Portrait of a Director of an Artist-led Space in Leicester
The blue neon lights flickered on. I blinked and almost missed them. It was that queasy time in the early evening when the light is soft and pink. The sky was washed a hazy something, clouds hanging low over the pointed roof of the building, and I dithered around outside. I didn’t want to wait in my car, didn’t want to go inside and wait alone at a table for two, didn’t want my thighs to sweat and stick to the black leather seat in this heat. It was late Spring, but it felt like vicious Summer - a balmy night, wasn’t it? Cool breeze, spindly bugs dancing above, between my the crown of my head and the burnt orange glow of the streetlamp.
‘Hey! Sorry!’ A voice from behind me, he approached from the main road. ‘So you found it alright?’
I laughed, soft and through my nose. I had been here before, a few years back.
‘Before the pandemic?’
Yes. That’s how we measure time now, isn’t it? Maybe it was 2018, when I was more angular, when I had a bob and something to prove. That was the last time I visited. I made a special point of trekking out to Melton Road because everyone said Leicester sports bars are a different vibe, a next level compared to the ones in North West London. I hated that they were right. We ate Veg Manchurian in the dark restaurant while a drunk man sang ghazals loudly at the bar. He wobbled on his stool under the phone flash spotlight from his friends, gathered round him like a halo. I went upstairs to find the toilets and instead found myself in the banqueting room, a man in a sequinned sherwani was singing rowdy wedding songs into a wired up karaoke mic. He reached his hand out to me and I blushed; drunk and full of my own piss, Mac Ruby Woo lipstick pressed into a greasy crescent against the dent of my chin.
‘I probably haven’t been here since 2018 either,’ he laughed, easy and calm. ‘Not on purpose, I think I’m just still on lockdown a bit, you know?’
I did know, so we stood together in happy silence for a moment. He gestured at the door and I led the way in.
We were ready to order straight away. I knew my sports bar favourites and he had his usual. The waiter peeled off into the dark towards the bar and came back with two pints of Kingfisher. The glasses were dewy, crying little puddles as we settled into each other’s company. It had been a while, but the internet is a funny place. We’d both had updates and small interactions, intermittent through the distance.
‘I’m not really sure where to start?’ He shifted in his seat, elbows resting on the table in a pitched lean.
I’m still working on my interview style, I told him. I haven’t quite got the hang of it all yet. He chuckled as I flipped my notebook open to a fresh page.
‘Shall I describe myself for you?’
That’s always the hardest bit. I don’t think I’d be able to produce a neat description of myself on the spot, but I continue to ask people for this. I was glad that he’d anticipated it, glad I didn’t have to ask and put him on the spot before we’d even begun.
‘I grapple with this all the time, but I’m still never quite sure, you know? I guess I was an artist first? I think that’s pretty common in the artist-led world, right?’ He laughed, a short laugh that carried through the half-empty restaurant. ‘I’d think of myself as an artist first, but I did just officially become qualified as a curator. I did an MFA and it all feels formalised now. At least, I think.’
I nodded, sipping frosty beer as he weighed it up.
‘Artist slash curator? Artist hyphen curator? I don’t know. I think I use those terms as shorthand, though, so I don’t have to get into talking about what those two words actually mean.’
I tilted my head, squinted, asked him to return to what he said about being an artist first.
‘I am an artist, yeah. I think I’m an artist? I think a lot about this idea of curators being failed artists. It’s probably true in most cases, but I’m always interested in what a failed artist actually is. What’s a successful artist? What’s the mark that we’re judging people by in terms of success and failure, how you set out your practice and goals. Like, I still make work - but it’s superseded massively by having to run a building. It’s not bad, it’s also superseded by the enjoyment I get from that, sure. But it’s like my money, effort and time. So I’ve been thinking about that recently, and not just in relation to myself.’
As self-descriptions go, his was pretty neat. He was the co-director of an artist-led gallery in Leicester. It was how we met, years and years ago when I was a baby critic. Back then I used to feel like an alien or a time traveller, zipping through wormholes and spying on all these scenes. I’d bounce from UK city to UK city, reporting back to the mothership via internet intercom. The artist-led world felt sprawling, baggy and buzzy, an esoteric place full of social rituals and little closed pockets. It took me a while to realise that artist-led didn’t have to mean warm IPAs and art-bros with shit trainers. It could also mean fun, spontaneous or risky activity that didn’t find any other outlet in this big mad art world ecosystem.
