Gateway to the Public: Liverpool’s Commercial Galleries

Words by Josie Jenkins
Article Originally published in Hidden Gems

While the great comedian W.C. Fields is quoted to have said, “Never work with children or animals”, it is safe to say even the most discerning of artists would probably add themselves onto that list. And yet in Liverpool there is a scattering of independent but non- artist-led galleries that subject themselves to the perils of dealing with artists on a daily basis; exactly why is an intriguing question with no straight answers.

I interviewed Billy Wilson from The Gallery Liverpool, Olwen McLaughlin from Editions, Lucy Byrne from dot-art, Nic Corke from the Corke Art Gallery and Ken Martin from View Two, with the main question being, “Why on earth do you do it?”, and I’m still not sure I really got to the bottom of it. Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning though: it’s definitely not about the money. If these galleries were in London you might say otherwise, but if anyone thinks that there’s great wads of cash to be earned from selling art in Liverpool in the current market, then think again. What the interviews did reveal, though, was an insight into commercial spaces run by five completely different individuals with one common thread: they want to champion and sell the work of local artists.

Other common ground between these gallery owners includes being an art lover, the excitement of feeling part of something, and not wanting to do the average nine to five job. Funnily, no one mentioned their wish to build an empire and take over the world, but even if this is not quite the case, there has to be an element of wanting to make their own mark on the Liverpool art scene. Don’t be too quick to judge though; if you’re an artist in Liverpool and you want to try and sell work here, your greatest opportunity will come from one of these people. These galleries are offering something that artist-led spaces are not: a gateway to the public, the normal folk, and some who might actually have a bit of money to spend on a piece of artwork.

DOT-ART

dot-art gallery
dot-art gallery

We will start with dot-art, because it is a little different from the rest. The newly opened dot-art gallery is just one feature of the social enterprise that supports artists in the North West by selling locally sourced, affordable art, working with businesses to put art in the workplace and public realm, running art classes and working with schools and community groups. The dot-art gallery shows work by its own members only.

When asked why someone would become a gallery owner, Lucy laughed and said, “It’s about skill set, we probably want to be artists and can’t”, and went on to say, “I loved art from being a small child and always wanted to be involved with art, but I was also good at academic subjects.” Lucy was somewhat steered away from art but went against the grain and studied on an art foundation course. She was glad to have done it, but she realised at that point that she wasn’t doing it to pursue a career as an artist herself. “I didn’t have the ideas and drive and vision of an artist. I could draw but wasn’t able to take it to the next step.”

Instead, Lucy studied Art History at the University of Liverpool. Afterwards she was told that she would have to move to London if she wanted to get a job relating to her degree. “I didn’t want to move to London so decided to create myself a job here in Liverpool. I graduated in 2002 and spent a couple of years working it out, going on courses about business and management. I worked as a bar manager in the meantime. I never thought it would be easy but thought I had nothing to lose.”

The business was called dot-art because it was always meant to be online. “One of the reasons I came to Liverpool is because of its amazing arts infrastructure, the Tate, Biennial, Walker, but there was nowhere to buy art, especially not for the man on the street.” The vision was to make art accessible to everybody and Lucy hoped there was a gap in the market. “I made it up as I went along.”

This year is dot-art’s 10th anniversary and the current gallery is actually their third gallery venue, the first being on Water Street, provided by their current landlord for free for 6 months in 2006 and then there was a unit at the front of Queen Avenue which opened in 2008. “After the novelty of Capital of Culture was wearing off (not that it actually had any impact on us anyway), the recession was kicking in in a big way and the gallery was just not feasible. We had to retreat and survive.” So dot-art moved into smaller premises, but five years later they have managed to open a gallery again on Queen Avenue.

When asked about the business side of things Lucy said, “None of us are in it for the money”. But instead, for Lucy it’s about being part of that world. “I don’t want to go to work every day and be miserable, I want to do something I love and believe in. I am very lucky: no two days are the same, I’m helping artists, we’re encouraging the next generation of artists and championing the value of art to everyone. Of course I have days when I am terrified and wonder what on earth I’m doing, but I’d rather that than be doing a job I am not passionate about.”

