thank you to Art School Africa and  Everard Read Gallery for hosting these workshops. They were a resounding success and I personally can not wait for the next one.



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