I found it interesting that, for him, being an artist came first. His identity as an artist helped form his identity as a curator. It took me a while, but as my identity as a critic became more serious, I started to feel too embarrassed to make art. It was more than just baseless self-consciousness, the embarrassment felt justified. As I invested more time and effort into becoming a better writer, the way I processed thoughts and ideas changed. Writing became the primary mode for all the little bits that would normally be explored and exercised by making art. Maybe I was just never that invested or actually good at making art? I couldn’t tell and, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t particularly care about the loss of my identity as an artist. Being a critic felt more natural, it was an identity that fit me better, served more of my needs on that little hierarchy pyramid.
I wanted to ask him if he ever felt the balance tip, if he ever felt a crunchy gear change between the two. But it didn’t feel like the right question. So we sat in thoughtful silence, just for a bit, each thinking about the tension and smooth transition of all these jobs.
‘I grew up in Leicester. It’s kind of a pretty normal story. I worked at Starbucks, had EMA too, and I was just going out all the time. I thought maybe I wanted to be a film director, but I was also good at painting. My parents ran a community arts organisation, so I grew up with the idea of creativity being quite normal. But I just wanted to keep my head down and become a really good painter. Loughborough was a bit quieter, I thought I could be more sensible there. So that’s where I went for my Foundation and BA.’
I asked if he started putting on exhibitions while he was at uni, and he nodded. He talked me through his history of self organised student shows; the ways that they went about practicing the act of exhibiting, empty in-between spaces, DIY life, ephemeral and fast, the energy and satisfaction he got from playing around with it all. It made sense with what I knew about him, the enthusiasm he had for the rare magic that can only really be conjured through the awkward tension of display.
‘After a while, we started doing open calls and chatting to students from other unis too - like Nottingham Trent and de Montfort. That was really exciting because we were meeting people from other institutions - outside of London it’s not really like that. Like that connection isn’t that common, so it felt special.’
I smiled, nodded. It was a rare excitement I couldn’t relate to, but that I was keen to understand. Going to art school in London was like being at the centre of a Catherine wheel, furiously spinning. I couldn’t imagine an art school experience where connection and overlap was special or novel.
‘Outside London, I think you just have to make what you want to see, because otherwise all the shows are just local painter painting flowers or celeb portraits, in a pub. We just had to do it ourselves. Otherwise you’re working in this void. And even London feels far away or irrelevant, in a way. We’d go on a uni trip to London, do the usual rounds of the Tate Modern or the Mayfair galleries, and the best bit would be going to the pub after it all or whatever. We weren’t really absorbing all that stuff. It wasn’t until one of my lecturers told me about Moot gallery, and I thought it was really interesting. That was probably the first thing that really got my attention, something I was excited by.’
I raised an eyebrow and he explained; Moot were an artist-led gallery in Nottingham, now shut, they were active from 2005-2010. They used to be in the building that went on to become 1 Thoresby Street. I nodded as he spoke, trying to find a smooth way to voice my next question. Nottingham is a slightly bigger city, very close to Leicester. It has a bigger scene, more variety, right on Leicester’s doorstep. I didn’t understand the dynamic between these two cities, didn’t know how to go about asking about it in a neat way.
‘I don’t fully understand it. The cities are so close and people have theories, so there must be hard data and stats to back it all up. But I really don’t understand why there’s such a huge difference in the creative lives of both cities. Nottingham is a similar size, there’s a history of similar industries. I think there were just some really good artist groups there at the right time, that stayed there? I only half-remember this but it was something like: Nottingham had more studios and artists working per person, in Europe, some crazy stat like that.’
One city having the density or quantity must feel a bit like a vicious circle, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
‘Activity generally generates more activity, yeah. That’s not to say there was nothing in Leicester before us. We weren’t building on nothing, but it was a bit under the radar in comparison. You wouldn’t even know it existed now because there was no record of it, no one was really there to document it.’
I nodded, letting his good point hang in the air. I wanted to ask what he meant, but I didn’t really know if it’d be possible for him to answer in any certain terms. I guess I knew the kind of thing he meant, but I got the impression it was ephemeral. The vague vibe of something was enough for me to believe it.
‘The other thing I wonder is, when the Arts Council deal with Leicester…’ he sighed, tilted his head like he was trying to find the right way to say this. ‘I think it’s got this idea that people in Leicester are not as culturally engaged? They probably are, but just not with contemporary art.’