EDITIONS

Staircase at 16 Cook St. Photo © Minako Jackson
Staircase at 16 Cook St. Photo © Minako Jackson

My visit to Editions to meet Olwen McLaughlin happened on the day of the opening night of Liverpool Open, an annual group open exhibition that the gallery holds, offering local artists a chance to get noticed and sell some work. Although it was a few hours until opening time, there was already a buzz in the air; the artwork of the show’s expectant artists, ear-wigging on our conversation, Olwen showing me her favourite pieces and asking me which ones I liked. We discussed the way the artists had priced their work and Olwen’s dismay when some artists choose to sell for such a low price, “I tell the artists you can’t function this way! But I just let them do what they want.” Before we get started Olwen shows me a new book, 111 Places in Liverpool that you shouldn’t miss by Julian Treuherz and Peter de Figueiredo. It features Editions under the title of ‘Olwen’s Staircase’, referencing the building that Editions is housed in, designed by architect Peter Ellis. “It’s a great book”, she says, expressing amusement that Editions is in there but the Tate was not featured.

“30 years ago we had a photographic business called Light Impressions, which moved to the Bluecoat Chambers. We opened a shop (Editions) to sell the photographs and prints of the books we produced.” Olwen ran the shop side of things. “We would sell art works, we had a big gallery space in the Bluecoat, having exhibitions every month or so and it was very successful then, but not now, because everything is on the internet and things have changed.” The Bluecoat Chambers closed for refurbishment about 11 years ago and then the business moved to Cook Street. The Cook Street gallery, which also operates as a framing business, is small but with a refined feel and features a rack of exquisite prints. Olwen has great admiration for skills of print makers.

You’ll be excused for thinking that the gallery is there to support Editions’ framing business, but actually the opposite is true. Olwen told me, “There’s no such thing as the old fashioned gallery that people talk about. I said to a young artist recently, do you go into galleries? She replied, ‘no, because they are so posh I am scared to go in, I don’t like the way they look at you when you walk in the door, you have to ring the buzzer.’ I said, you know why that is? Because they are so poor they only have one person in there, you have to ring the buzzer in case some nutter comes in. They are desperate to see you! And where do you think you are going to show your work?”

“People assume I’m making a load of money because I must be to have a gallery and no one would be so stupid to have a gallery that was not making money! What keeps us going is the framing. There’s no money to be made, but all the artists will think there is.” Olwen’s frames are well made and surprisingly affordable but she jokes that artists hate giving a percentage, and find it hard to spend money on frames for work that may not sell, “They will buy any old shite frame, which falls off the wall, they will even make their artwork into a frame to save buying a frame.” But these views are to be taken tongue in cheek. It’s obvious that Olwen loves artists, the gallery brings her great enjoyment and she is keen to help artists.

“I don’t ask anything of the artists; if they pay to exhibit, I feel guilty if I don’t sell their work. I think it’s something I couldn’t cope with, so I just put up their work. We never charge for the wine at openings (it’s one way to get them through the door!)”

It’s true to say that these small Liverpool galleries not only contend with a struggling Liverpool art market, but also a global art world that relies on the buyer’s anxiety and focusses on the providence of a piece of artwork as much as the art itself. Olwen described how she exhibits the work of a Royal Academician, but buyers will still prefer to go down to London to purchase the same work from a high profile gallery. Olwen makes a good point: that a great percentage of the people who come to see the work in Editions and also the other galleries mentioned here are artists themselves, rather than buyers. The galleries are providing a space for artists to see each other’s work as much as a platform for promotion and sales.

In Liverpool at least, Editions has a good reputation. Olwen selects the work herself. She chooses things she likes personally and believes it is the integrity of a gallery owner to show things they like, rather than the work of people who will pay for space. With no artistic background, never being taken to galleries when she was young, and having been formally educated in science, Olwen feels lucky to have found a passion for art. She takes pleasure in selecting art and showing it on the gallery walls; it becomes a part of her as well as the artist. “I have years of art in my head, as every day I am surrounded by it.”

