London-based artist and art dealer Diana Krilova stunned me with the comments she posted on my Facebook page after I wrote and posted, “How to Fix the Art World: A Survey.” She moved me with her words about her efforts – years ago - to keep her struggling gallery, 5th Base Gallery, alive and how that led to her creation of a new business model for the gallery. Needless to say, I had to chat with her immediately. What I find so inspiring about her is her focus on serving artists while continuing to work the business angle. Her gallery continues to thrive. And before you think she has just created another “vanity” gallery, listen to what she has to say.
First, here’s my edited version of what she posted on my Facebook page…
DIANA: I read the article. Good, thanks. Well, from the gallerist point of view, low sales (and the prospect of) going out of business equals - we changed our gallery into a “Gallery for Hire,” so any artist (whatever age, education, style, gender, you name it) can hire our space, make shows and sell works with 0% commission on sales.
Now we have loads of artists hiring the space. (Yet) another problem - nobody comes to see their works. Why? Do they advertise their shows? NO! Okay, so we started giving artists sites with lists of media contacts. Good, they’re sending their public relations (and) still, no visitors, no sales. Why? How do they talk about their work? It's a load mumble (jumble) with so many art-educated words. So we told artists to write their exhibition press releases in the most simple language they can manage.
Still no sales? About 90% of artworks we saw in our gallery were so conceptual and so detached from our present day realities that one needs to read a long description about an artwork to try to understand it. Plus, the quality of materials and skill was often lacking (with exception of those works that were meant to be made this way).
Here we couldn’t do much and would love to impose a rule of care on artists.. care about their works and viewers. It takes so much time, effort and money to make artworks (generally speaking). (So we said) please use materials that will survive more than one exhibition! The presentation of work is just as important as the work itself.
And, yes, all shows MUST be curated and artworks need to be made for (the) general public. People without any arts background need to be able to relate to the artworks, gain emotions/knowledge/experiences from the creations they see. There is so much happening in the world right now and there is so little response to it in the art world…
So, that’s what Diana posted on Facebook. Now, our chat.
MICHAEL: Hi Diana, So what's the status of 5th Base Gallery? How long have you had it? Why did you start it anyway?
DIANA: 5th Base Gallery is now a “Gallery for Hire” and occasionally we organise our own projects like 5th Base Film nights or exhibitions by Dan Kitchener (DANK). We started our gallery in March 2012.
MICHAEL: And why did you start it?
DIANA: Well, I had a baby in 2011 and was going mental because of my inactivity. You see, before that, I was a fully-active artist with several projects running simultaneously and having a baby struck me out of my art practice altogether. This quiet life of a mummy with a baby and the house and the baby... was really winding me up and I needed to be back into the art, though I couldn't be in and on it 24/7 anymore.
MICHAEL: I understand.
DIANA: Then, my boyfriend remembered that back during his university days, they organised art auctions of their work and were selling quite well. So, we decided to repeat this practice and started organising art auctions of artworks made by emerging artists. It was the usual call for artists, anyone could apply and we hired spaces, held one week-long exhibitions with auctions of works at the opening. Our commission was 30% and all the work we did was transparent to the artists.
MICHAEL: Cool. And how were you feeling about that?
DIANA: First of all, I found out that there were very few galleries for hire in London. The ones that were in the Central London were so expensive to hire and the process of hiring them was so bureaucratic (for example, you needed to apply with proposals a few months in advance, be a part of some kind of society or had to pay corkage fees on every wine bottle you open during private view, etc.,) that it made no sense to hire them for our auctions.
DIANA: Spaces outside of central London were more affordable and more easily approachable, but mostly were not professionally-equipped for exhibiting artworks, had terrible lighting, had brick or wet walls and more importantly, were not well commuted.
I saw a good opportunity in the lack of affordable and well-equipped galleries for hire in London, found an old print shop just off Brick Lane (London E1), borrowed some money, converted it into a professionally lit and walled gallery and opened up for business. I must mention here, I wouldn't have been able to do any of this without the physical and psychological support of my boyfriend.
We stopped doing our auctions of works by emerging artists after about a year of running - they took a lot of time on administration and curating the shows and didn't really bring us any financial return.
MICHAEL: And so, where are you with all of this now?
DIANA: At present, I am slowly getting back into my own art practice and the gallery is there for artists to hire. We keep our prices low. In this way, we stay affordable for emerging artists and receive a small income that covers our expenses and gives me a very small salary (it's equivalent to that of a basic arts technician in a commercial gallery).
MICHAEL: That’s good.
DIANA: We didn't establish 5th Base to make large profits and I am happy with it the way it is right now. We have exhibitions ranging from two days (including opening) to two weeks. Artists curate and install their exhibitions themselves. We are always there for free advice and can also install, invigilate, advertise and ship and store their works for additional pay. We don't take commissions on sales and don't ask for exhibition proposals.