I looked at him, puzzled for a moment until it clicked. Letting out a sigh of realisation, I asked him if he thought that was racialised.
‘Yeah, I mean, Nottingham is probably way more white and middle class. Leicester has a huge Asian population, so there probably is a bit of that. The Arts Council just think Leicester has low engagement with culture, but it’s just not the kind of culture the Arts Council are providing. It’s through other means.’
I nodded and wondered what contemporary folk culture looks like in cities in 2022: clubs and weddings and fast cars, music, video games, the internet and maybe films (sometimes). Yeah, it must all feel like a vicious self-fulfilling prophetic circle. The Arts Council thinks a city has low engagement with Culture (capital C, ™️), they don’t put as much effort or investment into that city’s capital C culture, engagement with more casual folk forms takes precedence, so the Arts Council thinks a city has low engagement - you see? Cyclical - cynical, probably true. It was just my best guess though.
‘I could talk forever about the landscape of a city like Leicester. Asian people growing up in Leicester have been culturally engaged in things other than Fine Art. Nottingham just has more indie kids, more bands and more I don’t know.. I don’t know for sure if it’s about white people or not?’ He sighed, ran his hand over his head in thought. ‘I’ve just never wanted to live in Nottingham. The buzz and scale of it has never made me want to be part of that. I’ve always wanted to embrace Leicester’s less cool vibe. Growing up, you’d always have to go to Nottingham for gigs, all the bands would always go there and just skip Leicester. It made me think let’s just make stuff in Leicester rather than go somewhere else.’
That hometown pride, of wanting to invest time and effort into the city’s cultural life, is powerful. A deep-seeded thing that it can be hard to explain as motivation or driving force, but a thing I understood and recognised within myself too. I asked him if that was why he came to set up the gallery space.
‘I think yeah, it must have been. Not that we had a chip on our shoulder or anything, we just wanted something good to happen in Leicester.’
I love a founding myth, an origin story, so I settled in ready to hear it.
‘There was this guy at the council, I think he used to be an artist? He really helped us with setting up the space, I think because he always wanted there to be a gallery in the area he oversaw. He showed us round the building we’re in now, kind of had it all in mind as a plan. He got in touch with me and my co-director because he knew we were organising our own shows around Leicester. Just casual stuff, shows in empty spaces, self-organised stuff. And yeah, he was really keen that something like us existed, really keen to support us in getting set up. He negotiated with landlords for us, which was really the main thing. I think navigating that administrative architecture is one of the most difficult parts of the whole process. You’ve got to figure out who owns the space, get in touch with estate agents. As a new graduate or young art student, you can’t really strike up those conversations, can you? Imagine, you can’t just rock up to an estate agent and say hello, we want to take on this building.’
Maybe in an ideal world, this wouldn’t feel like a ridiculous interaction. But space is property, an asset, not a functional requirement that can be easily accessed. So we laughed at the idea of walking up to an estate agent and asking for space, even though it shouldn’t be laughable.
‘That’s why there are things like East Street Arts in Leeds.’
I pulled a face, involuntarily. He nodded like he understood, but his point still made sense.
‘No, but seriously! They’re models that act as the in-between, a legit front. They handle that relationship with the developers or landlords. If we had to do it ourselves, we wouldn’t be able to find anywhere cheap enough. To negotiate with those people is a skill we don’t have. Having people like that guy in the council, I just think - I don’t know… We’re lucky to have them.’
I hummed in agreement because, regardless of what I think, regardless of politics and sticky problems, things have got to get done. Somehow, however it manages to work out, creatives have to figure out ways of setting up their own spaces. I asked him if it was just insane luck, all the chips falling in the right way. He tilted his head and squinted, thinking for a moment, before readjusting the question.
‘The other way people do it is to get it for free, but that’s just not secure. So the space comes free and you’re just there for as long as no one else wants it. That’s what we had when we first began. But it’s too precarious to be sustainable. Maybe for the short term, or as a halfway point to work around things, but that model doesn’t have longevity.’ I murmured in agreement, while he settled in to tell the founding story in full.
‘We both came out of different art schools, you know? We didn’t know each other when we first started the space. We’d both been involved in student shows, we just kind of knew each other from The Scene. It was this guy from the council who played matchmaker with us, he showed us round the space on the same day. We looked round together, had a conversation and both moved in. But at first, we were two separate groups and we took it in turns to curate a show a month.’ He glanced up at me and laughed at the look on my face. ‘Don’t ask me why, it was so dumb. We had 10 shows in the first year! Isn’t that crazy?’