VIEW TWO

Liverpool Biennial Launch, photo by Tony Knox
Liverpool Biennial Fringe: A View Two, photo by Tony Knox

I met with Ken Martin who owns View Two on the same day, with another opening about to happen. Bob Williams, who looks after the gallery when Ken is not around, was doing the finishing touches to the hang and although I turned up unannounced I was given an incredibly warm welcome. “He’s second in command,” says Ken. “I live in Cumbria, I’m here when we have music and private views. As I’ve got older I do other things. I’ve had a gallery 27 years.”

Before View Two, Ken owned The View in the Gostins Building on Hanover Street. “I called this one View Two because if I’d called it The View people would have gone to the other building.” I’m not sure if this is in jest but it’s a good point. Ken is not only a creative but also a practical person. He ran an architects’ practice for 42 years, retiring from practice two years ago; he is best known for designing New Brighton’s Floral Pavilion. When it comes to galleries, Ken believes the quality of the architecture should stand alone and it doesn’t require signage covering the facade to tell you what the building is. “The Tate has made the Albert Dock look like an advert for Tate and Lyle sugar. The way they have to put lettering on museums is disappointing. They have reduced Britain’s biggest Grade One listed building to an advert for sugar.”

I asked him why he started The View in the Gostins Building. Ken said that he rented out the 6th floor of the building as offices. “There were about 15 offices and it had a circulation space which was reasonably big with views across Liverpool towards Pier Head.” Ken used this space to hold exhibitions for artists as a free gallery, without any charges. “But I was quite autocratic,” he says, “I always selected who I thought were very good artists. I was then encouraged by the artists Mike Knowles and Nicholas Horsfield to open a commercial gallery, which I did after a few years. Because I had a practice and income from it, it wasn’t really a commercial gallery in that sense; it was subsidised by my practice and the same applies here at View Two.” Ken described how the building, in the heart of Mathew Street, was originally a banana warehouse, part of the Fruit Exchange. He bought it freehold in 1976 but had to renovate it, including a new roof.

“I was head of the School of Architecture for the Polytechnic when it became John Moores University and I decided I wanted to go back into practice. So I left teaching and took up the building in Hanover Street. Art is like an intellectual extension of my practice now.”

Ken told me about his exhibition of work by the Stuckists, opening in July, which will be the gallery’s third Stuckist exhibition. “Now the problem we’ve got is that when the Biennial is on everyone is persuaded that they should go down to the Baltic Triangle and all that, which is where all that public money has gone, whereas meanwhile we’ve been here doing this for years with an independent gallery and no Arts Council funding. I regard this place as a market place, the artists suggest their price, we take our commission. Liverpool is a tough market.”

You would not expect to find a gallery like View Two on Mathew Street, in the heart of Liverpool’s Beatles-inspired nightlife hotspot. It is a unique space, including stairs and landings used as exhibition space and a large event room on the top floor. All areas combined, it’s pretty big. There’s a great range of art: an eclectic mix of changing exhibitions and more permanent fixtures. For Ken, a lot of the enjoyment of running View Two comes from the live acoustic music events that they hold.

When asked about finances, it’s the same story. “It hasn’t to lose money but it doesn’t have to make it. It’s not my main source of income and therefore it has been a pleasure. If you tried to run a gallery in Liverpool, separately from a business, I’m not sure it would work.” We spoke further about selling work, managing artists’ expectations, and the recurring theme of artists having a belief that the gallery makes a load of money. “Now Liverpool has seen a lot of galleries that have come and gone. A lot came up during the Capital of Culture year, which was a dead loss for me in many ways. The Capital of Culture had no impact on the galleries that already existed; it was a gravy train for people on big salaries who were bringing culture into Liverpool. Now Liverpool needed some culture, but it also already had lots of culture of its own.”

In View Two, Ken puts on a show about once a month. He’s never counted how many shows there have been over the years, but has drawers of all the adverts. I commented that it must be an extraordinary archive, but Ken said, “Who’s going to want them? That doesn’t matter.” View Two shows both abstract and figurative work. Ken recognises that over the years his audience has changed. “As you get older, your client base gets older, but I’m quite relaxed about that as the music is taking on the energy and giving me lots of pleasure. It’s a gallery that has turned into a music venue as well and it’s given it a certain cultural richness.” In the corner of the main gallery space is a grand piano, which Ken told me the musicians love and with that, a pianist entered for the night’s opening and began to practice and I have that feeling of being part of something really inspirational. I asked Ken if he sees the gallery as a resource for artists and he modestly replied, “it’s been a small resource in the city.” After having a successful architects’ practice, Ken feels he’s putting something back into Liverpool.

