Galleries: Commercial v. Subsidised

Taken from an article on the boom in London’s galleries, from 2006. This shows a rather pragmatic approach to the commercial system but maybe not to the consequences of being part of such a system – recent events have shown how fragile this system can be (and that’s not to say that a publicly-funded system is any less fragile, possibly more so). When Rob Tufnell says that the art market is somehow protected from a crash because “it’s too big”, that seems a little too optimistic. Every market will go through boom and bust periods, it’s in the nature of Capitalism for this to happen, and as such represents a kind of self-regulating system, not that makes it any easier for those who suffer it’s effects.

I know Rob indirectly and hope to be able to meet up with him when I’m in London over Christmas. Ancient and Modern is still going, by the way, it will be interesting to get Rob’s take on how things have gone since they opened and what he sees for the future of independent galleries.

Rob Tufnell and his business partner, Bruce Haines, are taking the ultimate risk. Tomorrow they will open a new gallery near Old Street, called Ancient and Modern. For the present, the world economy is healthy, art sales buoyed up by swaths of new collectors enriched by hedge-fund bonuses. But can a new gallery like this survive?

The gallery’s first show, with work by artists including Simon Periton and Francis Upritchard, is based on the idea of the memento mori. Tufnell says: “We are opening with a sort of funeral; we’re aware it might all go wrong … But I can’t see an art market crash happening. After 9/11, everyone assumed the market was over in New York, but it wasn’t; it’s too big.” He and Haines have scraped together money by saving their salaries and remortgaging; Haines still works part-time as a curator at Camden Arts Centre in north London, whereas Tufnell threw in his job as a curator at Turner Contemporary in Margate. Nor does he have any plans to return to subsidised galleries: the commercial sector offers more freedom, he thinks, to work closely and creatively with artists.

“At the end of three years we’ll either be ready to get a bigger space or I’ll get a job at Costa Coffee,” he says. “In the public sector, in the end you just exclude challenging practice. In my mind, the publicly funded arts are supposed to support what the market cannot, but apparently they cannot support an avant garde. You are competing with shopping centres, which is what [subsidised] art galleries increasingly resemble. None of this is why I went into art.

“I’m probably being very naive with the idea that if you put on interesting exhibitions you will end up self-funding. But for us this is, in the end, about independence, not about making money.”*