I shook my head in disbelief, at the pace of it and the stamina that must have taken. He took my cue again, and without making me ask, he told me why.
‘We thought we’d lose the space! The gallery used to be huge too. Now it’s probably a third of what it used to be, because we made way for more studios so we could make a bit more money. We took time to get into the swing of it, so it took a lot of adjustment. Back then, it was your classic no ones getting paid and we’ve all just graduated…’
He was fiddling with his glass, and we both looked down at it. The drippy circle of water leaking out in a radius. I nodded slowly. It made sense that no one got paid at the beginning. As much as I hated it, I wasn’t surprised. We don’t live in an ideal world, and it can be aimless or painful to spend time wishing for the good bit to come along sooner. Things have to get done, someway, however it manages to work itself out.
‘Yeah, no one got paid in those early days,’ he sighed.
I asked him what changed, when did it change, what pushed them over into a new way of doing things?
‘We were knackered and we just - we couldn’t do it. We started putting in funding applications and at that point, it made more sense to just do one together. Me and my co-director, from all the way back then, we were both in a position where we could free up more time. We were both from Leicester and our friends weren’t, they all had to work full time. We just held on the longest.’
I told him that often, it feels like making a living in the arts is a war of attrition. You get to make it if you’re the last one standing, some cosmic endurance test. He nodded in agreement.
‘A lot of people couldn’t get jobs in the arts in Leicester and had to leave. That’s always the tricky bit. I was living at home with my parents, close to the city centre. I was working in a cafe at an arts centre, sometimes doing a bit of bar work. Then I split a one bed flat with my girlfriend at the time, so it wasn’t too bad. I mean, it was tight with money but I always knew I could just move home. I always had that stability, so it ended up working out.’
‘Most of the time, we call ourselves an artist-led gallery. Sometimes we say project space. We’ve been trying to figure out how to use art centre, because it felt less gross. But… that actually feels more gross as I say it to you now. We know we’re not a gallery in the capital G sense, so maybe artist-led fits better. It can be useful when you’re talking to people who are more in the art world, you can just use it as shorthand. But,’ he shrugged, ‘it’s a pretty useless term.’
Something about his delivery of that line made me laugh. We both chuckled at the uselessness of the shorthand, the contracted terms that were supposed to make our lives and conversations easier.
‘I guess it just means you’re a bit DIY, you’re probably not selling any of the work, not getting paid too much and it’s all bit messy - I don’t think we operate with that model these days, not anymore. But I guess that’s our roots, so we can still have it. To be honest, it’s silly but the way we describe the space, the terminology we use, it just depends on who we’re talking to.’
I asked if the definition changed when they spoke to funders. It was a loaded question, but I wanted to talk about money, the terms and conditions involved in getting it.
‘So we’re only funded by the Arts Council, and with them it usually depends. It’s interesting, I think sometimes they tell you outright what they want to hear. It can be pretty clear cut if you know where to look for it, or how to decode the language of their funding guidelines.’
I nodded slowly, weighing up my next question. He took the hint and anticipated it.
‘What do funders want to hear? Well, yeah - I don’t know. But they do tell you. When they release a new season of funding, they tell you their priorities. People get a bit annoyed about why no one tells you how to do these things, I think it’s because they change it all the time. There’s stuff you can do to set people up better for fundraising, of course. But who knows if the Arts Council will even be here in ten years, so who knows what they’ll be asking for next year. The Arts Council from a few years ago is different to the one we have now… you know, things like that. Last I heard, they were really keen on our audience development plans and how we were going to reach people who the work was for. I guess at the moment we’re ticking their boxes, I think they have an idea of like, strategically why us being in Leicester is useful.’
My eyes widened at the mention of utility. It felt like an interesting word for him to use in the context of funding and the Arts Council’s aims. He took the hint again, and answered without my prompting.
‘There arguably isn’t anyone doing the same kind of thing in the city, the Arts Council probably want there to be one artist-led thing in each region, or each city. I get the feeling they think it’s what’s meant to happen. And good; artist-led spaces are pretty cheap in the grand scheme of things, pretty low maintenance. They just need to make sure we’re not pissing the money up the wall and only showing our mates’ work.’
I laughed, because although he made it sound easy, I knew it wasn’t. He nodded, conceding that there was more to it.