Ken showed me a painting of himself, made by a Chinese artist, when he was resident artist at the gallery. “We’ve had two extremely successful Chinese exhibitions which were unique to England. They were quite remarkable. We had this whole room made into a Chinese pavilion, with wall to ceiling in computer graphics. It felt like a walk into a Chinese garden and into a temple. It was amazing. It was only there for 10 days, they suddenly arrived put it all up, and then they went. They came at very short notice and I was able to accommodate them. We can make a decision and we can do it and that’s the beauty of this place. I only answer to myself, because if I lose money on it, that’s a decision I can make. I have had great fun running the gallery and I’ve had a very good innings.”

THE GALLERY

The Gallery Liverpool
The Gallery Liverpool

The Gallery Liverpool, owned by Billy Wilson, is situated on the outskirts of the up-and-coming Baltic Triangle area. Billy runs a sign making and engraving business on the ground floor and the gallery is housed in a huge space above, with an entrance via its own private staircase. The Gallery is beautifully done out with moveable walls, an impressive lighting system and even has a licensed bar. Billy used to rent the space out to sail makers until November 2009 when it was decided to open an art gallery, offering an exciting venue which would promote a range of creative approaches, be they contemporary or traditional. “The ethos behind this project was to showcase and actively promote home-grown artists of all disciplines”, says Billy.

When I asked Billy why he does it, he laughed and said, “I’m mad and I like art. In Liverpool there’s a shortage of places to exhibit and it’s shrinking every year.” This is certainly true when it comes to big spaces, and as with the other galleries, Billy could be described as providing a service to artists. Although he charges for the hire of his space, he says, “we are keen to kept costs as reasonable as possible in order to support and encourage existing and emerging artists locally.”

We discussed how Billy could instead use that space for all sorts of other things that would generate more of an income. He too has bought the building and fortunately did this before property in the Baltic Triangle area became desirable. “We are in a very fortunate position; since we are independent, we are able to showcase a diverse range of exhibitions as well as having the freedom to do pretty much what we fancy. As an independent gallery it is essential to be commercially focussed but in saying that, it is important to showcase something for everyone. In 2013 the Gallery Liverpool hosted an erotica art exhibition which raised more than a few eyebrows whilst putting the venue on the map.”

The way the gallery is operated means that local artists know there is something out there that they can approach if they are in need of a big space. The potential to hire the space is there and so even its availability can give an artist something to work for. Billy tells me that The Gallery is fully booked until the end of the year. For this period the main body of the work comes from down south and includes a booking from Jarvis Cocker and a series of exhibitions over the summer and autumn exploring the influence and legacy of Punk 40 years on. Billy feels it is very important to build collaborations between the southern and northern art scenes.

The Gallery gets approaches from all over the country. I asked Billy if he himself ever approached artists. “It does vary, but a couple of years ago we had a realism exhibition and that was led by me.” Billy is a fan of realism in painting and feels the genre doesn’t get enough representation.

CORKE ART GALLERY

Corke Gallery
Corke Gallery

My final interview takes me right out of town into South Liverpool, where Nic Corke runs the Corke Art Gallery in a unit with huge front windows and a number of different rooms to wander through. Nic has a habit of hurtling off excitedly onto a completely different subject during any conversation, yet for the dedicated followers of the gallery, this is exactly the kind of personality trait that draws them in. Nic’s passion about art and his lust for life is incredibly catchy.

I asked Nic how it all started. Nic ran a design and marketing business for nearly 20 years and in 2008 he was invited by artist Terry Duffy, Chair of the Independents Biennial board at that time, to pitch for the job of facilitating the Independents, which had that year received funding from the Arts Council. Nic was appointed in June 2008 with the brief of encouraging artists to be part of the Independents, which was to open in September that year so everything ended up being very last minute.