MICHAEL: Wow. And so, how are artists responding to all of this?
DIANA: There’s a wave of more mature artists who don't want to be represented by a commercial gallery and their shows are always very well curated, advertised and generally sold out by the end of their exhibitions.
DIANA: Then, there are groups of friends who organise their exhibitions - they tend to be less organised, though they involve a lot of support from friends and have good public turnout. And of course, there are student exhibitions. These are often not curated at all and badly managed. One of the reasons for this is because fine arts courses specialise in art theory and production of art; they don't teach students how to curate their exhibitions. Often to the point that they forget to label their works, to price them, to advertise. I think art education needs to adapt their courses to the current arts world climate a bit more.
MICHAEL: Yuh think?
DIANA: There’s also a wave of graphic artists who turn to making street art, which works as advertising for their skills and then they exhibit their small-scale works on paper and canvas either online or in galleries for hire like ours.
MICHAEL: Nice. And so Diana, It looks like you've really been trying to address what's not working with the traditional, art gallery business model. What do you think more galleries should be doing at the very least to remain open and financially afloat?
DIANA: There is no single answer to this really. I have noticed that interior designers and architectural practices often struggle to find artworks for their projects. It might be a good idea for galleries to work alongside architectural practices (if they don't already) where an architect/designer would inform a gallery of the ideas they have in mind regarding artworks, sculpture, special fittings, murals, mosaics, etc., and the gallery would search and supply relevant artists or artworks for specific projects. It is not unusual for artists to multitask and then we would see more original works in public buildings and offices.
DIANA: It would be good to see more galleries work with universities, research centres and charities. Well-made art has an ability to communicate complex situations in fractions of a second and there is a big gap between research institutions and the general public these days.
MICHAEL: Yes there is…
DIANA: An art gallery could run projects with, let's say, cancer research. Then cancer research groups would allocate a budget for communicating their findings to public (does anyone understand where all our donations go?) and an art gallery would fund artists to produce artworks, which would communicate to the public in a way that would be both emotionally charged and informative. There’s a lot of money going into all kinds of research these days and it is difficult to follow what they are doing there and why. It shouldn't be difficult for an art gallery to approach research centres and make contracts with them.
MICHAEL: Given the general public's scattered attention these days, lack of arts education in schools and the continued significance of the internet with more and more artists using it to go independent, do you think most art galleries - as they're functioning now - can survive? As you know, galleries have been closing...
DIANA: I've noticed ... Sad. An art gallery is a business and if income is going down, then its business model needs to change. What is a gallery? A glorified shop that sells unique objects or is it something else? I think it is vital for every gallery to establish its values and then keep surfing its business model while sticking to its core values. Our gallery survives. We decided that we needed to be there to promote emerging artists - we are not making large profits, but we are there for artists to put on their shows and sell their works.
MICHAEL: Imagine that.
DIANA: Mass media is a perfect and very cheap tool for the promotion of exhibitions. Galleries will always be needed simply because artworks are mostly objects, objects that need to be experienced in their flesh, objects that need to be placed in context with other objects, objects that need to be properly lit, presented, transported and stored. The main question of gallery survival is who their audiences are - why would people be interested in going to a gallery in question? If an art gallery is there to show public a different perception of world around them, then it might want to form partnerships with institutions which have similar goals (universities, hospitals, charities, societies). We don't need many glorified shops, we need a higher reason for galleries to exist.
DIANA: Lack of arts education in schools is not the reason for galleries going down. Children are curious, so are the artists ... the only difference is that artists are presumed to have more practical skill and ability to pass on their observations to the public via objects and works they make. Children get bored in art galleries very quickly unless there is an installation they can play with, of course!
MICHAEL: Finally Diana, What are your hopes for 5th Base Gallery? Can it continue as it is? Do you feel good about your current business model?
DIANA: 5th Base is working well as a gallery for hire right now. I can manage it while having two little children and now that my children are growing, I can go back into my own art practice at the same time (my boyfriend still helps me with the gallery). The only thing is that although our business survives and artists are happy, I am starting to get a bit bored with our current business model.
DIANA: A few days ago, I got myself involved in a university research project. Although the project is still in its early stages, I can see our gallery as a platform for projects led and funded by university research centres.
DIANA: I now have extended contacts among the artists and it shouldn't be difficult for me to gather artists for larger arts projects, which would be organised through the gallery and funded by research centres. We will see how it works. I am excited about this new beginning. Apart from that, our gallery will still be there for artists to hire for their own exhibitions.
MICHAEL: Well, it certainly sounds like you'll be around for some time Diana. You're clearly applying your creativity to your business model. Best wishes for the future.
DIANA: Thank you Michael! I just wish people in the arts wouldn't be so serious sometimes and would have more fun exploring new ways of working together. I love reading your articles. Please keep them coming … there will be a renaissance in the arts, bound to be!
Check out Diana Krilova’s gallery at http://www.5thbase.co.uk/.