‘We put a lot of work into our audience development plan. That side of things has the most work, for sure. I just meant, the Arts Council don’t actually care that much about the art we’re showing. Not in a bad way! It’s just that it’s less about the art. You don’t really spend too much time talking about that; like on the application form. It’s mostly just budget and admin bits, audience development plans, all that. As long as you’ve got that bit down, there’s not much oversight of the actual content. They let us get on with it. But I guess that’s the problem with the artist-led level at large, isn’t it? It can be cliquey, people just put on shows with their mates in, for their mates. There’s no consideration for audience at large and what that might mean for people outside their circle.’
I smirked, glad for his candour and insight. It didn’t feel like a cynical or pessimistic thing, I guess we were both just being realistic about the state of the artist-led ecosystem, the way some people do get away with things.
‘I try hard to not invite artists for me. The program would be very different if I did.’
I raised an eyebrow in surprise, almost involuntarily. He laughed, but doubled down, insistent.
‘I know people would find that hard to believe, but I do think about it, genuinely! I’ve got to, there’s more to it than just exercising or imposing my own taste on others, you know!’
I felt like I was being cynical for no good reason; a jaded, bitter critic. I asked him how he did it, to walk me through the logic or framework he used instead of his own personal taste.
‘Some of it is about instinct, but -’ he trailed off mid-sentence, phasing into a new thought, ‘I know there’s no point doing something like this in London, there’s already enough of it about, right? But in the context, in Leicester, I think we’ve got to clock on to the fact that we are providing something that’s maybe quite confusing for people. We used to have volunteers, but we prefer not to now. Mostly because it’s silly, there’s only so much you can learn from sitting in a cold warehouse and looking at people looking at art. But it’s also important for us to be there in the space, to be accountable to the work, letting people in and seeing their reactions.’
It must be nice, kind of funny and curious to witness all these reactions. Like people watching, fact-finding and character study all at once. I asked him if he ever broke the fourth wall and intervened.
‘Yeah, of course. But when people come in and say they don’t get it, we just end up having a conversation about art, rather than decoding it for them. Like, I don’t want to give people the answers, you know? It’s not about that.’
I nodded, told him I thought that his answer was interesting. Maybe curating with a wider audience in mind is actually about character study. You can learn how to take cues and hints, intuit and experiment with what works well. You don’t always have to give people what they want. I knew that I didn’t always know what I wanted, that at times I have been offered things without realising that they were what I wanted all along. Trial and error is not that risky or precarious when you are sensitive to outcome, ready to adapt and roll with the punches.
‘We talk about audience a lot - my co-director and I. It’s such an important thing to bear in mind, but I guess there’s always balance. It’s not the only thing we need to take into consideration. The other part of curating is who we invite to show work and what’s in it for them. This is something we’ve only started to figure out in the last few years. How do we set up a programme to be useful for the artists we invite to show here? What’s the value to the artist showing?’
His question about value simmered away in the air between us. It’s an interesting word, floating signifier. We all know what it means, but I’m not sure we all have an agreed and universal understanding. I chewed on this thought for a while before asking a clunky question about what he meant.
‘I can only speak for myself but - how do I phrase this without being cringey? It’s a bit - it’s capitalism, isn’t it? I don’t know. I don’t like selling my work, but I enjoy going to see exhibitions & putting on exhibitions. I really have no desire to sell my work, it makes me feel really awkward. I mean, maybe that’s me being weird. But I remember being at art school thinking, what am I gonna do? Make paintings, put on shows and wait for people to come and buy them? That feels like an awkward situation to be in, doesn’t it? It also feels like gambling when I can’t afford to gamble on something like that. I don’t have the confidence or the money for that to be the way I make my living. But I want to make art. I enjoy doing it, I like working with artists and I like exhibitions and interesting spaces because, whatever you want to call whatever art is, that’s where that conversation is.’
I nodded, silent while he paused to think.
‘Art has always been this alternative value system, one of the few alternative value systems to capitalism. I’ve not thought about this for a long time you know? Maybe not since art school. But thinking about when I was a recent graduate, I wanted to be involved in stuff that was slightly removed, because art is also so deeply connected to capitalism and The Market™️. But on an aesthetic market, in the presence of the art itself, all that is somewhat removed. It’s the difference between a gallery and a shop - you know?’
I understood, maybe, probably. I bobbed my head absentmindedly, thinking on the spot. I asked him to say more about that open capitalist market, and he waved his hand.