In the building which at that time was the Contemporary Urban Centre in the Baltic Triangle, Terry Duffy curated an international artists’ show. Nic says, “Bizarrely, I ended up creating a site-specific installation in that show because we had a couple of artists in a large room so something else was needed to fill the space. Terry and I went for a pint and after sketching some ideas I said I’d make something with 120 chairs and 30 tables I had in storage. The result was a sculpture titled Meeting after Meeting. It was basically a mickey take, but dramatically lit it looked quite interesting. An Arts Council representative came to check out the Independents Festival and asked to see that show. he said, ‘Oh that’s brilliant – who is the artist?’ I was left in the awkward situation thinking, I can’t say it’s me, so said it was ‘by someone you won’t have heard of, I can’t remember his name’. It was quite funny and proved the point that art is perceived and valued by where and how it is shown. You could hang a Caravaggio in a small gallery that sells prints and most people would not realise it was a masterpiece, conversely if you put a fake in a major gallery most would say how good and how important it is.”

During the Independents Nic realised that there was a real lack of professionally run galleries in Liverpool. Artists could only exhibit work in their studios, empty shops or run- down buildings and they also struggled to build up a public following who would visit and buy their work. When he closed his design and marketing business he had an empty building on his hands and decided to open the Corke Gallery. The gallery opened in June 2010, ready for a programme of exhibitions to coincide with the Liverpool Biennial. “Stupidly I thought, I know, I’ll do a show every week. It was just insane, I think in the first year I did something like 25 shows. I was at the gallery all night hanging stuff, decorating, with hours spent listening to Rhod Sharp and Dotun Adebayo on Up All Night on Radio 5 Live.”

Private views and artists’ talks at the Corke Gallery are very social. Nick says, “I think they should be a relaxed opportunity for people to meet the artists, make new friends, discuss the art and catch up on the latest news and gossip – if they buy some paintings, great, if they just have a look and go away and tell their friends, I’m happy.” The visitors to Nic’s gallery are certainly made to feel welcome and he seems to attract a certain ‘South Liverpool’ client base that other galleries have been less successful at getting their hands on.

“You get the most interesting people in galleries,” he says. His audience is generally the great and the good from the South end of Liverpool, as well as the Wirral, Chester and even the occasional Mancunian. If you’re lucky you’ll even catch the odd local celebrity.

Although sales can be unpredictable at times, Nic is pleased with the successes he has had to-date. “For very popular artists I sell work before the show opens, by sending out a catalogue. I’ve had people literally pushing in past me saying ‘red dot that please’ and that’s exciting. It is a rollercoaster having a gallery. I get a buzz from the all or nothing risk of doing a show. My favourite memory involved a client who walked into the gallery and before I could even say hello announced that they wanted to buy two five-figure sum paintings. I couldn’t take any credit for selling the work so I felt I hadn’t really earned my commission. Whenever the client returns now I make sure I say hello before they get a chance to speak!”

The gallery is not for hire and Nic curates all shows himself, taking a commission if work is sold. “I go on risk effectively and I prefer it that way because it shows the artists my commitment to them. You can put a lot of time and effort into a show and then for whatever reason get a poor turnout due to a clash of dates, lousy weather, c’est la vie.”

The Corke Gallery features well established and emerging artists, including names such as the late Adrian Henri, and 2006 John Moores Painting Prize winner Martin Greenland. Throughout this year’s Biennial period the gallery will feature a plethora of past John Moores Painting Prize shortlisted artists. Nic tells me he has a wish list of artists he wants to show, but is interested in approaches from anyone who is committed to their own practice. “I judge people by their artwork, not their day job or qualifications so if you can paint and you’re passionate about what you do and I like it, I’ll consider showing it.” He jokes about how he takes delight in saying no to ‘cocky and arrogant’ artists who turn up at the Gallery thinking they’re something special and come in expecting to get a show. Saying that, Nic actually loves opinionated artists and recalls the best nights he’s had in the gallery being the ones where gobby artists, who’ve had a couple of glasses of wine, let loose with passionate opinions on art and theory. “It’s what art should be about,” he says, “belief in an idea and the ability to create it.”

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