‘You know, if you’re a commercial artist, you’re just gambling on the work’s value on that open market. You can only do that if you love the precarious life, if you’re chaotic, if it’s the 80s and you live in a squat, or if you’re already rich.’
We laughed, but it was a kind of deflated laugh we shared together. He was none of those things, so a path was set out for him already, I guess. But it made sense as an answer to my clunky question about value. Sometimes an exhibition is an important break, sometimes it’s a necessary step within a wider practice. Thinking about the value of formal display, away from the market and a work’s monetary value, felt like an important and heavy consideration to factor in.
By now we were in the swing of things. Already on the subject of capitalism, I asked him how he made a living.
‘So, I work one day a week. Supposedly. Well, I only get paid for seven hours a week. Sometimes I work more. I guess that’s also why I’m still here, right? We’re all just slugging it out, mostly because we’re too stubborn to leave. But it’s also like, how can you pass the job on to someone else when it’s like this? How can you expect someone else to do it? We can’t leave until it’s fixed.’
It’s hard when the container around you feels inescapable, like the system is broken but constantly getting in the way. I asked him what he meant by fixed, how does he try and find a balance when it’s all fucked anyway.
‘I think it’s important to remember, it’s not always about expanding and growing. Sometimes it’s better to keep things small and live within your means.’
His answer surprised me. I was taken aback by how forcefully I agreed. Capitalism is all-pervasive, expansion can feel inevitable. Maybe it’s pretentious or silly to dwell on the idea that success makes formalising the work inevitable. Maybe inevitability is a reductive way to talk about the slippery slope of funding requirements making professionalised models the only viable option. It was strange and pleasant to hear him speak about resisting the force of it all so casually.
‘Look, I can make it work. Rent in Leicester is cheap, relatively. At the moment, I teach maybe two or three days a week and that’s enough to get by, just about. So with that, I can just about swing it. But it feels awkward to talk about, I’ve always had to sacrifice a lot in terms of quality of living.’
He paused. I stayed silent for a moment, wanting him to continue. I didn’t really know how to ask him about that embarrassment, didn’t really know if I should pry into it. Embarrassment is interesting, but so deeply personal. It comes in so many different genres and moods, it can be difficult to figure out which embarrassment is which. His pause started to feel deliberate. I fumbled with my napkin, asked him what felt awkward specifically.
‘It’s just this feeling that you’re part of perpetuating these unsustainable models. But one thing we’ve always done is try to be as sustainable as possible, like even just setting boundaries - things like that. If I do one day a week, I do one day a week. My job is more curating and install bits, so I do longer hours in the weeks leading up to install. On the weeks when I’m not, I am on a minimum workload and focus on earning money through other means.’
I made a small understanding noise, nodded and he continued.
‘The gallery is also a functioning business. The business bit is mostly the studios, but there’s also the shop. We always have lots of plans to try and make money through other means, usually just to provide match funding. But we’re currently a company limited by guarantee with a not for profit constitution. So it’s our discretion to not be for profit. We’re not a charity or regulated by the charity commission or anything like that.’
It’s not unusual, I’ve heard it before and plenty of times. Charitable status is a nice badge of legitimacy for smaller organisations, part of the way things are done for medium and large organisations. But when you’re doing DIY life, the bureaucracy can be smothering and impossible to administrate. Just getting the process going can be a headfuck.
‘We wouldn’t know how to register as a charity, to be perfectly honest. There’s also a whole load of requirements that would make it way too much for us, like you have to have a board of trustees. The charity commission has a lot of asks, and I get why, but essentially it’s loads of admin. And anyway, are we really a charity? We’re just putting on exhibitions we’re not feeding people, you know?’
That made me laugh. It was a good point, I agreed but I’d never heard anyone put it like that before.
‘Why are galleries charities?’ He repeated, quieter this time, like it was a question for himself more than a question for me.
I don’t think he was doubtful of the value of art in and of itself, and he certainly wasn’t making an argument for an art-for-profit model. I think he just didn’t quite see why charitable status was the go-to option for everyone to aim for. His question wasn’t flippant, it was sincere; the kind of question that pulled the rug out from under me, shaking a fundamental part of the way Things Are Done. The way he asked it made me wonder; surely there are other options? It can’t be a coin toss between for charity and for profit, that binary split, the two genders. That felt so flat and uncreative, so conservative.
Through the little window of the sports bar, I could see that the sky was black. I squinted out and thought I saw stars twinkling, or moving. Our food still hadn’t arrived, but it was fine. We were settled in for the long haul, I wasn’t hungry yet, and anyway, I still had more questions to get through. If charitable status was a bad fit, what else is possible? Where else can artist-led spaces go to grow and move on? If bigger is bad vibes, what other shape works?
‘We have a big project in mind. We’re planning on buying the building we’re currently in.’
I gasped, surprising myself with the dramatic reaction.
‘I know, I know. It’s a big plan, might go some way towards making it sustainable. We’re working towards it, it’s early doors, but - you know,’ he shrugged, smiling.
‘Essentially we’d be a charitable community benefit society, which is - yeah, I know.’ He paused for moment, considering. ‘I think it just means the building will be owned by the community that uses it. So studio holders will be able to have stakes in the building, people who come regularly, friends and supporters. Hopefully it’ll be good, more democratic.’
I nodded in agreement. It sounded like good news, like a new interesting model I’d want to pay attention to, follow along in the process for updates and developments. I told him that I’d not heard of a charitable community benefit society before.
‘I think it’s rare in the art world. It’s more common for villagers who want to buy a pub or a school, those kind of things. You know, people who come together to purchase community assets.’
But maybe a gallery has the potential to be a kind of community asset? Wouldn’t that be so interesting! He laughed, shaking his head like I was getting carried away with myself.
‘It just goes to show, if we became a charity, the process would be a million times more complicated. Like a whole extra job we can’t afford, really way too intense.’
I laughed, a small laugh that appreciated the neatness of that full circle. The serendipity or satisfaction of the less trodden path being a better fit. And he was right after all! I still don’t know why galleries are charities in the first place.
We heard the food arriving before we saw it. Sizzling platters, steaming dramatically and hissing. The waiter placed them on the table between us, naming them as he went.
Sheekh Kebab, Veg Manchurian, Masala Mogo, Masala Chips, Garlic Naan, Lollipop Chicken, Chilli Paneer.
I folded the corner of the page and closed my notebook, tucked it back into my bag. I asked him one last question, wanting to hear his answer out of curiosity more than critical interest.
‘Do I still find time to make art? Yeah, I have a studio space, and I do make work when I find the time.’
He handed me a warm plate from the stack the waiter had placed beside him.
‘I love spending time there, but don’t get to that often. It’s quite difficult, I get distracted easily. There’s always someone to chat to, something to sort out. I think my ideal studio would be in a bunker underground and far away. I like making things and my art practice is always bleeding into my curatorial interests. I think my work as a curator is an extension… it scratches that itch, like it works with the ideas and themes I want in my work. But as a curator, I work with other people and it’s more fulfilling and rich. Like, it’s not just about you and your own ideas, you get to work with artists who also work with the same theme.’
Loading up my plate with a little bit of everything, I asked which job he liked more.
‘I think I get the same enjoyment from both things. If I could, in an ideal world, I’d have half the year to make art, half the year for running the space. I mean - in an ideal world there’d be no jobs. But still, in a reasonably realistic world, a good chunk of my time would be in the studio.’
I nodded, he nodded. We took our first bites in silence, hungrier than we thought we were and thankful that the food was finally here.
‘Yeah, I think I’m happy with both. Why wouldn’t you be? I think I’ve found a good balance, or a balance that I’m happy with, at least.’
But did that mean that he was a failed-artist curator? When I asked him, he laughed.
‘What’s wrong with failing! To be honest, why would you want to be a successful artist? Maybe, well - apart from the money. But I don’t have any successful role models. There’s no one who’s had success that I actually want to be like. I think I’m happy to fail sometimes. I don’t know if that’s an art school thing, the way they teach you to lean into failure and the way failure is so a part of the whole process. I don’t know if that’s always the right thing, or even a good thing. But it is what it is.’
It made sense. I told him that he sounded like a truly sane and balanced individual. Maybe an acceptance of failure is actually true enlightenment? Or the meaning of life, the secret to real happiness. In that moment, I think I envied him a little bit. I wanted to reach a happy stability. Not bigger, not successful, just stable.
I took the leftovers away with me, in clear plastic tubs. The white paper bag safe and snug on the passenger seat of my car, strapped in with the seatbelt so nothing would tip over and leak while I was on the motorway. When I got home, I slid the paper bag into the fridge without unpacking it. I think stability sounds nice, rare and special. The kind of aspiration we all fundamentally want, but often find ourselves unable to name.